Monday, February 29, 2016

A Pie-in-the-Face Update

Last year, I posted a piece about the history of pie-in-the-face humor.

(See, Homelessness, Hunger and Domestic Violence - a Serious History of the Pie-in-the-Face Gag.)

In that piece, I traced the origins of pie-in-the-face humor from a burlesque, parody of a Broadway show that premiered in 1898.  In the show, The Con-Curers (a parody of The Conquerers) the heroine threw a custard pie (or cream pie) in the face of an officer of an occupying foreign force, in place of the glass of wine thrown in the officer's face in the original.  The bit was well reviewed and reported to have been inventive; there was no suggestion that the bit was old, tired, or common before that time.

There also seems to be a straight line from that play to the development of standard pie-in-the-face gag.  The play had a long run, and toured, so many people in many places had a chance to see the bit.  Within a few years, pie-in-the-face jokes appeared frequently in print, the bit was borrowed by comedians in other shows, and the gag appeared in an early motion picture - at least as early as 1905.

But recently, while researching the history of the phrase, "as American as Apple Pie," I ran across an older - MUCH older - comedic pie in the face.  It's from a comic novel published in 1709, based on a French translation of a story originally told in "mixt Italian, a Speech Corrupted, and now much in Use thro' all the Islands of the Mediterranean . . . ." Like so many of the thrown-pies discussed in my earlier piece, this pie was also thrown in anger in an episode of domestic violence; in this case, a Priest's wife attacking her Priest-husband.  The episode is told twice; once from the perspective of witnesses, and once from the perspective of the Priest:

[Eyewitness Account]


The fight was pleasant enough, an old thin raw-bon’d Priest, in his Sacerdotal-Habit, combating his Wife, who buffeted him again, and seem’d to be the Aggressor.  He had not only lost his Hat and Peruke in the Scuffle, but his Face look’d all over besmear’d with something, no Body could tell what; but at last it was known to be piping Hot Apple-Pye, out of the Oven, which she had scalded him with, in a very handsome manner, but was so kind to throw a Pound of Butter immediately after, to cool him again.


[Priest's Account]

I had been abroad to Day about my Business, and had miss’d my Dinner; coming home, I ask’d for something to eat; she had took care, (after dining plentifully her self) that there should be nothing left for me.  One of the Maids whispered me, that there was a large Apple-Pye in the Oven to be kept hot for the Gentleman’s Supper, but I was to know nothing of it.  Being pretty sharp-set, I went to the Oven, as by Instinct, out I drew the Pye, got a Plate of Butter, and fell to buttering of it in happy Security, as I thought, because she had retir’d to her Closet, pleas’d with putting the Victuals out of the way, that I should have nothing to eat.  The Devil would not let her rest long without tormenting of poor me; down she comes, and before I was aware, snatches the Pye, and by a dexterous whirl of her Hand, sends it full in my Face and Eyes; the Plate of Butter follow’d, then the Tankard full of Drink, and, in short, whatever came next.

Mrs. Manley (Mary de la Reviere), Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes, from the New Atlantis, an Island in the Mediterranean (2d Edition), London, Printed for John Morphew, 1709, pages 158 and 162.

I guess it's true what they say, there is nothing new under the sun.



Apple Pie and American Pride - a Double-Crust History of "It's as American as Apple Pie"



[B]lessed be the unknown person who invented the apple-pie! Did I know where the grave of that person was, methinks I would make a devout pilgrimage thither, and rear a monument over it that should mark the spot to the latest generations.  Of all pies, of every name, the apple-pie is easily the first and chief.

Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, and famed American clergyman, social reformer and speaker)

Apple Pie has been as “American as Apple Pie” for well over a century.  The expression has appeared in that form since at least 1910; and the sentiment dates back to at least the 1860s.



Apple Pie as a Symbol of America

In 1889, the United States was engaged in a fierce debate; a struggle for the soul of the country; an attempt to establish a lasting symbol of American greatness; an effort to answer the burning question of the day – what should be the National Flower? 

The idea, first broached at a florists’ convention, was to adopt a flower as the national flower, “as the rose is of England and the lily is of France.”  The National Botanical Garden favored the sunflower, the Agricultural Department voted for the golden-rod, and the White House Conservatories nominated the daisy. Hundreds of newspaper editorials churned through dozens of suggestions, none of which had universal appeal; cotton blossom (too regional), apple blossom (not really indigenous), clover (essentially the same as a Shamrock).  What to do?

