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The Debunker: How American is Apple Pie?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: How American Is Apple Pie?

More pie is eaten in America on Thanksgiving than on any other holiday. Pumpkin pie, which was eaten at the second Plymouth Thanksgiving feast in 1623, is the number one choice nationwide, with 44% of respondents in a 2012 poll choosing it as their holiday favorite. Apple pie, at 22 %, was a distant second, but it’s the dessert most inseparably connected with other American ideals, like Mom and baseball. Just how American is apple pie?

Historically, not so much. The English were eating apple pie as far back as 1390, according to a cookbook in scroll form produced by the chefs of King Richard II. (But since sugar wasn’t widely available in Europe at the time, the recipe doesn’t use any. Instead: saffron! And, even worse, raisins.) Just a century later, the Dutch were making apple pies almost identical to our modern recipes, even down to the lattice crust.

Apple pie didn’t become a distinctly American symbol until much later—around the end of the 19th century, in fact. The expression “as American as apple pie” is attested back to 1921, but didn’t take off until World War II, when U.S. troops routinely said they were fighting for Mom and apple pie. Earlier Americans, like the Mayflower pilgrims, never ate apple pie. Why? Because all the apple trees in the New World were sour crab apples, and apples only caught on here once fruit trees—and bumblebees to pollinate them—were introduced from Europe. But I guess there’s no reason why a nation of immigrants shouldn’t embrace a foreign dessert as its national dish. After all, motherhood and baseball came over from England as well. Jason Biggs, you have a grateful nation’s permission to go for that pie.

Quick Quiz: The lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” remind us that the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper happened in what month?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.