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As Chinese, Iranian and Indonesian As Apple Pie

Apple pie: The all-American dessert we eat to celebrate Independence Day actually reveals our dependence on foods with far-flung origins.
Chelsea Beck/NPR
Apple pie: The all-American dessert we eat to celebrate Independence Day actually reveals our dependence on foods with far-flung origins.

The fireworks are stacked high, the beer is on ice, and lumps of charcoal glow hot under the grill in anticipation of hot dogs and hamburgers. Fourth of July is a holiday celebrated through food. There's potato salad, popsicles, watermelon slices — and, of course, apple pie.

But the all-American dessert we eat to celebrate Independence Day actually reveals our interdependence on the rest of the world. With few exceptions, we have always relied on foods with origins in far-flung places. As recently reported by The Salt, research shows nearly 70 percent of the foods we now grow and eat originally came from somewhere else.

"When we say, 'As American as apple pie,' we think of baseball and hot dogs without ever considering not one ingredient in apple pie originates from what we call the United States," says Libby O'Connell, author of The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites.

Not only the ingredients but the dessert itself has foreign origins. The British used animal fat, wheat and water to create the precursor to pies — airtight, practically inedible pastry shells known as "coffyns" that served to preserve the contents within. While most coffyns were filled with savory ingredients, such as beef and venison, apple pie also had its place; the first recipe dates back to the 1300s.

Pies became what we know today in America, O'Connell explains, as sugar became more widely available and the deep-dish inclinations of the Brits melded with the flaky strudels made by German immigrants. Apple pie, in particular, grew in popularity because apples were easy to harvest and store for extended periods of time. "And you don't need perfect apples to make pie," she adds. Pies were a way to use apples that may not have been as palatable right off the tree or had gone soft from storage. "By the late 18th century, many Americans ate apple pie at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as a side dish or a light meal with cheddar cheese," O'Connell says. Apple pie was evolving into a quintessential American dish.

In his book Apple Pie: An American Story, John T. Edge suggests that the wide availability of apples solidified this relationship: "During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops scavenged for apples and commandeered the hearths — and flour bins — of white farmers and black tenants to bake pies. Thusly, wartime adversity fixed the taste of apple pie on the palate of generations to come."

"The pie," abolitionist and Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1869, "is an English institution, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species." But American food writer M.F.K. Fisher reminded us many years later, "It is as meaningless to say 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."

So where do apple pies come from? Let's deconstruct the stories of the ingredients that make up the sweet treat — and the winding paths they took to our plates.


/ The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library

Small, bitter crabapples are native to North America, but the flavorful fruits that fill our pies originated in Central Asia, hybrids of various wild apple species. The 7,500 varieties of apples grown across the world today can be traced back to the wild forests outside of Kazakhstan, where fruits from those original wild apples still flourish.

Genetic analysis shows the apple's slow domestication occurred naturally (without human intervention) in the forests of the Tian Shan mountains crossing Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and northwest China. Primitive apples journeyed through Asia with the help of bears and other animals that sought out the most delicious fruit they could get their claws, teeth and beaks around.

Earlier versions of the sweet apples we know and love appeared in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago, around the first recorded uses of grafting. From there, the Greeks and Romans deposited and grew the fruit across Europe and North Africa. The Romans brought sweet apples to Europe and crossed them with astringent Malus sylvestris apples used for making cider. This cider focus carried over into the New World, where colonists initially cultivated apples for booze (cider and brandy), as well as baking.

John Chapman, better remembered as Johnny Appleseed, was the best-known cultivator of these cider apples. Notorious for his modest wardrobe and aversion to shoes, Chapman walked from Pennsylvania to Illinois, establishing orchards that, in accordance with federal law, gave him claim to tracts of undesignated land. Chapman then sold the land to incoming settlers, turning a profit by expanding apple cultivation.

By the 19th century, nearly 14,000 different varieties of apples were available. Today, over 1,000 cultivars are grown across the United States, but commercial apple production is built on just a handful: Ten varieties make up 90 percent of domestic production. And, as a result of globalization, 55 percent of the world's apples now come to us from Asia.


/ USDA/Flickr The Commons
USDA/Flickr The Commons

Wheat was first cultivated more than 9,000 years ago, in northern Iran, near the Caspian Sea. Ancient remains of wheat — called "the king of grains" — have been found in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. The crop traveled via Iran into central Asia and spread through Europe from Anatolia into Greece. From there, it moved north via the Danube, reaching Italy, France, Spain and, eventually, England.

Wherever Europeans settled — whatever lands they conquered — they carried their grain mainstay with them. When wheat initially crossed the Atlantic Ocean, it failed miserably and forced many colonists to rely on a Native American staple: corn. In fact, wheat didn't truly thrive in the U.S. until the late 1800s, when Russian immigrants brought a variety known as Turkey Red to Kansas. The new wheat — better suited to the climate — turned the region into the breadbasket of America.

Wheat is now grown in nearly every state in the continental United States, 95 percent of which is bread wheat. We are among the world's second biggest exporter of the grain, most of which goes to Japan, Mexico and the Philippines.

Lard And Butter

/ The Library of Congress/Flickr The Commons
The Library of Congress/Flickr The Commons

We have Spanish explorers to thank for America's abundance of all things pig. The ancestor of the domesticated pig is the wild boar that's native to Asia, Europe and Africa. The wild boar's descendants — feral pigs — arrived in the Americas via Christopher Columbus, during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, and Hernando de Soto, who introduced pigs in the 1500s to what became Cuba and the southeastern United States.