Some genius in Wisconsin had a better idea – the “Apple Pie.” 

The National Emblem
What is the Matter with the American Apple Pie?
[From the Milwaukee Sentinel.]

What’s the matter with the apple pie as a national emblem? The apple pie grows in every section of our beloved country, varying in thickness and toughness of crust, it is true, but always characteristically American.  In the homes of New England, in the smack-houses of the South, on the lunch counters of the North, at the wayside stations of the towering Rockies – everywhere in this vast country the flaky or leathery crusts inclose the spiced fruit of the apple tree.  Every true American eats apple pie.  It is substantial, it is satisfying, it is hard to digest, and therefore it is no light a trifling symbol of the solid, satisfying and tenacious life of America.

Another thing in favor of the apple pie as a national emblem is that it is hated, reviled and feared by foreigners, just as our great Republic has been.  Like our free institutions, the apple pie has held its own against the world.  The French pate, the German coffee-cake, the English tart, the Scotch oat-cake, have all been offered as substitutes, but on every loyal table the apple pie holds its place of honor.

Apple pie is fit for all.  The sage and saint of Concord, Emerson, poet and philosopher, fed his mouse on pie three times a day; the business man rushes to the lunch counter for a piece of apple pie and a glass of milk; the laborer draws his piece of pie from his dinner pail as the crowning luxury of his meal.  The hope of the office-seeker is a salary that will give him pie seven days a week.

We should go further than to make the apple pie the national flower; we should embody in the Constitution of the United States a requirement that no foreign immigrant should receive his final papers of naturalization until he should eat an apple pie in the presence of the Court.  The most distinctively American flower is the apple pie, not excepting the doughnut.

Sacramento Daily Record-Union (California), July 13, 1889, page 8.

This editorial was not alone (if at all) responsible for elevating the Apple Pie to its status as a Symbol of America.  The apple pie was considered distinctively American long before the great-National Flower Debate of 1889.

In 1875, as the American Centennial celebration neared, one observer of pop-culture predicted the typical Americans of the future, during the American Bi-Centennial, would still be eating Apple Pie:

No good thing is destined to moderate use; so that the second centennial will probably see the typical American fiercely attacking a frightful triangle of apple pie, and washing it down with constant deluges from a glass crammed with ice and prospective stomach-ache.

The Daily Phoenix (Columbia, South Carolina), July 8, 1875, page 2.

One hundred years later, the prediction came true, as evidenced by Chevrolet’s “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” ad-campaign of 1975.


An American (Apple Pie) in Paris

In the 1860s, homesick Americans in Europe could get a taste of American Apple Pie in Paris:

The bill of fare in a Paris restaurant gives the following list of “American specialties”:

“Hot corn bread, stewed oysters, fried do., pickled do., oyster fritters, gingerbread, buckwheat cakes, apple dumplings, apple pie, mince pie, lemon pie, pumpkin pie, and all kinds of American pastry.


The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), April 21, 1866, page 1.

In the late-1870s, it was fashionable among certain classes to denounce pie, as something low-class; but those same critics might nevertheless stop by for and American apple pie in Paris:

A great many people think it savors of a life abroad to speak with horror of pie, although they were very likely the foremost of the Americans in Paris who used to speak with more enthusiasm of the America pie at Madame Busque’s than of the Venus of Milo.

Charles Dudley Warner, Backlog Studies, Boston, Osgood, 1878.

Standard European menus, it seems, did not satisfy the standard American palate:

Nothing in European dinners can compare with the American custards, puddings, and pies.  We are accused as a nation of having eaten too many sweets, and of having ruined our teeth thereby; but who that has languished in England over the insipid desserts at hotels, and the tooth-sharpeners called “sweets,” meaning tarts as sour as an east wind, has not sighed for an American pie?  In Paris the cakes are pretty to look at, but oh, how they break their promise when you eat them! Nothing but sweetened white of egg.  One thing they surpass us in, - omelette soufflé; and gateau St. Honore is good, but with that word of praise we dismiss the great French nation. . . .
But oh! There is “something more exquisite still,” and that is an apple pie.
Apple Pie.

All new dishes fade, the newest oft the fleetest;
Of all pies ever made, the apple’s still the sweetest.
Cut and come again, the syrup upward springing,
While life and taste remain, to thee my heart is clining.
Who a pie would make, first his apple slices,
Then he ought to take some cloves and best of spices,
Grate some lemon rind, butter add discreetly,
Then some sugar mix, but mine, - the pie not make too sweetly,
If a cook of taste be competent to make it,
In the finest paste he will enclose and bake it.”

