Thanksgiving is upon us, a time to reaffirm our Americanness by gorging ourselves, to imagine cartoon Pilgrims in captain hats carbo-loading with their headdressed Native American hosts, united by the sheer power of a gargantuan turkey. Or more realistically, a time to half-drunkenly yell our politics at the old folks and their “Make America Great Again” hats. Then we eat sweet potatoes and cornbread, pass the cranberry sauce, perhaps share some tamales or sauerkraut or egg roll stuffing—whatever our mores happen to be. When the apple pie lands front and center, however, partisan tensions dissolve and the state of the union is again strong, this buttery paradigm of Americanness greater than any of our petty squabbles. Or so the cliché “as American as apple pie” suggests; we are one country, one people even, inasmuch as we adore baked apples, spices, and sugar encased in a browned crust of wheat flour and heaps of butter. That is, after all, what Grandpa intimates to you at the first Trumpian Thanksgiving. But in response, you ask: What of the other, less nationalist foods on the table?
Foreigners are often smug in unraveling the American apple pie thing, undermining the seemingly arbitrary pride of a kaleidoscopic nation of immigrants’ descendants. You, reader, you savvy knower of food things—you probably already know that apple pie was never just American. You could refer to the 1381 English recipe fantastically titled “For to Make Tartys in Applis,” calling for good apples, good spices, figs, raisins, and pears. Maybe you evoke the medieval northern European penchant for preserving perishable foods in so-called coffins of fat, usually inedible. Perhaps you note the similarities between the American version and the Dutch appeltaart, a foodstuff first listed in a 1514 cookbook, nearly a century before the Jamestown settlers, and still baked throughout the Netherlands today.
As it happens, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word “pie” as a comestible to 1303, but the notion of a filled wheat pastry shell predates its modern name by millennia. Pastries of this sort—usually stuffed with meat or even mussels—were common throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin; ancient Egyptians, Arabians, Greeks, and Romans all made rudimentary pastry with locally available olive oil and grains descendant from a Mesopotamian sort, the same that anchored agriculture at the dawn of Western civilization. When the Roman Empire pushed north through Gaul to Britannia, so too did premodern pies, soon made with butter, lard, or suet and rolled out with a more substantial body. Nevertheless, sweet pies were somewhat unheard of, sugar plantations and industrial transportation still centuries away.
Apple pie, in fact, was undoubtedly absent from that fateful Thanksgiving feast back in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621, that mythical meal we celebrate today. In all likelihood, there was no pie at all, despite that Pilgrims—former English nationals—relished the pastry of their homeland. For early settlers, pies were a means of preservation, something for tough times, when not enough grain or heat could be mustered for bread, or when meats or provisions needed to stretch to more mouths. This famous Thanksgiving, however, was a celebration of bountiful harvest, no time for a mere meager pie.
More significantly, there were no apples in the New World, at least not until English folk planted their European seedlings in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. From that moment on, the apple was, as Ralph Waldo Emerson later dubbed it, “the American fruit,” never mind that its antecedents can be traced to the hilly forests of present-day Kazakhstan. There, says writer Michael Pollan, this botanical Zelig of the West still pushes through cracks in the pavement as a weed while its more refined and well-traveled relatives dominate European and American culture. These seed-grown apples are tart, small, knobby—not at all like the sweet grocery store apples we consume daily in accordance with that famous mantra of twentieth-century health. Apples grown from seedling (as opposed to grafted—that is, infused with the buds of a mature parent breed) are unpredictable, and share many of the same funky characteristics as their old school Kazakh kin. But these wild apples make great hard cider, and settlers took to the trade zealously, the tipple as central to colonial American life as coffee nowadays. To early Americans, apple cider was the extravagance of nature, the icing on the depressing cake of homesteading that made the whole grueling process worthwhile. And so apple trees found their way to nearly every plantation in Virginia by the end of the century, with some settlers growing as many as 10,000.
In the 1700s, the country declared its independence and pushed ever westward, expanding the frontier to a pristine landscape unheard of on the European continent, defining itself with this unbelievably bountiful resource. All the while, hard cider grew still more universal—turn-of-the-century President John Adams allegedly even drank it for breakfast.
Then, of course, there was Johnny Appleseed, the barefoot trekker whose classroom-friendly myth of frontiersman tree-planting solidified the cultural association of apples with Americanness. This John Chapman, despite his wandering ruggedness, was in fact, a wealthy businessman. With apple seeds he collected in Pennsylvania, Chapman planted a string of nurseries throughout the Ohio River Valley, near sites he imagined an influx of pioneers would take. When they arrived a few years later, he sold seedlings—not, by the way, grafted trees—to settlers, with which one can only assume they made plentiful tipple, and he more than plentiful money. Still, the image of an eccentric shoeless vagabond planting apple trees stuck, augmented by apocryphal stories of sleeping in logs and befriending wolves. Inasmuch as early Americans thought of their country, however inadvertently, as the European project perfected in the primeval wilderness, Johnny Appleseed was the perfect folk hero, taming erratic nature with an icon of Old World civility.
