A History of the Apple in Ten Objects: Pie

Apple pie
Source: Sage Ross

Fall is pie season. Sure, other seasons offer their fair share of delicious berry and fruit pies, but nearly everyone can agree that pie reaches its apogee in the fall. Pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato, and of course, apple.

There’s nothing more American than apple pie, right? Well

Recipes for apple pie – or at least something we’d recognize as a pie with a crust and a sweet filling – have been around in England, Italy, France, and Germany since the Middle Ages. The French tend to prefer open-faced tarts while the English placed chunks of apple in sturdy crusts. English playwright and poet Robert Green wrote in 1590 that he could think of no greater compliment to give a beautiful woman than “They breath is like the steame of apple-pyes.” I suppose it could have been worse…

English colonists brought their pies with them to America. These pies were nearly as robust as the hardy colonists themselves with the apples buried in a hard thick crust that often played the dual role of crust and cooking vessel. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796), contained two recipes for apple pie and one for Marlborough pudding, a kind of pie that used stewed instead of fresh apples.

But even if we didn’t invent the pie, we certainly made the apple pie our own, as evidenced by that popular expression. In a 1759 letter home to Sweden, colonist Israel Acrelius wrote from Delaware that “Apple pie is used throughout the whole year… It is the evening meal of children. House pie, in country places, is made of Apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.” Characters in 19th century novels frequently ate, purchased, or baked apple pies. In Little Women, Jo teaches her niece Daisy to bake an apple pie. Many New Englanders and people in rural communities ate apple pie for breakfast in the 19th century, seeing it as a wholesome and filing way to start the day.

In the 1890s, we began to eat apple pie and ice cream with the title “a la mode.” The title (if not the idea of eating the two together) supposedly came from the Cambridge Hotel in New York state where Charles Townsend regularly ordered his apple pie with ice cream. When he was asked what his dessert was called by Mrs. Berry Hall, a diner seated near him one night, he said he didn’t know. She promptly dubbed it “a la mode.”

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