During years of foreign travel I have never met a dish so perfect as the American apple pie can be, with cream.

M. E. W. Wherwood, The Art of Entertaining, New York, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1892.

The word got out; the Queen of England wanted a taste:



. . . and Rudyard Kipling loved American Apple Pie so much that his American wife bought a high-tech American rolling pin:


The Brownsville Daily Herald (Texas), October 14, 1903, page 4.
 . . . and the Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe (who first turned his nose up at the pie) was a convert:

Evening Star (Washington DC), September 17, 1904.



As American as Apple Pie

The earliest example of the expression, “as American as Apple Pie,” that I could find is from 1910; in a review of Winchell Smith’s play, Bobby Burnit:

Bobby Burnit. By Winchell Smith

For a long time Mr. George Randolph Chester has been delighting the readers of the Saturday Evening Post with the type of young American who regards life as a holiday affair until he gets to the end of his string, but who then braces up and proves himself a great deal of a man.  The latest of these creations is “Bobby Burnit” and Mr. Winchell Smith has made a play out of his adventures . . . .  [I]t is full of satisfying humor without a dull spot and is as American as apple pie.

Metropolitan Magazine, Volume 33, Number 1, October 1910.

The expression appears in print numerous times throughout the 1920s; the earliest in March 1920.  A  case-study of how the town of Chester, Pennsylvania successfully assimilated foreign-born workers into the community during a World War I surge in wartime production, suggested one method of Americanizing the great unwashed – let them take showers, “it’s as American as Apple Pie”:



Baths are as characteristically American as apple pie. Chester started Americanizing its foreigners by letting them use the shower baths in the school houses.




Another early example of the expression in print noted that early German successes on the battlefield in World War I had been the result of American tactics:

It is rather interesting to know that something of the perfection of the German mobilization and of the swift smash through Belgium and northern France was due to the use the Germans made of ideas as American as apple pie.

The Sun and The New York Herald, April 4, 1920, page 88. [i]

The expression may have gained steam during World War I; perhaps inspired by the homesick nostalgia of American troops serving “Over There”:


Out of the ruck and din of war has come the news that the apple pie is coming into its own and I am glad.

Today, the old apple pie, the favorite of my boyhood and your boyhood and girlhood, is being acclaimed as the king of pastry in foreign lands as well as the United States.  A king has tasted of it and approved; it is now known to be the favorite pastry of Gen. Pershing, commander of the American expeditionary forces; soldiers at the front are being supplied with it by Salvation Army lassies, and here at home it is being praised by returning soldiers as one of the staffs of life of the battlefield.  Of recent date I heard it praised in a street speech and since I have read of its European triumph in newspapers and magazines.

The Sun and The New York Herald, April 4, 1920, page 88. [i]


Once again, you could get a slice of American Apple Pie in Paris:


Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), September 13, 1918, page 12.

There is no spot in Paris where the men in olive drab find more real enjoyment than in this clubhouse [(the Y. M. C. A.)].  To begin with, it is one of the few places where it is possible to get a piece of genuine American pie, the real New England national dish.

France has many culinary attainments to her credit, but up to date she has not succeeded in achieving an American pie.  The soldiers always weep for joy when they first encounter this homely article of food.

Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), September 13, 1918, page 12.

Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter-in-law is said to have had a hand in bringing the apple pie to the Paris Y. M. C. A.:

Apple pie, such as mother made, was the attraction that drew a hungry lot of young Americans in uniform to the canteen of the Y. M. C. A. one day last week. . . .   The American women who every afternoon devote themselves to serving the boys in uniform decided that peach ice cream, raspberry water ice, cakes of all descriptions and richness, soft drinks of many flavors – some quite unexpected – did not quite make the boys feel at home.  What was lacking? Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who is one of the most active waitresses at the canteen, searched for the answer. Why pie, of course!

But this is Paris, where pie is unknown, that is to say real pie.  One can buy the most delicious fruit tarts, but they have no upper crust, and who ever heard of mother baking a pie with only a lower crust?  The bakers and confectioners who supplied the cakes and tarts decided to experiment, but at a pension frequented by Americans the “jewel of a cook” was found.  Assisted by some of the canteen workers, she baked the pies in the morning; that afternoon she was an Immortal, so said the American boys who ate them.

The Sun (New York), October 17, 1917, page 14.

