THE APPLE’S unique status as a cultural icon takes on special meanings in America when baked in a pie. Apple pie, in fact, is synonymous with American values and ideas in a number of quotations by people in several professions.
But apple pie is in the eye of the beholder. In America’s melting pot, apple pie means different things depending on the speaker. Opinions are as varied as the fruit itself.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has called “tolerance” as “American as apple pie.” U. S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, uses the metaphor to make a darker, opposing point, saying that “violence against women is as American as apple pie.”
For actor Bill Paxton, “con men” are as American as apple pie; stage actress Laura Benanti’s argues that musicals are “a great American art form” by asserting, “we’ve got apple pie, jazz, and musical theater.”
Sticking to the stage and screen, actor Ving Rhames narrows the meaning from the broad to the particular by calling legendary boxing promoter Don King as “American as apple pie.”
Journalists, too, have invoked apple pie to make their points, good and bad. Columnist George Will wrote, “Pessimism is as American as apple pie — frozen apple pie with a slice of processed cheese.”
The newscaster Harry Reasoner made lighter use of the phrase: “Statistics are to baseball what a flaky crust is to Mom’s apple pie.”
Scientist Carl Sagan’s recipe, not surprisingly, was cosmic: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
Down to earth and closer to home, perhaps the most mouth-watering description of apple pie came from a 19th-century New England-born clergyman, of all people.
The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a Litchfield, Connecticut, native, wrote that apple pie should be eaten “while it is yet florescent, white or creamy yellow, with the merest drip of candied juice along the edges, (as if the flavor were so good to itself that its own lips watered!) of a mild and modest warmth, the sugar suggesting jelly, yet not jellied, the morsels of apple neither dissolved nor yet in original substance, but hanging as it were in a trance between the spirit and the flesh of applehood … then, O blessed man, favored by all the divinities! eat, give thanks, and go forth, ‘in apple-pie order!'”
(Had he been living today, Beecher could have been referring to chef Geri Griswold’s dozen apple pies in the featured image above, served at the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield last month.)
New Englanders, in fact, have long professed their love of apple pie, the object of this traditional saying:
“To a foreigner a Yankee is an American. To an American a Yankee is a Northerner. To a Northerner a Yankee is a New Englander. To a New Englander a Yankee is a Vermonter. To a Vermonter a Yankee is a person who eats apple pie for breakfast.”
More recently, actress Rachel Nichols updated the adage and extended its range with the simple assertion, “I’m from Maine. I eat apple pie for breakfast.”
A New Englander is credited with the first American reference to apple pie in print. In America in So Many Words: Words that have Shaped America, authors Allen Metcalf and David K. Barnhart write that, “Samuel Sewall, distinguished alumnus of Harvard College and citizen of Boston, went on a picnic expedition to Hog Island on October 1, 1697. There he dined on apple pie. He wrote in his diary, ‘Had first Butter, Honey, Curds and cream. For Dinner, very good Rost Lamb, Turkey, Fowls, Applepy.’
“This is the first, but hardly the last, American mention of a dish whose patriotic symbolism is expressed in a 1984 book by Susan Purdy, As Easy as Pie: ‘This is it — what our country and flag are as American as. Since the earliest Colonial days, apple pies have been enjoyed in America for breakfast, for an entrée, and for dinner. Colonist wrote home about them and foreign visitors noted apple pie as one of our first culinary specialties.’
“We cannot claim to have invented the apple pie, just to have perfected it.”
The expression “as American as apple pie,” dates back only to World War II, though, when American soldiers began saying that they were fighting “for mom and apple pie.” The phrase was repeated by journalists, and eventually changed to “as American as mom and apple pie.”
Enough chewing on the meaning of apple pie. Now on to the real thing, with recipes from two New England pie-makers with warm family associations and traditions, just in time for Thanksgiving.
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NOEL KURTZ, a retired school teacher from Hadley, Massachusetts, writes, “Sixty-plus years ago, a young boy who loved to eat apple pie joined his mother in making one. I cored and sliced the apples and felt very important as I worked with the main ingredient.
“As my mom directed, I combined the dry ingredients in a large bowl. After mixing (my mother learned later), I ate a fair number of apples from the bowl before they were pressed into the waiting crust. The apples coated with flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and lemon juice were irresistible.
“They were then, and they are still today. From that day forward, I always add an extra apple, for me, or for my children, and now for my grandchildren.”
Isabella’s Apple Pie
6 to 8 medium tart apples like McIntosh or Macoun
¾ c sugar
2 T flour
1 T cinnamon
2 T butter
1 T lemon juice
In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and mix with apples. Press apples firmly into a 9- or 10-inch pie plate lined with the bottom crust.
