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How American Is Apple Pie, Anyway?


March 14 is  Pi Day, since the day’s digits, 3/14, are the same as the first digits of the mathematical constant. And while we’ll leave the numbers to the mathematicians, the day is frequently celebrated by something we DO know: pies! These delicious baked goods have been around since the dawn of time–or at least the New Stone Age.

Roots in Ancient Egypt

Back in ancient Egypt, around 9500 BCE, people made pie-like dishes that were more like galettes. Made from barley, wheat, rye, or oat, they were filled with honey and baked over hot coals. By the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II, these dishes had evolved to be filled with a wider variety of ingredients, like nuts and fruits. They must have been considered delicacies because there are drawings of these pies on the walls of Ramses II’s tomb.

It should come as no surprise that the ancient Greeks picked up galettes. Some culinary historians believe that it was the Greeks who first prepared pie pastry; their crust appears to have been made of flour and water, which would then be wrapped around meat. Naturally, once the Romans conquered the Greeks, the recipe spread throughout the Roman empire. Romans were quite wealthy and generally ate meat at every course in the meal (even dessert). They put a wide variety of meats and seafood in their galettes, from beef and lamb to mussels and oysters.

Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, AKA Cato the Elder, published a treatise on agriculture called De Agricultura that included a recipe for Placenta, the most popular pie or cake of the era. He also shared a recipe for another cake called libum, but this was predominantly used as an offering for the gods, rather than for general consumption.

Crust Wasn’t Always Tasty

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “pie,” or at least its original spelling, “pye” was first used in relation to food in  1303 and was well known by 1362. It’s thought that the word “pie” may be derived from  “magpie,” which was itself a common ingredient in pies of the era (as were beef, lamb, and pigeon). Magpies were known for collecting a variety of objects, and pies were often quite a melange of ingredients, including whatever meats and other foods might be available.

The crust was usually called a “coffin” or “coffyn,” because the word originally meant “basket” or “box.” The crusts were usually quite tall with sealed bottoms and lids. Open-crust pastries were called “traps.” These were less common, as the crust actually helped to preserve the filling. And these crusts weren’t the delicious, flaky concoctions we love today. They were often quite thick–up to several inches–because they doubled as the baking vessels. Thus, they were pretty tough. Wealthy people wouldn’t even have consumed the crust. Instead, it would have been given to the servants or the local poor, whom the wealthy were responsible for feeding. The crust would be soaked in sauce to make it more palatable.

Pastry was a staple on the Medieval menu, yet few recipes for it have survived from the era. That’s because at the time, cookbooks were geared toward professional chefs, who would have been so familiar with making pastry crust that they would not have needed a recipe. When cookbooks started appearing for general household use, and not just professional cooks, pastry recipes began to pop up.

Pies Come to the New World

Pies came to the New World with the first European settlements. But forget pumpkin pies at the first Thanksgiving; in 1621, any pies would have been savory, rather than sweet. And the first extant recipe for pumpkin pie wasn’t recorded until over fifty years later, in 1675. The recipe has its roots in a traditional English dish of spiced and boiled squash.

In pre-Revolutionary America, pies became a means of showcasing local ingredients. Apple pie, however, was not an American invention–it was made in England, where it was made with unsweetened apples. The first written reference to apple pie came in a poem called “Menaphon” by R. Greene. Published in 1589, the poem includes the line “Thy breath is like the steeme of apple pies. It was not until centuries later that the sweetened variation would be popularized in the United States. By the end of the eighteenth century, most recipe books contained only a few recipes for sweet pies, if they had any at all. In the late 1800’s, that number jumped to about eight. In 1947, the Modern Encyclopedia of Cookery listed 65 varieties of sweet pie.

One comment on “How American Is Apple Pie, Anyway?

  1. Stephen Schmidt
    March 14, 2014

    For some reason the actual first reference to apple pie in English is always missed. It is the recipe called “pyes of greene apples” appearing in the first edition of England’s third print cookbook, “A Proper newe Booke of Cockerye,” published in 1545. The recipe calls for apples, pared and cored but uncut, in a raised crust, with cinnamon, ginger, and “sugar enough,” and a “half dish of butter,” or one and half pounds. The pie would have been opened from the top and the apples and buttery-sweet sauce served out with a spoon, along with chunks of the relatively tender raised crust (which in this recipe was clearly meant to be eaten).

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2014 by in Baking and Confectionery Books, History and tagged , , , .
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