And, it wasn't just in Paris; the soldiers could also get Apple Pie (and doughnuts) at the front:



New York Tribune, May 18, 1918, page 3.


Similar stories played themselves out in other locations:



Harrisburg Telegraph, July 1, 1918, page 8.

And, it wasn’t just Americans overseas who saw apple pies as something distinctively American; foreigners visiting the United States thought so too:

M. Edwards, of Johannesburg, South Africa, who dined often and well at the Hotel Belleclaire during his stay in New York, was so impressed with our Apple Pie that when he sailed for home on the steamship “City of Calcutta” Friday, August 17, he took with him two Belleclaire Apple Pies, calculating that they would last him about five days, on the basis of eating three pieces a day.

Mr. Edwards is some apple pie eater!  He thinks our Apple Pie is the greatest dish he ever ate.  He told us before sailing “Your Apple Pie almost persuadeth me to become an American.”

New York Tribune, September 2, 1917, page 54.



American Pies

In 1917, pie, generally, was considered “The National Dish,” and Apple Pies, in particular, had long been the king of American pies:

The National Dish.

The pie holds the center of the American table.  Its priceless influence on the national life cannot be measured.  It has sustained us through wars, politics, administrations, plague and panic. . . . It has gladdened every feast.  Who can count the meals that have been brightened by the pie!

Evening Star, January 20, 1917, page 6.

Chicago’s Mouth for Pie.

According to the statistical fiend Chicago eats 300,000 pies a day . . . .  There are nineteen standard kinds of pie, but apple takes the cake. . . .   Americans eat more pie than foreigners, but the men from New England take the lead in eating pie.  Pie and milk is their favorite lunch.

The Daily Astorian (Astor, Oregon), December 3, 1885, page 1.

A Pie Factory.

Popularity of a Distinctively American Pastry.
Three Hundred Thousand Gothamites Addicted to Its Daily Use.

The apples are the staple of most of the factory-made pies . . . .

No other country has the same advantages as America in this respect, and the “tarts” of England and pastries of France have never been able to rival the popular and economical qualities of the American pie. – New York Graphic.

The Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, South Carolina), March 7, 1888, page 3.


Why is Apple Pie “American”?

Long before the United States existed, at least one British poet loved him some Apple pie – or pye:

Apple Pye: A Poem, by Dr. King

Of all the Delicates which Britons try,
To please the Palate, or delight the Eye;
Of all the several Kinds of Sumptuous Fare;
There’s none that can with Apple-Pye compare,
For costly Flavour, or substantial Paste,
For outward Beauty, or for inward Taste.


The Art of Dress. A Poem, London, Printed for R. Burleigh, in Amen-Corner, 1717.

So what’s so American about Apple Pies? 

The popularity of Apple Pie in the United States may be the result of several factors; sugar, apples and crust.  The Untied States was a major sugar producer, whereas Europe could only import their sugar.  Sugar may therefore have been cheaper, and the pies sweeter.  Although apples were not indigenous to North America, the earliest colonists brought apple seeds and cuttings with them; and westward-travelling settlers brought apples and apple trees with them.  Entrepreneurs like Johnny Appleseed also spread the gospel of apples.  The United States is still the second largest apple producer in the world, behind only China.  

Finally, the popularity of Apple Pie in the United States may have benefitted from good-old American ingenuity – a bottom crust. An informal review of a representative sampling of several American and British cookbooks from the first half of the nineteenth century reveals a marked contrast between British “pies” and American “pies.”  British cookbooks describe pies, including apple pies, in which the filling is placed directly in an unlined pan and covered with a single, upper crust.[ii]  American cookbooks, on the other hand, distinguish between “pies” and “pot pies.”  In making “pies,” the pan is first lined with a bottom crust, then filled and covered with an upper-crust; for “pot pies,” like British “pies,” the filling is placed directly into the unlined pan or “pot” and covered with a single, upper-crust.[iii]   


Whether these differences hold across all early British cookbooks and all early American cookbooks may be answered better by a culinary historian; but the first several of both types of cookbooks I looked through were all in agreement.  Two crusts - it's as American as Apple Pie; perhaps it's what makes Apple "Pies" American.


George Washington – Father of Our Country – Father of Our Pie?

I cannot tell a lie – George Washington is the Father of American Apple Pie.  OK, it’s just a little fib; but this, perhaps overly-patriotic account of the origin of American Apple Pie from the early 1900s credits Washington's cook with the innovation:

The First Apple Pie

George Washington gave the American colonies freedom and independence. . . . But George Washington’s unknown cook first gave the world something in his own line that is still peculiar to America – apple pie.

