What Does It Mean to Be As American As Apple Pie?

In the midst of all the anxious droning last week I caught a couple of news commentators explaining the situation to be “as American as apple pie.” I’ve been searching for an answer to this question ever since–how a fruit pie is such a universal symbol of who we are as a country.

The phrase can be traced as far back as the 19th century with writers, especially journalists, invoking it to describe many contrary things, among them patriots, anarchists, protests, civil disobedience, racial equality, racism, civil rights, feminisms, unions, strike breaking, soldiers, pacifist, celebrities, common folks, rural towns and great cities. They are all apparently as American as apple pie.

And in this context I guess the election was. 2020 in general has been, too.

For me, I would add immigration to this mix–which is American as can be. Apples and pies are not native to our country. Spurs arrived with the pilgrims and were packed in settlers’ trunks before they set out across the land. Dough and dried apples filled stomachs when there was nothing else left to eat. New arrivals, already familiar with pies and apples from their birthplaces, could form a connection in their new communities simply by making of a pie.

A very long time ago the nursery school my sons attended organized a benefit to raise money for books and supplies. Each family was to cook a turkey (chosen because the director got a good deal from a local butcher) and also something for dessert. The population of the school reflected the changing neighborhood; no longer predominately Irish and Puerto Ricans, there were now Caribbean, Asians, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, and Eastern European children, all fairly new to the country. The turkeys were turned into moles, smoked in tea leaves, minced into stews, slathered with spices, and wrapped in banana leaves, but what most parents chose for dessert were apple pie, several homemade.

A mother who had escaped from Hong Kong the year before and knew very little English, held up one of the most beautiful pies I’ve ever seen. I asked her how she made it and eventually I understood she had asked relatives and friends.

“I found my own way,” she said.

When sliced, out poured dried red jujube and soft Chinese apples. We sat at a table in the back of the schoolroom and broke through the bready dough (she used her recipe for sweet buns) to the filling, sweet and sharp, different but perfect. A new American pie. Neither of us felt guilty that there wasn’t a slice left for the auction table.

_____________________________________

The market is full of apples now and cheap so I bought five varieties–Honeycrisps, Golden, Granny Smiths, Jonagold, Cortland, Braeburns, Fuji, and Jazz. Plus two Asian pears in honor of my Chinese friend. By the time I got around to making these two recipes, the husband had reduced the pile abut there was enough variety left, although I didn’t know which kind. But the point is, your pie will have a more complex flavor and texture when you use several different varieties.

The first pie is an old recipe I stole from a Chuck Wagon Reenactor cookoff event. It’s hard to pass up an opportunity to stand around watching a bunch of people in full 19th century dress (including calico prairie dresses and bonnets, genuine covered wagons, guns in fancy holsters and a fair amount of antique sheriff badges) populated by intense, ardent cooks who bravely hover over wood fires tending to a bunch of cast iron pots in which a slew of chuck wagon recipes are bubbling away.

Apple-pork pie was also known as Sunday Supper Pie. The salt pork mixed into the apples fools you into thinking there’s generous chunks of meat inside. I’m not saying it’s good for you but a lot of us are in lean times and its a deeply flavorful cheap meal that freezes well. I served it as a side dish with roast pork where the filling sweetly paired with the meat and the pastry acted as a tasty biscuit soaked in gravy.

Apple-Pork Pie

Lard or shortening pastry for 1-crust pie

8″ x 8″ x 2″ square pan

about 8 medium size apples, peeled and sliced

20 pieces salt pork cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 egg slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place the apples in the pan.

Combine the salt pork with sugar, cinnomon and nutmeg and sprinkle over the apples.

Roll dough into a square and place over the apples. Fold the pastry against the pan’s sides to seal the filling. Cut steam vents on top and brush with beaten egg.

Bake for 50 minutes. Serve warm. It’s also great as a cold meal with a slice of cheese slightly melted on top.

I have frustrated readers, been yelled at and, in one memorable situation, called a hack, due to my recipe for apple pie because it is intentionally unspecific. But I’m okay with this because it goes back to the whole “as American as apple pie” thing. Unlike every other country in the world, we are a nation who’s strength stems from the influences of our different heritages. Yes, there are standard American recipes and towers of cookbooks that will tell you how to make them. But good American cooks inevitably view them as jumping off points for adding flavors and techniques influenced by their ancestors. Our family’s different origins are what we have in common. (And, hence, why you will see Irish whiskey listed among my ingredients.)

My Apple Pie

Butter pastry for 2-crust pie

6 or 8 apples of different varieties, peeled, cored and sliced

1 or 2 tablespoons apple cider

1/2 cup or less sugar

Cinnamon to taste

Nutmeg to taste

Half a lemon grated rind

2 tablespoon flour

Butter

1 egg slightly beaten

2 tablespoons heavy cream

Brandy or Irish whiskey (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out half the pastry and line a 9-inch pie pan. Put the pan and the rest of the dough in the refrigerator while you make the filling.

Place the apple slices in a bowl and sprinkle with apple cider. You want just enough cider to slightly dampen the apples not drown them.

The amount of sugar you use will depend on how tart you want the filling. I always use less. Once you decide the amount, mix it in a bowl with the cinnamon, nutmeg, grated lemon rind and flour. Add it to the apples and stir to evenly coat them.

Pour the filling into the lined pie plate and dot with butter.

Roll out the top crust and lay it across the apples. Crimp the edges and cut a vent on top. Brush the top crust with the beaten egg.

Bake for 45 minutes. Take the pie out and pour the cream through the vent. Return the pie to the oven and bake for 5 or10 minutes more or until the crust is nicely brown.

Stir some brandy into the cream and gently heat through. Serve alongside the warm pie slices.