The History of Pie in America

Cakes are big on birthdays, cookies are best with milk, and a late-night tub of ice cream can cure almost any bad day. However, it’s the “pie” that has woven its way into our American food culture, becoming a symbol of home, tradition, and plenty. Pies are the ultimate home-baked treat; the smell of a freshly baked pie cooling on the windowsill is etched in the memory of many Americans. It’s become such a national symbol of our food heritage that a familiar phrase was coined: “As American as apple pie.”

Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” tastes an orange chiffon pie with master pie maker Monroe Boston Strause (Pie Marches On, 1939)

A pie is a baked dish made with a pastry dough casing, filled with various sweet or savory ingredients. While the world history of pie stretches all the way back to ancient Egypt, today I’m going to focus on the American history of pie. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink gives a great overview of how the early American settlers adapted their native pie traditions to their new homeland.

The surrounding countryside offered the newcomers a rich array of fillings, not only fruits and berries that were akin to those they knew back home but also unknown vegetables and game they discovered with the help of Indians. The Pilgrims brought apple spurs with them as well, and when they matured into flourishing fruit-bearing trees, apple pie quickly dominated the American table because the abundant fruit was easy to dry and store in barrels during the winter.

In addition to pies being a delicious treat, settlers also had practical reasons for making them. Pies used less flour than bread and could be easily and cheaply baked. They provided a sustainable food source that could be rationed out to hungry immigrants.

Pie continued to sustain early Americans as they settled the west. Once pioneers found land to claim as their own, their pies began to reflect the regional differences of the areas where they settled. Pumpkin pies and pies sweetened with maple syrup were enjoyed in northern states, where Native Americas taught new settlers how to extract sap from maple trees. In Maine, the plentiful blueberry crops were often baked into pies, and over time blueberry pie became the official dessert of that state.

“Chess pie” was popular in the South—a silky pie with a rich filling of sugar, cream or buttermilk, egg, and sometimes bourbon. The Pennsylvania Dutch made molasses “shoofly” pies, as well as stew-like savory meat pies known as “bott boi,” or pot pie. Settlers in Florida, utilizing the plentiful local citrus, turned native limes into key lime pie. The state of New Hampshire became known for its fried hand pies, quaintly called “crab lanterns.” The Midwest, famous for its dairy farms, favored cheese and cream pies. French immigrants to New Orleans created the pecan pie after the Native Americans introduced them to pecans. Massachusetts invented the beloved Boston Cream Pie, a hybrid pie-cake. This colorful variety of pies reflects the diverse tapestry of early American culture. If one wanted to, one could tell the story of our nation through pie.

During the mid 1800’s, the pie craze in America cooled off. With early concerns for diet and nutrition, the heaviness of pie dough was looked down upon. In the Victorian American cookbook “The Good Housekeeper,” written in 1841, author Sarah Josepha Hale describes the danger of eating too much pie:

Pies are more apt to prove injurious to persons of delicate constitutions than puddings, because of the indigestible nature of the pastry. Those who eat much of this kind of food, when made rich, (and poor pies are poor things indeed,) usually complain of the loss of appetite, and feel a disrelish for any kind but high-seasoned food. It would really be a great improvement in the matter of health…if people would eat their delicious summer fruits with good light bread instead of working up the flour with water and butter to a compound that almost defies the digestive powers, and baking therein the fruits, till they lose nearly all their fine original flavor.

Sounds like Sarah never ate a really good piece of pie! Wish I could invite her over to my house for dessert so I could change her mind. I’ve got two gorgeous pies cooling in the kitchen as I write this…

Along with diet, women joining the work force contributed to the decline, and pie-making went from abundant to occasional. But pies never disappeared completely, and after World War II they rebounded. Modern food advances made pie making easier with the advent of shortening, ready-made crusts, box mixes, and instant pudding.

By the early 1980’s, pies were “rediscovered” as Americans explored their culinary roots, and they eventually made a successful comeback into American food culture. Now pies are embraced and celebrated as a symbol of America’s abundance. In fact, one of the most popular days for baking and eating pies in America is the 4th of July, our nation’s birthday.

I’ll leave you with this. On February 3, 1959, a small plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. The accident killed three American rock and roll icons: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Their pilot, Roger Peterson, also perished. American singer-songwriter Don McLean called it The Day The Music Died, in his famous song—one of my all time favorites—“American Pie.”


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About Tori Avey

Tori Avey acts as editor and curator of The History Kitchen, where she shares her own food history writing and seeks out creative contributors from throughout the culinary world. Tori also writes an award-winning kosher food blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen. She explores the story behind the food – why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. Read more...
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Category: History

Comments (18)Post a Comment

  1. carol says:

    no recipe???

  2. Kevin says:

    Love this blog! — Great Job!
    Happy 4th!

  3. Love your pictures,blog and writing :)
    That pie looks delicious looking forward to the recipe! :D

  4. Ann says:

    Great pie history….I’m a fan of pies! Have a great 4th!

  5. Cool post on the pie history, learned something new here. Enjoyed the read and the tasty pictures-happy 4th

  6. Pingback: Old Fashioned All-Butter Pie Crust | The Shiksa Blog

  7. Julie says:

    I’ve happened upon your blog recently and I always learn something about it. Love this pie one. Grew up on Grandma Luella Mortenson’s baked peach pie. Better than any birthday cake in the summer!

  8. Mark L says:

    Great blog… I’ve also heard it said that the rise of pie is linked to the rise and fall of the temperance movement.. prior to the mid-to-late 19th century, most apples were used for hard cider. As the temperance movement gained ground, people had all these extra apples sitting around and made desserts out of them. Then when the temperance movement lost its steam, the cities began to fill with German immigrants, who popularized beer, and cider lost out as the tipple of choice.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Does anyone have a recipe for something like Spry Pastry
    mix recipe. When you are short on time, that would be perfect
    especially now. Prices on frozen ready made pie crust have gone thru the ceiling. Any ideas on a recipe for this. Love this Blog. Lots of ideas here. Love the recipes as well. Have to do some experimental cooking, can’t use sugar except Splenda or
    find recipes that don’t have sugar. Thanks, Elizabeth

  10. Carmen Hernandez - Ochoa says:

    Really now! You’re not including a recipe? Shame on you.

  11. Prissnboot says:

    Here’s your recipe:

    A long long time ago
    (I can still remember
    how that apple used to make me smile).

    And I knew if I had my chance
    I could make them laugh and prance
    And maybe they’d be happy for a while.

    But February made me shiver
    With every pot pie I delivered.
    Bad news on the doorstep
    The milkman, he got strep.

    I can’t remember if I cried
    When I read about his widowed bride
    But something touched me deep inside
    The day
    I made my

    So let’s bake some American Pie
    Drive the Chevy to the levy
    Where they bake the good rye.
    And good ol’ Shiksas were baking Blackberry Pie
    And singing…..


  12. bindy says:

    hello. i am looking for Marjorie Mills Pecan Pie recipe. It may be from the 70′s and is fabulous. I lost it in a move. Can anyone help? Thanks.

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