“Pie” almost anywhere in the world but America, means a meat pie, even today.  English cooks make what they call a “tart” that is the nearest approach to the American pie, - a mess of fruit cooked in a soup plate and covered with a thin crust, tender, but not crisp and flakey.  Even with the help of skilled cooks, this “tart” is a long, long way from the culinary perfection of the American pie.

It may seem like a pretty farfetched claim to the credit of Washington’s camp cook but one of Washington’s own letters makes mention of the experiment, and those familiar with culinary history say that if the apple pie mentioned was not really the very first apple pie ever made, it was close to it.  In a letter to a friend, Washington says:

Of late he [(the cook)] has had the surprising sagacity to discover that apples will make pies; and it is a question, if, in the violence of his efforts we do not get one of the apples instead of having both of beefsteak.  If the ladies can put up with such an entertainment, and will submit to partake of it on plates, once tin but now iron (not become so by the labor of scouring), I shall be happy to see them; and am, dear doctor, yours, etc. – George Washington.”

The Minneapolis Journal, February 25, 1906, The Journal Junior, page 56.

It may not be true, but the story at least reflects the perceived differences between American Apple Pie and other pies of the world; and tries to tie the most American pie to the most American hero.  I wonder whether George Washington could throw an Apple Pie across the Potomac?

Abraham Lincoln is also tied to Apple Pie lore.  In a cooking video on History.com’s “Hungry History” series, a chef demonstrating how to bake an Apple Pie claims that, “Historians believe that the phrase, ‘as American as Apple Pie,’ was coined by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.”  It is possible, I suppose, but it may just be apocryphal.  Whether historians actually believe it or not another question. 

Another apocryphal Lincoln story suggests that when he greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on her visit to the White House during the Civil War, he asked her whether she was the woman who wrote the book that started the war; which brings us back to Harriet's brother, Henry Ward Beecher, whose words opened this piece.  He wrote lovingly of Apple Pie on several occasions, in words that may may reflect the mood of American public, in general, vis-a-vis pie; which could help explain how and why the Apple Pie is so revered:

[B]lessed be the unknown person who invented the apple-pie! Did I know where the grave of that person was, methinks I would make a devout pilgrimage thither, and rear a monument over it that should mark the spot to the latest generations.  Of all pies, of every name, the apple-pie is easily the first and chief.[iv]

Apple-Pie should be eaten while it is yet florescent, white or creamy yellow, with the merest drip of candied juice along the edges (as if the flavor were so good to itself that its own lips watered!), of a mild and modest warmth; the sugar suggesting jelly, yet not jellied; the morsels of apple neither dissolved, nor yet in original substance, but hanging, as it were, in a trance between the spirit and the flesh of applehood.[v]

Not that apple is no longer apple! It, too, is transformed; and the final pie, though born of apple, sugar, butter, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon, is unlike none of these, but the ideal of them all, refined, purified, and by fire fixed in blissful perfection.[vi]


 Or, maybe it just tastes good.


[i] Barry Popik’s online etymology dictionary, The Big Apple, lists another numerous other historical examples.
[ii] John Simpson, A Complete System of Cookery on a Plan Entirely New, London, W. Steward, 1816; William Kitchiner, The Cook’s Oracle, London, Cadell, 1827; Robert Huish, The Female’s Friend, and General Domestic Adviser, London, G. Virtue, 1837; The Young Cook’s Assistant, Being a Selection of Economical Receipts and Directions, Adapted to the use of Families in the Middle Rank of Life, edited by a Clergyman’s Daughter, London, John Johnstone, 1848.
[iii] Elizabeth Putnam, Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book: and Young Housekeeper’s Assistant, Boston, Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1850; E. A. Howland, The New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1845; H. L. Barnum, Family Receipts, or Practical Guide for the Husbandman and Housewife, Cincinnati, A. B. Roff, 1831.
[iv] Samuel B. Halliday, Henry Ward Beecher: A Sketch of His Career, Hartford, Connecticut, American Publishing Company, 1887, page 583.
[v] Eleanor Maria (Easterbrook) Ames, Beecher as a Humorist, New York, Fords, Howard and Hulbert, 1887, page 28.
[vi] Proceedings of the Meeting of the New York Horticultural Society, 1901, page 57.