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What's So American About Apple Pie?

apple pie
Apple pie is just about as baked into America as, well, the American flag. jonathansloane/Getty Images

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When you think of the word 'America,' what specific symbols come to mind? The Statue of Liberty? Baseball? Burgers? A world-class (albeit very expensive) college degree? Those are all good guesses, but for a long time, a sweeter treat has come to represent the best — and worst — of the U.S.: apple pie.

Encyclopedia Britannica proclaims apple pie to be "perhaps the archetypal American dessert."

And if you're born and bred in the U.S., then it's a good bet that you've heard the oft-recited phrase 'as American as apple pie.' But what is the origin of this patriotic slogan?

How Apples Ended Up In America

First, let's back up and look at how apples (or Malus domestica) first landed on America's shores. Apples had been around Europe and Asia for thousands of years, but before European colonization of the Americas, the only kind of apples to be found in North America were crab apples, which the colonists found wholly unsuitable, especially compared to their fruit back home. The original settlers of Jamestown brought apple seedlings with them from Europe and planted the cuttings in their new homeland. The first apples grown in America were used mostly for cider rather than dessert.

Now, let's talk pie: The first pies that came to America were more like sturdy (and inedible) shipping containers for meat than the buttery, flaky crusts we know today. It was only with the popularization of commercially available, cheap sugar that pies — including apple pies — came into renaissance in America. Despite the apple pie's common association with American pride, Europeans had actually gotten the whole pie thing down centuries before. A recipe for Dutch apple pie can be traced back to 1514. Plus, the English were so enamored with apple pies in the late 1500s that they even came up with pie-themed soliloquies.

Johnny Appleseed

So who was responsible for impressing apples into the American mindset? That would be John Chapman, also known by the more famous moniker of 'Johnny Appleseed.' Contrary to popular belief, Appleseed was no mere American legend; he really did exist. But he did much more than that: The nurseryman planted apple nurseries around the turn of the 19th century in Ohio and other Midwestern states. Appleseed also gave away countless more seedlings to pioneers who set up apple orchards across the nation. So, in some ways, America's conquest of the West can also be symbolized within the core of an apple. And in the years since, the U.S. has developed a whole slew of truisms associated with apples, including "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" and "one bad apple spoils the bunch."

Mom and Apple Pie

But it wasn't until World War II that apple pies really became stamped into the American consciousness as a patriotic pastry. American soldiers during the war commonly told reporters that they defended their nation "for mom and apple pie." And boom: The apple pie became American. Priceonomics searched The New York Times' archives and came up with more than 1,500 hits for the phrase 'American as apple pie.' Moreover, the American Pie Council states that approximately $700 million dollars' (or 186 million units) worth of apple pie is sold each year in the U.S.

Nonetheless, this association between the sugary delight and America hasn't been entirely positive. A quick search of Google Scholar using the same phrase will turn up scholarly articles on topics including gun violence, child abuse, poverty and domestic terrorism.

Given apple pie's strong associations with America, there's perhaps some small irony that it is not necessarily a homegrown American product, but something baked overseas and brought to these shores. But if immigrants comprise a key component of the United States' lifeblood, then there is perhaps no better symbol of America than the delicious dessert.

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