What is the most American food you can think of? Corn? How about a prepared dish? What little saying comes to mind? That’s right: “As American as apple pie.”

Well, not really, but close enough. Americans inherited their love of pies from the English.

In the 14th century, London was full of cook shops selling deep-dish meat pies with a heavy crust. The famous English mince pie — the Christmas pie that Little Jack Horner ate in his corner — is an evolution from these early meat pies. An old English tradition claims that eating 12 mince pies, one each day from Christmas until Twelfth Night, will make the eater happy for 12 months of the year. So much for that advice, because I do not like mincemeat pie.

When the colonists came to this country, they bought with them their love for the English meat pies and dessert tarts. Until the Revolution, women continued the custom of baking pies in deep pastry shells covered with a top, or “coffin.” Sometime after we declared our independence, a thrifty New England housewife realized that flat pies, or “tarts,” needed less filling. Thus, the traditional American pie is a flat one.

Several pies are particularly associated with the United States. There is the pumpkin pie — a refinement of the first pumpkin pies, which were merely hollowed-out whole pumpkins. Then there were the molasses-flavored shoofly pies of the Pennsylvania Dutch, and the most famous of all-American pies — the apple pie.

In the days before refrigeration and freezing, the apples were picked, peeled, quartered and hung on cords in the kitchen to dry. The dried apple quarters were used all through the winter.

New Englanders ate apple pie for breakfast. “What is pie for?” asked Ralph Waldo Emerson, when challenged on the custom. In 1902, the New York Times blasted an English suggestion that pie be eaten only twice a week.

“This,” said the Times,” was utterly insufficient ... as anyone who knows the secret of our strength as a nation, and the foundation of our industrial supremacy, must admit. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents change with the seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”

In the pre- and early 1900s, the United States was at war over pie. On one side were the traditionalists, who believed that pie was a necessity in every household. It was a necessity just as much as a bed and cooking stove. People of another opinion wanted to break the pie-eating habit. They regarded pie eating as an American evil, which caused bad complexions and lusterless eyes. This group of reformers also claimed that no great man was ever fond of pie.

Newspapers of the late 1890s and early 1900s continually had articles on the evils of pie. Pies eaters, however, traced their love of the dish back to the founding fathers. A particular pumpkin pie recipe of the Adams family of Massachusetts was credited with being the backbone of this famous family of jurists. Patrick Henry might as well have said, “Give me pie or give me death,” because what is liberty without pie?

The pie tradition of the New England settlers eventually transformed their kidney and mincemeat pies into ones with fruits that grew along the Atlantic coast. The crusts changed, too. They were lighter and flakier, because lard from pigs was more abundant in the Colonies than tallow from cows. In 1892, Rudyard Kipling described the Northeast as “the great American pie belt.”

By the beginning of the 1900s, Americans were eating more apple pie than any other variety. Apples, first brought to this country by the colonists, grew across most of the country. They could be stored through the winter, unlike most other fruit.

A 1924 advertisement in the Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) Times that did not adhere to the current English fashion first used the phrase “as American as apple pie.” Thus, the idea of eating pie became a way for the country’s new arrivals to assimilate.

Just as we are concerned with diet today, so were the people of the late 1800s. Advocates such as Harvey Wiley, now best known for his support of the Pure Food and Drug Act, called for a simpler and lighter diet. Elizabeth Fulton, a home economist in Kansas, believed that pie eating, like alcoholism, was a cause of divorce. Thus, a trend toward eating fresh fruit became popular.

Pie eating became patriotic during World War I. An editorial in the Boston Globe stated that our soldiers’ hunger for pie was a hunger for democracy.

Pie retained its symbol of liberty when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited New York in 1960 to address the United Nations. A woman from Texas, Virginia McCleary, sent a package from her home to Khrushchev at his New York address. The bomb squad was summoned to examine the gift.

Inside the package was an apple pie.

The pastry, McCleary, wrote, would introduce Khrushchev to American values and way of life: “The communist pie is nothing but crust. In America, we have an upper crust and a lower crust, but it’s what’s between — the middle (class) — that gives the real flavor.”

Today, more than 200 million pies are purchased each year. I wonder how many are home-baked each year? Over the years, filling ingredients have changed. There are mango, pear and banana split pies, but America’s favorite is still apple pie.

When most of us talk about pie, we emphasize the filling. But what about the crust?

The first Colonial pie crust was a tough mixture of cornmeal and water. A good crust in Colonial times was one that was not broken if a wagon wheel went over it. It was only when cooks could obtain wheat flour, butter and eggs that they could create crusts that were tender and flaky. I read a pie recipe recently that said if you are in a hurry, use a store-bought pie crust. No, no, no; if you made the filling, you’ve gotta make the crust.

Hilde G. Lee is a food writer and co-author of “Virginia Wine Country III” with her husband, Allan Lee. She can be reached at hildeglee@yahoo.com.

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