Dining and Restaurants / Eating / Food and Cooking

Celebrate American pie’s multicultural origins on July 4

Photo by Kim Long, American Forecaster, Demver

When you say that something is “as American as apple pie,” what you’re really saying is that the item came to this country from elsewhere and was transformed into a distinctly American experience.

“We may have taken (apple pie) to our hearts, but it is neither our invention nor even indigenous to our country. In fact, the apple pie predates our country’s settlement by hundreds of years,” writes Lee Edwards Benning in “Cook’s Tales.”

No one knows who ate the first slice, but pie in some form has been around since the ancient Egyptians made the first pastry-like crusts. The first pies were probably made by the early Romans who probably learned about it from the Greeks. The Roman, Cato the Censor, published the first written pie “receipt” or recipe: a rye-crusted, goat cheese and honey pie.

The Romans then spread the word around Europe including England. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word pie was “evidently a well-known popular word in 1362.”

In 1475, the Italian writer Platina offered a recipe for a squash torta or pie hat concludes:

“Put this preparation in a greased pan or in a pastry shell and cook it over a slow fire. … When it is cooked, set on a plate, sprinkle it with sugar and rosewater.”

More often than not, the early pies were main dish meat pies. Fruit pies or tarts (“pasties”) were probably first made in the 1500s. English tradition credits Queen Elizabeth I with making the first cherry pie but it’s unlikely that Her Highness actually spent much time in the kitchen. In Tudor and Stuart times, English pies were made with pears and quinces as often as with apples.”Thy breath is like the steame of apple-pyes,” wrote Robert Greene in “Arcadia” in 1590.

Prior to this time many “pyes” or pies were crustless, being simply hollowed out pumpkins filled with mincemeat (which was mostly meat), baked in ashes and served in wedges.

Pie came to America with the first English settlers but chances are Christopher Columbus knew of his native dish “pizza” which is Italian for “pie.” The early colonists cooked their pies in long narrow pans called “coffins.” The early crusts were frequently inedible and tough designed more to hold the filling together during baking than to be actually eaten.

“If one were to conduct a survey of Americans to determine the typical American pie, chances are it would be a large, deep-dish, two-crusted affair, which is actually a combination of two European pies: the tartlet and the savoury,” writes Lee Edwards Benning.

If the food-loving Pennsylvania Dutch people didn’t invent pie, they certainly perfected it. Evan Jones in “American Food The Gastronomic Story” writes:

“Some social chroniclers seem convinced that fruit pies as Americans now know them were invented by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Potters in the southeastern counties of the state were making pie plates in the early eighteenth century, and cooks had begun to envelop with crisp crusts every fruit that grew in the region. ‘It may be,’ Frederick Klees asserts, ‘that during the Revolution men from the other colonies came to know this dish in Pennsylvania and carried this knowledge back home to establish pie as the great American dessert.’ ”

“I was happy to find my old friend, mince pie, in the retinue of the feast” wrote Washington Irving in 1820.

Pies became a common part of American life. A Vermont housewife, itemizing her baking for the year 1877, counted 152 cakes, 421 pies and 2,140 doughnuts.

In 1878, Mark Twain made up a menu of American foods he missed in Europe for “A Tramp Abroad” which concludes “Apple pie … Peach pie. American mince pie. Pumpkin pie. Squash pie. All sorts of American pastry.”

Every cook knew how to make them. “One of the things noticeable about early pie recipes is their lack of detail; it was assumed that any cook who knew her way around a kitchen could put together a pie” writes Richard Sax in “Classic Home Desserts.”

Although modern Americans don’t eat pie for breakfast—although we might LIKE to—pie remains a favorite, whether apple, cherry, mince, pecan, chess, lemon meringue, pumpkin or a myriad of others.

“Cakes, pies and sweet puddings have remained the most popular American desserts. They gained popularity because they pleased the palate but also because they satisfied voracious hunger and provided energy for hardworking people,” writes Evan Jones.

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