Effectively, Appleseed provided evidence for the assumed superiority of European foodstuffs (early settlers derided the indigenous staple maize for its inability to rise as bread, for instance), and linked the new American nation back to its Western predecessors. “It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is connected with that of man,” Emerson protégé Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1862, later name-dropping Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and Scandinavians as ancestors. Unless, evidently, this “man” he speaks of is not European.
Nonetheless, apple cultivation and consumption, even popular criticism, became a national pastime as American as say, apple pie. The young country was so infatuated with its abundant alcohol that—well, everyone drank it a lot. Naturally then, a few decades into the nineteenth century, rampant drunkenness sparked a campaign against alcohol, one that specifically targeted apples and their poison juice. In a majestic brush of public relations, apple growers began promoting sweet, edible breeds, rebranding their magical fruit as a wholesome necessity—“an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” they touted. As such, grafting, initially unpopular in the states, came into vogue, allowing growers to cultivate a variety of the sweeter sorts of apples we know today. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few dozens of grafted apples turned into nearly 14,000 distinct varieties, a fruit for every community or taste, with some even shipped to Europe.
Though apple pie was somewhat popular in the earliest colonial days wherever there were apples, sweeter fruit carried the dessert version to its mythical zenith. Booming apple production attached a sincere pride to this fruit as a bringer of national prosperity, and as a symbol of strength it ultimately grew a military connotation. For instance, a newspaper article in 1902 read: “No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.” During World War II, a peak of American patriotism, soldiers proved the statement true, commonly responding “for mom and apple pie” when asked why they were fighting. The implied patriotism of apple pie was cemented, from then on recited in everything from anti-Soviet chants to Chevrolet commercials, to name just a few. Whatsoever is as American as apple pie must be powerful, apparently, must stand for a definitively American experience; its origins are, however, irrelevant, or so the story goes.
To be tribal or territorial about the true origins of a foodstuff, to eat only within the family so to speak, is a terrible idea and a fallacy at best. Consider, for instance, the tacopaj, or taco quiche, a Swedish dish despite its French pastry shell and grocery store Tex-Mex tomfoolery. In The Nordic Cookbook, a two-and-a-half-kilo tome of nearly a thousand distinctly Nordic recipes, author and chef Magnus Nilsson identifies the taco quiche as a Swedish food popular since its invention in the 1980s. “When you lose all respect for the origins, you start adapting to better suit your circumstances, to better suit your palate,” says Nilsson, and so it was with the taco quiche. The dish involves the appropriation of available ingredients—spice mix and mayonnaise, moose meat, flour—into something definitively local, something that, despite its inherent kitsch, Swedes eat well more often than what are commonly thought of as Swedish foods, like sour herring. Yet when Nilsson solicited recipes for this enormous book, most Swedes sent him variations of the same things—pickled herring, lingonberry jam, meatballs. The idea of food culture, Nilsson asserts, corresponds to what people want it to be, not to what it actually is.
And so it is, as we sit around our Thanksgiving table, that apparently we very much want American food to be turkey and stuffing, cranberry, etcetera—that is, we want the whole ordeal to be as unabashedly “American as apple pie.” We deliberately recreate a facsimiled Thanksgiving of yore, but in doing so exclude any conscious recognition of the diversity that has since expanded what it means to be American. Apple pie, like much of traditional Thanksgiving fare, was coopted from the British, copied from the Dutch—it smacks of Anglo-Saxon heritage. But to paraphrase Hua Hsu in recent New Yorker Trump coverage, Americanness is and always has been a sponge, not an ethnicity. If apple pie is indeed the quintessential American food, then perhaps, following Nilsson’s logic, it corresponds not to what we actually eat, but to what we want our food to be. By valuing an Anglo-Saxon food as the definition of American, we are unmistakably valuing that heritage above all others.
Given the arbitrariness of modifying that particular foodstuff, could the same be said of Mission burritos, General Tso’s chicken, or a jerk-spiced Thanksgiving turkey, recipes all developed within the States based on traditions of elsewhere? What of collard greens with ham hock, gumbo, or any of the dozens of other staples cultivated by West African slaves with plantation ingredients? Kudos to the New York Times then, for defining Thanksgiving as the veritable ethnic hodgepodge it always was, celebrating the ingenuity of an ever-widening definition of America with recipes like Pumpkin Flan, Dudhi Kofta Curry, Rotkraut, and Bibingka listed side by side in an article aptly named “The American Thanksgiving.”
A nation built on a palimpsest of a million cuisines deserves to eat to like one. Even more American than apple pie is a Thanksgiving dinner looking not to a 400-year-old English and Native American meal, but to a contemporary American celebration, relishing everything the country has since become. For what was that initial Thanksgiving but a new generation of Americans welcomed by an older one?