Why the Saying Should Be As American as Pumpkin Pie, Not Apple

I think we should be saying as American as pumpkin pie

When life gives you pumpkins, make pie.

—a play on Elbert Hubbard’s words

Pie is revered in the modern American household. Juicy apples mixed with sugar and cinnamon make much-anticipated appearances in the kitchen throughout fall and winter. Rich, creamy spiced pumpkin and sweet potato pies are delivered on Thanksgiving. Deep burgundy red cherry pies are served on Christmas.

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We’ve all heard the phrase countless times before: As American as apple pie. Many people never question it. Apple pie is on the menu at most American diners and Normal Rockwell featured the dessert in several of his illustrations. It’s unmistakably American—and yet that well-worn cliche isn’t historically accurate. When you dig into the history of the earliest days of the American colonies you’ll find that the pie most connected to this country’s roots is pumpkin, not apple.

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Pumpkins are native to North America. Columbus wrote about pumpkins he saw from his voyages and brought some back as did subsequent explorers so people in Europe were familiar with them as early as 1492. Pumpkins and other squash were some of the first crops colonists planted when settlers arrived in America in 1621.

And then there’s pie. There’s been a love for pie in North America from the very first settlers to their present-day ancestors. Early settlers cut up pretty much anything that could grow, baked it between two pieces of crust, and called it a pie. Culinary tastes of the era meant that almost all vegetables grown in the colony were baked in a pastry crust.

Pie generally meant something a little more savory. Tarts were dishes where they added lots of sugar. That was the difference between a pie and a tart in the 17th century.

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A matter of fillings

Pumpkin, not an apple, was the dominant pie filling in the early American colonies as apple orchards hadn’t been planted yet. New England without apples is difficult to picture but the first decade of the Plymouth colony was mostly appleless.

Related article: How as American as Apple Pie Came to Be

William Blaxton planted the first apple seedlings trees soon after he arrived in Weymouth, Massachusetts just south of present-day Boston in 1623.

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Once apples were abundant in the colonies, pie recipes popped up that combined sliced apples and pumpkins with butter and a little spice. These original pies, however, were more vegetable-heavy. They used sliced pieces of pumpkin or squash mixed with spices and butter and then baked in a pastry crust. Pumpkin pies with a whipped, fluffy texture became widespread after the advent of Libby’s canned pumpkin puree in the early 20th century.

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How pumpkin pie was traditionally served

Pumpkin pie in the 21st century is relegated to dessert—a savory and sweet cap to an already decadent meal. Thanksgiving seems incomplete without it.

But pies weren’t reserved for special occasions in the pilgrim household. Meals were served family style and pies were set out with the rest of the main courses rather than being presented at the end of the meal. Once the family sat down to eat the pies weren’t sliced, either.

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When you served a pie in the 17th century you’d cut the top crust off, scoop out the filling, and then you’d take little bits of crust to go with it. So pie acted like a container to hold the rest of the filling in.

About that crust: There seems to be some confusion about the uses of early pie crust. New England’s early settlers called pie crust pastry or paste and typically the ingredients were simple: hot or cold water depending on the type of pie, butter, and flour. These crusts, sometimes known as the coffyn became rock hard during the baking process leading to the misconception that the crusts were tossed into the garbage once the filling had been consumed. America’s settlers, however, were much more industrious and recycled the pastry for future use.

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You would eat the pastry with the next meal with broth to soften the pastry. You didn’t throw it away. Because when people go through all the trouble to grow food like wheat or rye or other grains and harvest it by hand and thresh it and grind it, they aren’t going to throw it away. They might not feed it to the lord of the manor but somebody is going to eat it.

Related article: Julian Is World Famous For Apple Pies

The term coffin might sound off-putting when applied to your dinner but it simply described the pie as a basket or box. This dining method proved popular throughout medieval Europe. For one, it required no additional dishes and could be eaten by hand, no utensils needed. And that’s not the coffin pie’s only practical purpose.

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In Janet Clarkson’s book, Pie: A Global History, she writes that this hefty pastry case served as a container similar to a lunch box. It was a way for people to both transport their food and preserve it (especially important before refrigeration when people needed a way to make their food last). Sometimes, the baker carved a hole in the top of the crust and poured melted fat into the hole to act as a seal against intruding air thus keeping it fresh for an extended period.

Pastry crust didn’t catch on in America until the 1640s, however, when the settlers began growing wheat and rye in the colonies. Maize, the corn favored by the Native American people already living on the land the pilgrims had colonized made soggy pastry that fell apart. So, for the first 15 years, the colonies operated there was no crust made in New England—and therefore very few pies.

