As Un-American as Apple Tart

Apple season has arrived! The air is cool and crisp, the stores have stocked their Halloween supplies, and the price of apples has plummeted.

You've probably heard the saying that nothing is as American as apple pie. Well, that's not exactly true...

A more appropriate phrase would be that nothing is as American as pumpkin pie. Pumpkins are indigenous to the Americas, but apples have been cultivated in Europe and Asia for thousands of years before colonization. Apples were not brought to the New World until the 17th century, when in 1625, Reverend William Blaxton planted the first apple orchard in Boston.

The pervasive rhetoric linking Americans and apples has altogether ignored most facts about the origins of the species itself. In my favorite book by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, Pollan states, "The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America. Like generations of other immigrants before and after, the apple has made itself at home here. In fact, the apple did such a convincing job of this that most of us wrongly assume the plant is a native. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about natural history, called it "the American fruit.") Yet there is a sense—a biological, not just metaphorical sense—in which this is, or has become, true, for the apple transformed itself when it came to America." In his poetic tribute to the apple, Pollan argues how in fact the apple is representative of what makes America, America.

I maintain my preference for the pumpkin pie as the symbol of America, especially the symbol of American heritage, due to its employment of European immigrant cooking techniques with indigenous flora. But if Pollan likes to think of America as best represented by a stolen or "borrowed" dish, rather than a fusion, that's cool. European colonists did steal millions of acres of land. Claiming a pie recipe pales in comparison and I think French theorist Jean Baudrillard would probably prefer the choice of the apple as the symbol, finding it deliciously apropos.

In the 1604 Belgian cookbook, Ouverture de cuisine, the recipe for apple tart is not too different from any recipe you would find for apple pie today. The recipe proceeds as follows: "Take a dozen chopped apples fried in butter, three ounces of sugar, a quarter ounce of cinnamon, & four yolks of eggs, a little ground anise, & make the tart with short paste." I scaled down the recipe by a fourth due to a lack of a larger pie pan. Thanks to Savouring the Past, I learned that "short paste is a light and flaky pastry — both the ancestor and equivalent to our modern pie crust. It consists of flour, fat, and just enough water to hold it together." I used a bit of sugar in my own crust and it would have worked fine had I not been so impatient and tried to melt some of the butter ahead of time.

The Belgian recipe yielded a tart or pie quite similar to most modern ones that I had. I did fail to add the anise that was suggested since anise has ruined too many of my historical baked goods. See my post on the gross spice cake here.


I hope you all have a happy fall and enjoy the apples!

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