Apple Pie Is The Great American Desert
This article originally appeared in the December 1975 issue of Esquire. It contains outdated and potentially offensive descriptions of race and class. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.
It is as meaningless to say that something is “as American as apple pie” as it is to assert proudly that a Swedish or Irish grandfather who emigrated to Minnesota was “a first American.” Both the pie and the parent sprang from other cultures, and neither got here before the Indian.
Be that as it is, and nonetheless, most of us today would fight staunchly to defend the rights and honors of what we choose to consider our own dish . . . or at least one of our own great dishes. The fact that it came here from England, with the Pilgrims up North and the Cavaliers down South, long before we were a nation, and that it was probably brought in recognizable form to England by William the Conqueror in 1066 or so, cannot mar the fine polish of how we feel about apple pie as a part of our comparatively youthful heritage.
There are as many opinions about perfection in this national dish as there are about hangover cures. A man-on-the-street survey, no matter who conducts it nor how nor where, will turn up firm contradictions based on knowledge or prejudice or plain wishful thinking. A lot of people have never really had the chance to eat a decent apple pie, but after a minute’s sensual reflection will know positively what they would expect if they did. They can taste it on their mind’s tongue: thin flaky pastry and hunks of sweet apple bathed in a syrup; rich but sturdy dough filled with finely sliced tart apples seasoned with cinnamon; an upper and lower crust in a traditional pie pan; an upper crust only, in a deep dish; a bottom crust with crosses of dough over the filling. . . .
It is all a dream, unless one has a quaint old-country grandma or an equally rare bakery. We order apple pie doggedly in everything from expensive steak houses to the corner drugstore, and gallantly disguise it with vanilla ice cream “a la mode,” or eat packaged ersatz “cheddar” alongside, or even tolerate it (in what can only be a form of chauvinism) with cheese baked under the top crust, or raisins added, or some other such heinous desecration of what apple pie can be.
It can be very very good, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. Since the possibilities for its being equally horrid have been hinted at, and no mention at all has been made of bad bakery products and tasteless but somewhat less dangerous frozen goods, I’ll try a more positive look at what can happen to this adopted beauty of a dish.
Like anything fit to be put on the table, it cannot be whipped out in a few minutes from bad supplies and a bored heart. A really good apple pie takes perhaps an hour and a half to get from the peelings to the table. This does not count buying the apples and seeing that the other supplies are on hand . . . and even having a kitchen and an oven! If the pie smells as good as it should, people will want to eat it immediately, but it should wait for a while and be served gently warm. It is almost as easy to make two or six as one, and some of the batch can be frozen or stored. In simpler days, extra pies were put outside the kitchen window, safe from four-legged friends of course, or down in the icy cellar. A two-crust pie risks becoming soggy if not eaten soon, and pioneer cooks found that, for keeping, it was wise to bake one or two deep-dish pies with only a top crust.
So, given the ingredients and the essentials—like pan, stove, oven—one goes calmly about the game, which can become as skilled as eye surgery or Wimbledon, of concocting an apple pie to fit the sensual expectations and requirements of its eaters. It should leave them happy but expectant of the next time and with excellent digestion.
A woman who is eminent in this branch of gastronomical therapy tells me:
Peel, core, and slice about six tart apples into a bowl. Sugar them, add a little cinnamon and a jigger of good brandy or bourbon, and stir them well. While they sit, make a light rich dough, and roll it out (never back and forth but out). Have the oven at 450°. Line the pan(s), heap in the apples, dot generously with butter. Cover with top crust, seal edges, and cut a slash in the top. Bake fast for ten minutes, and then reduce heat to 350° for about thirty to forty minutes or until the apples feel tender when speared through the peekhole.
She adds a few casual asides to this basically plain procedure: if the apples are too mild, stir a little lemon juice into them; add a couple of tablespoonsful of cornstarch if you think the pie will be too soupy . . . and if it runs over, throw salt onto the juice in the oven; don’t mention the brandy if Aunt Jenny, who is president of the W.C.T.U., asks why the pie is so tasty, since she wouldn’t admit that all the alcohol has long since evaporated. . . .
There is a surprising scarcity of such fundamental recipes in our old kitchen manuals, because in early America any cook worth his or her salt knew perforce how to produce a pie by puberty, so that there was no need to write the rules. Many of the existing directions are, of course, impractical by now, but even a modern amateur can take a good look at a standard guide like Mrs. Rombauer or Fanny Farmer and roll out a decent crust. And there are real apples almost always in the markets. There is sugar, cinnamon, even lemon juice in an emergency. Margarine is procurable if butter is not.
To sound realistic rather than wishful for a minute, a “homemade” pie that might bring some joy to a person used to drugstore offerings can be fabricated with a bought crust and a can of “pie apples,” if rather heavily seasoned and gussied. It tastes fairly good, perhaps because it is actually made in the home (which is where the oven is). But comparisons are said to be odious. . . .
Possibly our national appetite for apple pie could be called a syndrome, or even a mystique, and perhaps we can blame a lot of it on a very nice quiet religious eccentric named John Chapman. He was a New Englander (1774-1845) who spent the last forty years of his life wandering around what is now Ohio-Indiana-Illinois, planting apple seeds, yes, “Planting the trees that would march/ In his name to the great Pacific,/ Like Birnam Wood to Dunsinane,/ Johnny Appleseed swept on.” That is what Carl Sandburg sang about Johnny, and another poet wrote, “Let all unselfish spirits heed/The story of Johnny Appleseed,” and my own grandfather is said to have rested under Johnny’s bending orchard boughs on his way to survey the Iowa territory for Mr. Lincoln. That was in about 1864. He said that the trees were half wild but fruitful and that people still talked affectionately of the crazy gentle man as if he were still there.