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However, there was one exception: When the long-serving governor of the Plymouth Colony William Bradford married in 1623, rye from England was used to make 12 venison pies.

Even before pie crust became commonplace what the pilgrims did not do was bake pumpkin pies inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. This cooking method is a widespread myth, plain and simple.

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This misconception might stem from a 16th-century source who wrote that pumpkins the size of an acorn squash were hollowed out then sliced bits of pumpkin and apple were added and baked together. The real dish would have looked and tasted more like an acorn squash side dish, not a sweetened pumpkin pie. But even so, there is no record of that dish even being cooked in the colonies, only in 17th century England.

Related article: 8 Creative Ways to See Some Fall Color

That’s very different than taking this giant field pumpkin and hollowing it and pouring in four quarts of cream and a pound of sugar and baking that forever and a day.

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As American as pumpkin pie

Pies were undoubtedly a major part of the cuisine in the New England colonies. Until Amelia Simmons published her cookbook in 1796—the first cookbook written in America by an American—reprints of cookbooks from England where pies had long been a staple dish circulated in the colonies. The pilgrims ate plenty of pies, just not apple pie.

Related article: Top 8 Tips for Planning a Road Trip this Thanksgiving and throughout the Holiday Season

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It would take a little more than 20 years after the first successful colonies before apples appeared in pies or anything else. America’s earliest settlers filled their pies with what grew most abundantly in their backyards and that was a pumpkin. So next time you’re thinking about celebrating America, pull out the pumpkin pie recipe you’d usually save for Thanksgiving. 

Related article: Thanksgiving & Staying Safe

Worth Pondering…

The pumpkin lies yellow beneath the cold skies, it’s luscious and mellow and ready for pies.

—Walt Mason, The Pumpkin

O’ pumpkin pie, your time has come ’round again and I am autumnrifically happy!

—Terri Guillemets

But see in our open clearings how golden the melons lie; enrich them with sweets and spices and give us the pumpkin-pie!

— Margaret Junkin Preston

I picture pumpkins at a farmer’s market piled happy and high awaiting a new home where children will carve them into scary faces or mothers will bake them into pie or stew.

—Jenny Gardiner, Slim to None

The pumpkin is a uniquely American plant, widely regarded as one of the most magical plants in all the world.

—Seth Adam Smith, Rip Van Winkle and the Pumpkin Lantern

Advice from a pumpkin: be well-rounded, get plenty of sunshine, give thanks for life’s bounty, have thick skin, keep growing, be outstanding in your field, think big.

— Unknown

How as American as Apple Pie Came to Be

How apple pie became American

Pie is…the secret of our strength as a nation and the foundation of our industrial supremacy. Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.

The New York Times, 1902

The saying as American as apple pie has been around for centuries. Traced back as early as 1851, this expression is used to express patriotism, usually heard when discussing things like baseball, beer, or rock-n-roll. But in a country where apples aren’t native to the land—nor is the pie for that matter—how did apple pie become so embedded in the American identity?

Apples and other vegetables at a farmers market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This flaky, fruit-filled dessert conjures memories of holidays huddled around the dinner table, steam rising from the lattice crust of a pie on the windowsill, and generations celebrating and enjoying time together. But apple pie wasn’t invented in the United States. As is the case for many aspects of American cuisine, the majority of its ingredients hail from abroad.

This fall, tip your basket to William Blaxton when you pluck a plump apple from a tree, bob for apples on Halloween, or cherish your grandmother’s amazing apple pie on Thanksgiving.

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Reverend Blaxton, among other claims to fame, planted the first seeds that would fuel a pioneering nation and give apples an image of all-American wholesomeness.  

A bookish, eccentric loner, the early English settler nurtured what historians believe were the first apple orchards in what is now the U.S. in present-day Boston in the 1620s. His name Blaxton is often modernized as Blackstone. A true pioneer, he settled Boston five years before the Puritans and in Rhode Island a year before Roger Williams. 

There may be historical characters who did more than he did for apples in America but he was certainly the first—or at least the first known—to bring this exotic crop to our shores. 

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America’s national heritage is flavored with references to the sweet, juicy fruit. America’s biggest city is called the Big Apple. Wholesome institutions are as American as apple pie. Johnny Appleseed created an American legend spreading the gospel and the apple across the heartland. 

Food historians and scientists believe the fruit is native to Central Asia in what is today the Tian Shan forest in Kazakhstan. Wild apples were domesticated there and spread along the Silk Road to Europe. The apple evolved along the Silk Road and in Europe before making it to England and then America via the New World’s early colonists.