Those feral pigs were left to roam and multiply. "They were happy on this continent," O'Connell explains. "They multiplied like rabbits – except they were pigs." The animals thrived in the New World, particularly in the warm climates of the South. Settlers eventually corralled and domesticated pigs as their most important livestock animal, raised for both meat and lard — a go-to material for both heating food and baking pies.

On the same voyage that ferried in pigs, Columbus also carried cattle. The cows didn't adapt to their new environment nearly as well as their porcine friends. Nevertheless, by the 1520s, more than 8,000 had been raised, used not only for food but labor in mines and sugar cane fields. The herds helped stoke colonists' appetite for beef, as well as butter and other dairy products. The highest-yielding dairy cow today — the Holstein-Friesian — is a hybrid breed that originated over 2,000 years ago in the Netherlands and is responsible for 90 percent of dairy products in the United States.

Sugar And Salt

An illustrations shows slaves cutting sugar cane on the island of Antigua.
/ William Clark/Flickr The Commons
William Clark/Flickr The Commons
An illustrations shows slaves cutting sugar cane on the island of Antigua.

Originating about 4,000 years ago in Indonesia, India, China and what is now Papua New Guinea, sugar cane comes from the same botanical family as wheat — and also hopped a ride to the New World with Columbus. While it became an incredibly lucrative and productive crop, its growth was built on the labor and intense suffering of millions of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas to cultivate and harvest what the colonists called "white gold."

As the late anthropologist Sidney Mintz, author of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, explained, "The concentration of brains, energy, wealth and — most of all, power ... led to its being supplied to so many, in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering."

In the 19th century, when the British blocked cane sugar imports from reaching France during the Napoleonic wars, the French turned to boiling beets to extract a sweet syrup. (The crop had originally been grown for its leafy greens, not bulbous taproot.) This blockade gave rise to sugar beet factories across Europe. Today, about half of the sugar consumed in America comes not from cane but from sugar beets.


Unlike other pie ingredients, salt has no unique origin. It can be sourced from salt water or by mining, and is ubiquitous, used for centuries in preserving foods, demonstrating political and geographical power, and informing the formulation of cities ranging from Detroit to Liverpool.

During the Revolutionary War, the British cordoned off colonists' access to salt as a war tactic, thereby affecting colonists' ability to preserve their food. Today, India, China, Germany and the United States supply more than half of the world's salt.

Cinnamon And Spices

A hand-colored engraving of cinnamon from <em>Nature Displayed</em> by Simeon Shaw. (London, 1823).
Universal History Archive / Getty Images
Getty Images
A hand-colored engraving of cinnamon from Nature Displayed by Simeon Shaw. (London, 1823).

Cinnamon (called Ceylon cinnamon) comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Used by Moses in anointing oils and placed by Emperor Nero onto his wife's funeral pyre, the spice — up until about the 19th century — held more value than sugar, chocolate or coffee and was used primarily by the elite. Arab merchants, Portuguese traders, the Dutch and the English all — at one point or another — secured a monopoly on the production and trade of the crop, using brute force to beat down both native protest and foreign opposition.

Also used in place of Ceylon cinnamon is cassia cinnamon — which from a different, related evergreen and dries into the long, thin curled sticks many of us are so familiar with. The spice originated in Southern China and is the cinnamon most commonly found on supermarket shelves.

Cloves and nutmeg were once considered more precious than gold. They were so revered that Magellan's journey around in the world in 1522 (during which only 18 of the 250 men and one of the five ships survived) was deemed a success — because of the 50 tons of cloves and nutmeg that returned with him to Spain.

Both spices are indigenous to the Banda Islands, a volcanic cluster known as the "spice islands" of Indonesia. The small, pronged spice we call clove is the dried flower bud of the clove tree. The first recorded use was in ancient China, where cloves soothed upset stomachs and toothaches. Royal court members used cloves to freshen their breath —they could only speak with the emperor if they had a clove in their mouth.

Nutmeg originates from the oval seed of the Myristica fragrans, a tropical evergreen also from Indonesia. As The Salt has reported, in the 1600s, the Dutch tortured and massacred their way to control of the nutmeg trade.

Until the mid-19th century, the Banda Islands were the world's only source for nutmeg. Today, it's grown in other parts of Indonesia, the West Indies, the northeastern coast of South America and Malaysia. Cloves are grown in Tanzania, Madagascar and South Asia, but 80 percent of commercial buds now come from Indonesia.

An American Original

So how, with its plethora of foreign ingredients, did apple pie become an all-American food?

When colonists settled in America, they strove to be different from their European counterparts not just in ideology, but also in the foods they prepared. Early American pie had edible crust — and more of it — than traditional coffyns. Recipes for apple pie circulated among women, along with a growing knowledge of preservation, which allowed them to make apple pies all year round.

America's first published cookbook, American Cookery, included a recipe for apple pie, and soon the popularity of American pies had spread around the world and came to define American abundance.

"By the turn of the 20th century, pie had become "the American synonym for prosperity," as The New York Times proclaimed in a 1902 editorial. "Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished."

In the 1920s, the phrase "as American as apple pie" started to appear in print, and, by World War II, the dessert had become a definitive expression of patriotism. When asked why they were fighting, soldiers responded, "For mom and apple pie." Apple pie — wholesome, widely available and comforting — has woven itself inextricably into the way we see our country.

And that's why apple pie might be the perfect, multifaceted metaphor for America. "When we say, 'As American as apple pie,' it's accurate, because so many of us come from someplace else," says O'Connell. "It sums up the strength of America. Put us together and we make something wonderful."

Simran Sethi is a food writer whose work has been featured in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach and Guernica. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simran Sethi