Research: "As American as Apple Pie"

Tuesday, December 20, 2016
We once did a podcast segment on Patriotic Foods, and brought up the phrase that goes through everyone’s heads when talking about food from the homeland: “As American as Apple Pie”. It brings such a warm, comfortable picture to mind, doesn’t it? Such a joyful representation of Americana: The image of a pie (with a lattice top, natch) cooling on the windowsill. But as with most idioms, this one’s origins are a bit murky. Why do we say it? And is it true?

Let’s tackle the second question first. In a word: No. Neither apples nor apple pie got their start in America. Dutch apple pies (the traditional version of pie with pastry on top) have been around for centuries. It is believed that the Romans introduced apples to the English, who then brought them over to America in the seventeenth century. They’ve been here right from the start; apples were among the most popular foods to be brought over by the Pilgrims. The spurs were easy to transport, and hard apple cider was often consumed for breakfast. Pies were also a big staple of the Pilgrim diet, but not in the sense we know them by today. These weren’t dessert treats, they were necessary for sustenance. Pies tended towards the savory, rather than the sweet, and were used as a cheap and effective way of stretching a limited amount of filling to fill hungry bellies. Once the European honeybee arrived, apple trees started to bear larger amounts of fruit, and the apple’s reputation soared even higher. While they may not be native to our shores, apples and apple pie have been a big part of our national identity since before America was even a country.

So yes, since America and apples grew up together, it makes a certain amount of sense to call something “As American as Apple Pie”. But how did the phrase catch on? There are a few ideas about that. One unsurprisingly involves the American legend John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman planted countless apple trees in the American frontier, but he wasn’t wandering around randomly. He would acquire land, plant apple orchards, then sell the improved land for a higher price. He was the original flipper! What could be more American than that? Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren grew up learning about Chapman, and his quintessential American-ness was inextricably linked with the apple, solidifying the reputation of both as national symbols.

Though it’s also been suggested that apple growers pushed the phrase as a marketing term, it’s more likely a combination of two other factors. In 1902, a New York Times article comparing pie to American prosperity declared that “no pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished“. Americans took that sentiment and ran with it. When soldiers heading off to World War II were asked about their motivations for fighting the good fight, “For Mom and apple pie” was a common response. The post-war period was a time of intense patriotism, and by the 1960s, “As American as Apple Pie” had become solidified as a statement of proud nationalism. Apples are certainly intrinsic to American history, and the phrase is a beautifully evocative one. But if you’re a stickler for accuracy, feel free to start saying “As American as Blueberry Pie”. Who knows? It may catch on.