Apple orchard in late fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only apple indigenous to North America is the sour and small crabapple which doesn’t fit in well with desserts. Sweet apples have found a second home in the US; it produces the most apples in the world, next to China.

The apple reached Europe at least by the time of Ancient Greece and Rome and arrived in the Americas only after the explorations of Christopher Columbus sparked the greatest period of food fusion and cultural integration in world history. 

Related article: Apples and Pies Just Part of Julian’s Appeal

The people of the New World in addition to apples soon savored Old World foods such as rice, onions, and coffee. Europeans, Asians, and Africans discovered Western Hemisphere flavors such as corn, potatoes, and tomatoes. 

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William Blaxton is believed to have been born on March 5, 1595, in Lincolnshire, England to John and Agnes (Hawley) Blaxton. His mother died when he was boy. He was ordained by the Church of England in 1621 then lost his father the following year.

As the news of English settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth trickled back to England, Blaxton set off for the New World as chaplain aboard the ship Katherine.

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Blaxton arrived in Wessagusset in what is now Weymouth, Massachusetts just south of Boston in 1623. It was an ill-fated settlement. Captain Richard Gorges who led the expedition hastily returned to England. Blaxton stayed behind and ventured a few miles north to the Shawmut Peninsula the site of present-day downtown Boston in 1625. The Puritans, led by John Winthrop, arrived five years later. 

The staid Puritan reformers and the oddball Anglican minister did not hit it off. So, for the third time in 12 years, Blaxton (or Blackstone) started a new life on his own. 

Apple orchard in late fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Because of theological and territorial disagreements with his new neighbors, Blackstone moved west in 1635 to enjoy the solitude and tranquility of a place he called ‘Study Hill’ in the Lonsdale section of Cumberland on the east bank of the river that now bears his name,” writes the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. “This move gave him the unique distinction of being present-day Rhode Island’s first permanent English settler.”

Apple experts say the earliest known American varieties likely descended from Blackstone’s Boston fruit trees. Blaxton’s first orchard was planted at the corner of what is now Beacon and Spruce streets in the heart of Boston between Beacon Hill and Boston Common. Blackstone planted his apple orchards from seed according to all reports while controlled varietals are grown by grafting.

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The Roxbury russet named for a Boston neighborhood is the earliest known American apple variety and is traced to 1635, the year Blaxton left for Rhode Island. Heirloom apples—Rhode Island greening and yellow sweeting—also likely came from his first orchards.

Apples could also be dried, baked, distilled into vinegar—or, most commonly in colonial times—fermented into cider. They proved perfect food for the pioneers who were spreading across the continent. 

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William Blackstone died on May 26, 1675, in Cumberland, the Rhode Island town he first settled in 1635. The name Blackstone remains common throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

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The land he sold to the Puritans became Boston Common founded in 1634 just before he left the Shawmut Peninsula. It is the oldest public park in America today. It predates Central Park in New York City, for example, by 224 years.

Boston boasts a downtown Blackstone Street, a Blackstone Grill, and a Blackstone Elementary School. The Blackstone River which meanders through both Massachusetts and Rhode Island is named for him. The Blackstone River National Historical Park was created under President Obama in 2015. Rhode Island features numerous memorials including a William Blackstone Memorial Park in Cumberland. The city of Pawtucket, an old mill town on the Blackstone River introduced a monument to Blackstone in 2021. It features him reading a book upon a bull reflecting one of the tales of his eccentricity.

Julian Cafe and Bakery, Julian, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When British troops invaded Brooklyn during the American Revolution in 1776, the British were stunned by the splendor of the orchards. The redcoats “regaled themselves with the fine apples which hung everywhere upon the trees in great abundance,” wrote author David McCullough in 1776, his epic work of history. 

According to the American Pie Council, Americans consume $700 million worth of retail pies each year—and that doesn’t include those that are home-baked or sold by restaurants and independent bakers. That’s a lot of apple pie.

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Though I’ve made the case here that apple pie isn’t so American after all, one could argue that just because something originated somewhere else doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t become a source of national pride elsewhere. America took the apple pie to heights it had never seen before and elevated it as a treasured part of its lore and history. And though it wouldn’t be fair to call apple pie “American” without acknowledging its past, the baked good seems to be just at home here as anywhere else in the world.

Worth Pondering…

Apples are just like us. They come in many colors, many sizes, and many shapes. They are well rooted, just like we all want to be. They are collaborative, communicative, and they gift us with beautiful fruit. Apples teach us what it means to be alive and joyful on earth.

—John Bunker