Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

When Apple Pie Came In Coffins

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 10•17
This is the pie I made for Independence Day. The recipe is below.

This is the pie I made for Independence Day. The recipe is below.

Here in the United States, we’ve just celebrated our Independence Day, during which we eat a lot of apple pie. 

Apple Pie is an iconic American food. The saying goes: as American as baseball, mom and apple pie. 

But, like most iconically “American” foods (I’m looking at you, pizza and French fries), Americans didn’t invent the apple pie (We just Americanized it).  Apple pie in some form or another is even older than America. 

The origins of apple pie are murky. Apples are an ancient species related to roses (you can see this in the way both apples and rose hips form: by swelling from the stems of blossoms). Alexander the Great is credited with bringing apples back from Asia. (Although this may just be a story. Archaeologists have found evidence of apples in Iron Age Switzerland.)

The first pies (non-apple) didn’t resemble pie as we know it today. Instead they grew out of the need for food that was portable and would not spoil.  

Wrapping food in a grain shell sealed it away from germs and prevented spoilage. (though early people didn’t know what germs were. They just knew that it worked. And the shell would double as a plate/bowl. So bonus!)

The crust wasn’t edible (usually burned crispy) and would be tossed out once the filling was eaten. (Most of the time.  There are some accounts of people eating the juice-soaked soft inner shells of meat pies.)

This was especially useful for nomadic people, soldiers or sailors, who needed portable food. 

There is a recipe for chicken pie written on clay tablets in ancient Sumer sometime around 2,000 BC. 

The Ancient Romans may have been the ones to spread apples across Europe. No word on if they baked them in pies (though they certainly made cheesecake with a pastry base). 

The first reference to apple pie is in a recipe dating to 1318 England. The recipe calls for figs, apples, raisins, pears and saffron. (No sugar though. In those days, sugar was apparently more expensive than saffron.)

This type of pie was baked in an inedible shell called a cofyn, or coffin in modern spelling. (Which had nothing to do with funerals. The word coffin was once a genetic word that meant chest or box.) 

Variations on Apple pie as we know it appear in recipe books across Europe by 1514. 

The first settlers who came to North America couldn’t afford to be apple lovers. The native apples they found were crab apple species. And although they brought Apple spurs with them, the North American bees didn’t pollinate the trees as well as European species.  

They did love pie, though (colonists, not bees). Pie allowed the colonists to stretch their ingredients, using less flour than bread would. All of this baked into a shallow round dish to cut corners.

Initial apple production was so tiny, apples had to be saved for important things like making hard cider. (Because non-sugar-containing apple pie was not as appealing or as long-lasting to the typical colonial as alcohol.)

So how did America go from the land of cider-makers to the land of apple pie?

We can start with a man named John Chapman. Chapman is known in America as folk hero Johnny Appleseed. In stories, he walked the frontier barefoot with his camp saucepan on his head and a bag of apple seeds over his shoulder. Wherever he went, he planted seeds so that settlers going west would have apples to eat. 

The reality was that Chapman did plant apple orchards, and years later sold the land for profit. But thanks to the story, apples have become part of the westward expansion narrative of America.  

Prior to the temperance movement, apples were still more popular for use in cider than in pie. Because? Booze. 

But during the temperance movement, American apple growers needed to find a new outlet for their produce (since there was no more booze.  (Legally, anyway.) So they coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” to encourage more people to eat apples.  (And apples – at least the organic ones – are good for you.  An apple contains fiber and pectin, which help keep your GI tract clean.)

Apple growers may also have come up with “as American as baseball, mom and apple pie.” However, the phrase became popular with soldiers oversees in WWII. 

Today, America is second in apple production only to China. Red delicious is the most popular for eating, though it has it’s detractors.  

For a good pie apple, pick a tart apple like a Granny Smith. Sweeter apples like Red Delicious tend to fall apart and become a mushy mess.

And here is a good apple pie recipe (no coffin needed):

Crust (makes 1 9″ double crust or 2 single crusts)

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • Ice water

Mix dry ingredients.  Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until it resembles cornmeal.  Add ice water and work with hands until a dough forms. Roll the dough into two balls (for a single pie with a double crust, make the disk for the bottom crust slightly bigger) flatten into disks and wrap in plastic.  Refrigerate at least 1 hr and up to 48 hours  (You can freeze up to 4 months).

Pie filling:

  • 8 apples (I like Granny Smith)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon apple pie spice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (room temperature)

Peel, chop and core apples.  You want the Apple chunks to be smaller.  Remember, you’re making a pie, not an apple dumpling.  

Toss with lemon juice, flour, sugar and spice. 

Roll out the crust on a well-floured surface and fit it into a pie pan (for a 9 inch pie pan, roll out a 12 inch disk).   Pile the apple filling in the pie, arranging the apples to fit. Dot the butter over the apple filling.

If you are going to use the top crust, roll it out and place it over the top.  Pinch the edges of the crust together and then trim the edges with a knife. Cut slots to  vent steam in the top crust. 

If you are using a single crust, trim the edges.  You can build a lattice with the trimmings, or leave the top off. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Bake the pie for 45 minutes.  Check the pie and cover the rim with foil to prevent over-browning. Return pie to the oven and continue baking until crust is brown and filling is thick and bubbly (up to 10 minutes more). 

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