"In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." ~ Carl Sagan
Everyone, please rise.
Apple pie has entered the room.
Sing or salute, if you like. It’s the patriotic thing to do. And if your mom is nearby, give her a hug.
Apple pie = America.
It’s part of our collective consciousness — the place where food, emotions, memories, and idealism converge. Yet how did it come to symbolize so much — the prosperity of a nation, core family values, nostalgia for white-haired grandmas with rolling pins, the comfort of childhood and home in an age when families live splintered lives?
Apple pie didn’t even originate in America. Its modern-day form can be traced back to 14th century England. One of the first printed recipes appeared in a cookbook called The Forme of Cury by Samuel Pegge (1390 A.D.), a compilation prepared by King Richard II’s master cooks, later presented to Queen Elizabeth I:
(Source: Project Gutenberg Ebook)
Crust recipes were not usually included in these early cookbooks because pastry-making was more-or-less common knowledge among Medieval cooks. The apple tart cited here was a large, shallow open pie without a top crust. As with all other pies, or coffins, baked during this period, the crusts were hard and
tough — they served as containers and serving vessels and were not meant to be eaten. Sugar was scarce and expensive and wasn’t incorporated in pie baking until the 16th century, when pastry became edible.
Though the Egyptians are credited with the idea of pie, Greeks with pastry crust, and the Romans with spreading the delicious word about pie throughout Europe, it was the English who made pie an institution. When the Pilgrims came to America, they brought along their favorite pie recipes, and then adapted them according to availability of ingredients and regional techniques, even "cutting corners" by making pies round.
Pie speaks to the colonization of America and the subsequent expansion of the country as pioneers (who served pie at every meal) forged west. Only the crab apple was indigenous to the U.S., but European settlers brought other species and planted them widely. Apples could survive a variety of climates and made good pies whether the fruit was dried, canned, frozen, or fresh. In different regions of the country, different versions of apple pie abounded, to include slumps, cobblers, tarts, turnovers, buckle, pandowdy, and crisp.
Jack Kerouac supposedly ate apple pie a la mode every day while "on the road." Perhaps this slice of homemade nostalgia was a stabilizing element in his days of creative wanderlust. Back then, it was easy to find good old fashioned apple pie and point to the person who had baked it. Not anymore. No one seems to have the time.
Pie cannot be hurried. It takes time and caring to peel and slice apples, roll out a crust and shape it lovingly by hand. It also takes time to share some pie with the new neighbor across the street, or have a fresh slice waiting when a child gets home from school. Fewer and fewer of us make (or know how to make) a pie from scratch; far easier to pop a Pepperidge Farm or Marie Callender into the oven, or drop by the bakery on the way home from work. Yet most of us yearn for it. At any given moment, we can conjure up our ideal apple pie:
A light flaky crust with perfect crumbling capacity, not too tough and never soggy. An enticing mound of uniformly cut apple chunks, bathed in its own warm syrup, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and a little lemon juice. If you are so inclined, topped off with a generous scoop of creamy, homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
With Independence Day coming up in a couple of weeks, I hope you will consider baking your own apple pie. The crust is critical and does take practice. But chances are good that your friends and family will appreciate the time and caring you took just for them. As you’re rolling out the dough, reflect on our early pioneers, who scraped together a pie from whatever scant meat, berries, or fruits they could find, or the Pilgrims who braved treacherous journeys across the Atlantic with family pie recipes in hand.
American Apple Pie is a very hardworking icon — it fills the void of family far away and symbolizes a small-town way of life that is in danger of disappearing. It’s a persistent and resilient myth that endures no matter what else pops up on the star spangled plate. That’s a lot to ask of any pie. Cherish your slice.
"It is utterly insufficient . . . as anyone who knows the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy must admit. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. PIE IS THE FOOD OF THE HEROIC. No pie-eating people can ever be vanquished." ~ New York Times, (1902)
Tomorrow: Apple Pie memories and a couple of recipes!