Apple trees have grown in temperate zones for as long as we can tell (how about the Garden of Eden?), and they are a tough rich beautiful tree, a boon to us all in spite of Eve’s slip of the tongue. They are intricately woven into our legends and myths and religious fantasies, from Aphrodite to William Tell. There are said to be about 7600 varieties of them, almost all edible in one form or another. They will live a long time even in high places but not on deserts.
Apples keep well in cool cellars and can be partially or wholly cooked and used in preserves and sauces, or dried, as pioneer Americans found. (A fine pie can be made of dried apple slices let swell to their right size in warm water overnight. Then the pie can be baked in time for breakfast, while the men are at their first chores. Pie for breakfast is as American as. . . .) An apple a day is said to keep the doctor away, and certainly it should, if the eater has a good stomach and strong teeth and can breathe good air and a few other things that otherwise might bring the pill boys hurrying in. The best apples now available, unless there is a venerable orchard nearby, are marketed as Rome Beauties, mostly for cooking; Northern Spies, Mclntoshes, Jonathans for eating; Gravensteins for both. This is a northern California estimate, and I know there are countless other choices in our country and that I would blush to make this one anywhere but here.
A pie is always a baked dish with a crust on top for me. It can have a top and bottom crust, especially if filled with fruit. But if it has only a bottom crust it is a tart. This simplifies life. In England, where our pies came from, they can be either tarts or pies, depending on what is in them; that is, fruit can be topless or bottomless, but meat is always with a top and is called a pie and not a tart. (A pasty, usually with meat and vegetables in it, is what we call a turnover.) In France a tarte is a tart, topless and unashamed, except for a slight lacing of strips of pastry and a hint of a blush from the sweet glaze over it.
(It is interesting or even significant that Mrs. Irma Rombauer, whose Joy of Cooking is as staunchly American as Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management is British, states flatly of her French apple pie—really an open-face tarte on galette crust—that it is “the prince”! Her Gallic recipe is as echt as Apfelkuchen, although I feel patriotically that her rule for plain Midwestern apple pie is equally noble.)
I try to stay positive about several American institutions, including apple pie, but it is hard not to make firm and even derisive statements about what is fobbed off on us just because we seem to have a compulsive craving for the dish. How dare the local U-Help Drugs display, much less sell, what I see boldly cut onto plates on glass shelves behind the fair-tressed serving maid? What good will a scoop of vanilla ice cream lend it? But I may need some quick energy from sugar or glucose, the taste of ex-fruit, the sustenance of dead fat and emasculated flour. . . . The crust is inedible, like slippery cardboard on the bottom and sugared newsprint on top. The apples are canned vintage, embalmed for posterity in a rare chemical syrup. As for the scoop of. . . . Back to the wall, I can dig between the two crusts and eat some shiny lumps and think of other days.
Perhaps it is true that national surveys show that American males now prefer chocolate pie to apple, and although I can understand, I refuse to believe it. Myself, I have never eaten chocolate pie in a good restaurant or coffee shop, much less in my own home, but once I was served a chocolate meringue pie in a New York apartment that had been “decorated” in browns and blacks to match the pet dachshund, and it was an experience in nothingness, except perhaps calorically. The flavor was so delicately un-chocolate as to vanish within the frothy high-piled filling, and the crust was equally discreet and neither light nor heavy, flaky nor rich nor . . . crusty. The little dog had much more character, and a forthright approximation of our national dish, even from a stylish caterer, would have matched him better.
Vanilla ice cream is the best camouflage of outrage at the local U-Helps, but if an honorable, decent, healthy, respectable apple pie is at hand, I would send it down my happy gullet either unassisted or with one of two special things: a piece of good cheddar cheese, English or American. (It can be called rat-trap, where I came from.) The other is plain thick cream, poured from a pitcher and preferably into a soup plate over the piece of pie.
Once I stayed for a time in Southern Illinois and lived from one Sunday-noon invitation to the next, less aware of the elegant old house, a station of the Underground on the Mason-Dixon line in the Civil War, than of the fact that not only one pie would be served for dessert but two. They were mince and apple, and both were just hot enough to melt the ice cream served from a chilled bowl. The ice cream was made with maple sugar, to pile on top of the slices of pie, each on a separate plate. This was a dizzying reward to a half-starved college student. It was as near as I ever came to New England, where shaved maple sugar and plain cream are eaten now as in the seventeenth century with apple dumplings, pies, pandowdies, anything with a good crust.
Myself, given such a crusty pie made with tart apples and the right sugar-cinnamon-butter, that is all I need for a whole meal, a private sensual satisfying supper. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson’s seemingly infantile prattling in A Child’s Garden of Verses: “The friendly cow all red and white,/ I love with all my heart./ She gives me cream with all her might,/ To eat with apple tart.”
In other words, apple pie as we make it now, whether at a U-Help or in an Idaho cabin or a New York kitchenette-studio, is unique to America. It assumes ethnic tinges depending on where we live and who bore us there, but the shape is formally ours: a two-crust round baked shallow dish or pan, containing sliced apples, spices, sugar and butter (with perhaps lemon juice or brandy).
I’ll eat it anytime I can find a good one. Or, I’ll stay home and bake one, which is probably what we all should do.