News and Tribune

November 29, 2013

STAWAR: Mom and Apple Pie

Local columnist

— Nothing can beat the stress of today’s Black Friday shopping better than some leftover Thanksgiving dessert.

While a lot of people try out new recipes for Thanksgiving, tradition dictates that pie must be served for dessert, especially pumpkin, apple, pecan or regional favorites like sweet potato or butter cream.

Last November, in the Huffington Post, food writer Dominique Zamora posted a literal pie chart that showed America’s favorite Thanksgiving pies. To my surprise, apple pie nudged out both pumpkin and pecan for top honors. Not a big fan of the traditional Thanksgiving feast, Zamora wrote, “Keep your oversized birds and your baby food side dishes. Sit me down with a hot, hunking piece of apple pie a la mode and I’m set for the winter.”

 Perhaps it is only fitting that apple is so high on the list, since here in Indiana, apples as well as pumpkins, are common symbols of autumn and harvest time. Indiana has more than 4,000 acres of orchards and produces about 1.2 million apples annually. The state is especially known for its Golden and Red Delicious apples, which are among the best-tasting in the country.

Apple pie has long been considered America’s favorite dessert. During World War II, when American soldiers overseas were asked by journalists, what they were fighting for — the stock answer was “mom and apple pie.”

The phrase has come to stand for universal American values, as in the phrase, “As American as baseball, hot dogs, motherhood, and apple pie,” which even found its way into a Chevrolet commercial in the mid-1970s, as well as a similar recent version from Chevy. The state of Virginia has celebrated a “Motherhood and Apple Pie Day” on Jan. 26 since 1950.

As a child, my family always had pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, while apple was reserved for the big show — Christmas. My mother made the whipped cream herself, since my father considered the whipped cream that came in pressurized cans as way too fancy and expensive for the likes of us.

While my parents were usually overly generous when it came to portion size, for some reason the amount of whipped cream allocated to each piece of pumpkin pie was always carefully rationed. They were stingier with whipped cream than the British are with ice cubes. This probably accounts for why I can never be trusted with the whipped cream to this day. Currently, our family dessert tradition calls for pumpkin and pecan pie on Thanksgiving and then apple and mincemeat for Christmas.

There are a lot of opinions and much spirited debate over what apple variety makes the best pie. This seems largely a matter of how sweet or tart you want the pie to taste, and what appearance and texture you prefer. My wife Diane, for example, likes her apples cooked down, and whenever possible we have used McIntosh apples for the past several years.

 J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who writes a weekly column titled The Food Lab, has tested the pie-making qualities of 10 of the most common American apple cultivars. He apologizes if your favorite apple didn’t make the list, noting that there are more than 7,500 known varieties of apples.

He tested Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, McIntosh, Red Delicious, Rome and Royal Gala for pie-making appropriateness. Considering factors such as sweetness, tartness, texture, skin thickness and bitterness, graininess, mushiness and color, Lopez-Alt rated each apple on a scale of 1 to 10 for its pie-making qualities. With a rating of eight out 10, Golden Delicious apples topped his list, followed by the Braeburn with a rating of seven. Gala received a score of six and Granny Smith a five.

Our favorite, the McIntosh, only scored a measly three. He described them as “sweet and mildly tart” but also “grainy, brown and mushy.” His rather dubious conclusion was that McIntosh were only suited for apple sauce and hand-eating. Apple sauce, indeed.

Feelings can run rather high regarding apple preferences. At least our beloved McIntosh rated higher than the pathetic Red Delicious, which only scored a single point when it came to pies. As a purist, Lopez-Alt also rejects the notion of mixing apple varieties so that some apples provide the desired texture, while other give the pie the desired flavor. He sees it as getting the worst of both worlds, rather than the best.

According to the archeological evidence, humans have been being eating apples for more than 8,500 years. The average American consumes about 65 apples a year, or around 45 pounds.

Apples are grown in every state with the top three apple producing states in the U.S. being: Washington, New York and Michigan. Indiana usually falls around 13th among the states in apple production. According to the Indiana Department of Agriculture, there are 72 apple orchards in the state. The website identifies two orchards in our general vicinity; the Blue River Orchard in Washington County and the Huber Orchard and Winery in Floyd County.

When I was a child back in Illinois, we had a green apple tree in our backyard, but despite my father’s fondest wish, the apples were far too sour for eating and not much better for pies. I’m not sure we realized that the best apples for eating were propagated through grafting and that root stock seldom produced very edible fruit.

Foodie and journalist Michael Pollan devotes the entire first chapter of his best-seller, “The Botany of Desire,” to the history of the apple. My father’s rogue apple tree must have been what Pollan calls a “wilding” or “seedling.” These are trees that are grown directly from seeds.

The genetics of apples are such that seedlings do not resemble the parent tree and the fruit from seedlings is almost always inedible. Pollan says that American transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau claimed that he personally like the taste of wilding apples, but most Americans used such apples only for hard cider, up until Prohibition. Thoreau once wrote that these apples were sour enough, “to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.”

By the 1830s, John Chapman — better known as Johnnie Appleseed — had created a chain of seedling nurseries from western Pennsylvania all the way to Indiana. These apple trees that Chapman planted provided fruit that was almost exclusively destined for the hard cider mills, a fact typically omitted from the usual Johnnie Appleseed myth told to children. In fact, since Chapman’s apple trees provided a cheap source of alcohol for the frontier, he has been called the “American Dionysus,” after the Greek god who brought the gift of wine to mankind.

Pollan writes, “The identification of the apple with notions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s …”

Evidently, this was done to rebrand the apple, which the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other prohibitionist groups had vigorously attacked as promoting alcoholic degeneracy. With the ratification of the 18th Amendment and the beginning of prohibition a year later in 1920, Americans suddenly no longer drank their apples.

Ironically, our major source of alcoholic beverages, since early colonial times, evolved to become the main ingredient in that symbol of sober wholesomeness — the All-American apple pie — our Thanksgiving favorite.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at