The Answer? It’s Not
How many food-stuffs have been equated with American ideals? Hot dogs are considered a somewhat patriotic food, for example—the wonderful tubes of meat that we grill on our most patriotic holidays, or call out for during baseball games (a sport we also happen to feel quite strongly about as American people, enough so to deem it the great American pastime). Then there’s beer, specifically Budweiser. Budweiser was once happy to simply stamp the American flag on all of its cans (or most of them—you’ll rarely stumble on the classic design, still colored a patriotic red and white), but now has moved on to straight-up calling their beer “America” on the packaging.
Which brings us to apple pie, presumably the most American food of all. How American? Well, it’s as American as apple…well, wait.
Upon closer inspection, you can see the cracks in the façade our American culinary identity. There’s no arguing with how American the act of eating a hot dog on the 4th of July is—it’s the sort of tradition that’s been around for long enough that you may even ignore the fact that, as a type of sausage, hot dogs are probably more than a little bit German.
And what about Budweiser, the delicious pilsner you’re most likely washing that hot dog down with on a hot summer day? Budweiser has to be super American through and through, right? It’s made here in St. Louis, and it says America on the can. Except Budweiser’s recipe is actually taken from a Czech brewery, Budvar, and pilsner is traditionally a Czech-style beer.
So, does apple pie come from America? The answer, most directly, is no. The very first recorded recipe for apple pie can found in an English cookbook dated to the 1300’s. In those days, apple pie was far from the dessert that we know and love now, served crust-less in an inedible pan called a coffin (sugar just cost way too much back then). And while eating medieval pie filling out of something that shares a name with the structures we bury our dead in sounds wholly appealing, this alone shouldn’t knock America out of the equation. This is the description of an apple pie, but not the apple pie that we think of cooling on a windowsill.
Still, the English loved their apple pies. In playwright and poet Robert Greene’s 1590 work Menaphon, one character even beckons a lover with “Thy breath is like the steeme of apple pies” before likening her lips to “two cowcumbers faire.” Sounds like some kind of woman.
The apple pie that we know now came from the Dutch, who in the 1500’s took the rudimentary aspects of the British pie and tricked it out with things like latticed crust. The whole thing caught on in Europe, and a dessert sensation was born just about everywhere except for America.
That is to say, North America had yet to really see anything resembling an edible apple until the 1600’s. By the end of that century—recorded in 1697 by Samuel Sewall, who apparently kept a meal diary—Americans are finally eating apple pie, thanks to Dutch, Swedish, and British immigrants. The Pennsylvania Dutch did stumble on one innovation in the apple pie making process, however, by figuring out how to preserve apples for year-round use.
So why, then, do we say that things are “as American as apple pie?” For the same reason Budweiser is “American” (or, again, AMERICA): it simply found its way into the cultural lexicon, something that tends to get set in stone regardless of fact. The phrase was first put down to applaud the home-making skills of former first lady Lou Henry Hoover, then started getting regular use during World War II, when soldiers would cite “mom and apple pie” as their reasons for fighting.
So our tendency to equate the tasty dessert with America may be slightly disingenuous, but the story behind it is uniquely American. While the food itself isn’t remotely American, the tendency to take a seemingly innocuous item and place an incredible symbolic importance on it is (see, again, baseball). The apple pie lives instead in quotes, and the phrase—used so often in advertising, journalism, and art—becomes enmeshed with the fact.
Apple pie may not be American, but it’s pretty American to say “American as apple pie.”