Dot apple mix with pats of butter in several spots (I now add several additional dashes of cinnamon). Apply top crust.
Join crusts at rim and press together with a fork. Cut four 2-inch slits in top crust from center toward edge.
Bake at 400° for 40-50 minutes. About halfway through cooking, remove pie from oven and brush top crust with milk.
Note: the crust was made from scratch for a double-crust pie from the Better Homes cookbook.
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JAMES KREINBRING of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a senior administrator at Boston College, wrote this about his apple pie recipe:
“About 25 Thanksgivings ago, I was asked to bring an apple pie to dinner. I had never made a pie. I had been a bread baker for a long time, but had never attempted a pie or, in fact, pastry of any kind.
“I needed a recipe, so I went to my James Beard cookbook — that classic volume first published in 1959. He offered a long list of pie recipes, and all of them started with a single recipe for pastry crust. Being a novice, I followed it meticulously for years.
“The Beard recipe calls for lots of butter (or other shortening), flour, salt, and water — and the less water the better. He advised that the butter be ice cold and cut into the flour and salt by hand. I was happy to find that this made flaky and rich dough, but surprised it also required about 30 or 40 minutes of intense labor.
“His filling called for apple varieties that I could not find in my local store, but I had read elsewhere that Cortlands are a good baking apple, so Cortlands it was. I used a sharp knife to make a scripted letter ‘A’ to vent the crust.
“The pie was instant Thanksgiving success.
“Very little has changed in those 25 years. I still make one apple pie every Thanksgiving — but I have experimented some. I found that a food processor makes a crust nearly indistinguishable from the handmade variety, but in a fraction of the time.
“Recent Thanksgivings have brought me to my daughter’s house in Chicago, where Cortlands can be hard to find, so I have substituted McIntosh and Gravenstein.
“I also cut the sugar by half. It remains plenty sweet while reducing the liquid and accenting the taste and texture of the apples.
“My paperback edition of James Beard’s classic cookbook came apart long ago — first, not surprisingly, at the apple pie recipe. I now own a 1996 reprint in hard cover.
“The apple pie has become a family tradition and expectation at every Thanksgiving celebration.
“And I still make only apple pies.”
Jim Kreinbring’s Thanksgiving Apple Pie, with thanks to James Beard
2 c flour
½ t salt
12 T butter
In a large bowl or on a marble slab, sift the flour and salt. Put the butter in a hollow in the center of the flour and blend it in with your fingers (or cut in with two knives or a pastry blender, or use a food processor) until it is distributed through the flour and has a mealy consistency. Don’t press it or knead; just flake it gently.
When it is mealy, add about 3 or 4 tablespoons of ice water and work the mixture into a ball. If you need a little more water, add it, but be careful not to add too much. The less water used, the better. The pastry should stick together but not be doughy. Roll the ball of pastry up in waxed paper and put it in the refrigerator to chill for 20 or 30 minutes.
Divide the dough and put one half on a lightly floured board. Flour a rolling pin lightly and press it down into the center of the dough. Roll gently out toward the edge. Keep rolling gently from the center up to the edge, rotating the dough a quarter turn each time to shape it evenly into a circle.
When it is large enough to fill the bottom and sides of the pie tin, roll it over the rolling pin and transfer it to the tin, unrolling it evenly over the bottom. Pat it down to fit the pan and trim off the edges, leaving a slight overhang to seal with the top crust.
Roll out the top crust in the same manner. After the pie is filled, place the top crust over the filling, press the edges of the top and bottom crust together with your fingers and trim off the excess dough with a sharp knife.
Using the prongs of a fork, or your fingers, flute or crimp the edge of the crust. Cut small slits in the top crust in two or three places.
9 to 10 apples, such as Cortland, McIntosh, or Gravenstein, or a combination
½ c white sugar
½ c brown sugar
Peel the apples and cut them in thin slices. Place a layer of sliced apples on the bottom crust, dot with butter, sprinkle with white and brown sugar, a little cinnamon, and a tiny pinch of salt.
Repeat these layers until all the apples and sugar are used. The pie tin should be heaped up with apple slices.
Put on the top crust, seal the edges and gash the top crust in two or three places.
Bake in a preheated oven at 450° for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 400° for 20 minutes, and then to 350° for a final 20 minutes, until the crust is nicely browned and the apples are soft.
“For the last 20 minutes,” says Jim, “I often cover the pie with tinfoil, because otherwise it can get too brown.
“As for a topping, personally I only use vanilla ice cream. Sometimes we have whipped cream as an alternative. But no cheddar cheese for me. I love cheese — and I eat cheese with green apples — but I just don’t think it goes well with pie.”