Unknown Menaces to Civilization #6: Apple Pie
To be sure, though, this reprehensible confection commands attention primarily as one aspect of a larger problem that has tormented the American conscience for so long that it now represents a national obsession we must face, and overcome. Its origins are unclear, but one factor may have been a legendary figure named John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Once celebrated in American history books in the days when they actually mentioned white males, he was purportedly so enamored of apples that he dedicated his life to traveling all over the country, polluting the landscape with scattered apple seeds so that no American citizen would ever be deprived of his favorite treat. It is interesting to speculate about how American history might have been changed if Chapman had instead been a big fan of marijuana, but even his seemingly more innocuous fixation would have its own ruinous effects.
For, whether due to his herculean efforts on behalf of the fruit, or to other natural factors, America has always been lousy with apples.
Every autumn, scores of citizens found themselves burdened with an overabundance of apples and confronted the dilemma of finding something to do with them; and their amazingly varied responses stand as a tribute to American ingenuity as well as American frugality and sheer stubbornness, for it seems that nobody ever suggested that all of the excess apples could simply be thrown away.
One obvious answer was to encourage people to eat as many apples as possible, as often as possible. Since there are health benefits to be gained from eating all sorts of fruits, including oranges and bananas, you may have wondered why it came to be said that "An apple a day / keeps the doctor away," singling out that one fruit as the universal panacea. The reason, of course, is other fruits were often hard to find, while American households were constantly filled with mountains of ripe apples that needed to be eaten. (This bromide, by the way, has been repeatedly updated to relate the purported benefits of apples to current health concerns; thus, in June, 2012, MSNBC was reporting that eating an apple a day could help reduce obesity.) And why were American children so often encouraged to give an "apple to the teacher"? It meant that there was one less apple around for harried mothers to deal with. On one Thanksgiving Day, a mother who couldn't think of anything else to do with them decided to chop up some apples and add them to the stuffing of her turkey, and thus an otherwise inexplicable tradition was born.
To achieve the goal of reducing the numbers of apples in America, no strategy was too bizarre. Did you know that elephants love apples, and that one elephant can eat up to 500 apples per day? Have you noticed that virtually every zoo in America includes several elephants? Do you really think this is a coincidence?
As another strategy to get rid of apples, desperate Americans began to mash them into a mush and turn them into a beverage, "apple cider." It didn't taste particularly good, but by adding some sugar and spices and heating it up, people were somehow able to persuade themselves that it was the perfect drink for a cold winter's night, even though virtually any hot beverage would have had the same effect. Enlisted in the constant struggle to use up apples, men discovered that apple cider could be made to ferment into an alcoholic beverage, "hard cider," which was an unsurprising development because constantly having to cope with a barn full of apples is enough to drive any man to drink.
There were also efforts to promote eating apples as a special treat. Take, for example, that bizarre ritual from America's past, the Halloween game of "bobbing for apples." It would be difficult indeed to make contemporary youth understand the principles underlying this seemingly idiotic activity: "You see, you put all these apples in a big tub of water, and your hands are tied behind your back, and the goal of the game is to pick up an apple using only your teeth."
"Okay, but what's the prize?"
"Uh . . . . you get to eat the apple."
"Yeah. Right." For in a world of doughnuts and Ding Dongs, children easily recognize that apples are not particularly tasty, all propaganda to the contrary.
And, since even children in the nineteenth century quickly grew resistant to constantly eating apples, it was decided to foist them upon the most vulnerable and ignorant consumers available—babies. Thus, mothers squashed apples to make "applesauce" for their little ones, and a more filtered form of apple cider, "apple juice," was vigorously promoted as the ideal beverage for young palates unaware of superior alternatives.
To persuade their older—and wiser—children to consume more apples, mothers were forced to devise methods of making apples sweeter and more like candy and other genuine treats. One result was that strange product, the "caramel apple" or the "candy apple," produced by dipping apples into vats of liquid caramel and then sprinkling the hardened coating with nuts. Modern versions substitute multicolored flakes of hardened sugar to make them look more like scrumptious treats and less like … apples.
But the most celebrated sweetened apple product, to finally address my ostensible topic, was the unduly beloved apple pie. Mothers found that they could slice up apples, smother them in sugar, place them inside a pie crust, and bake them to create something that their children might actually eat. Variations on the basic pattern, such as apple cobbler and apple crisp, soon became staple items of dreary school lunch menus, as many adults of a certain age will unhappily recall.
Now, many will protest at this point that they really love the taste of apple pie—and why not? Let's face it, if you dump mounds of sugar on anything, bake it inside a pie crust, and smother it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, it will probably taste pretty good. Indeed, the same trick works with the horrendous, inedible gunk found inside of pumpkins, another overabundant fruit that Americans have long struggled to find uses for. The fact that people eat apple pies, then, doesn't mean that making pies out of apples is necessarily a good idea, or that this represents the best possible use of flour and sugar. And one might further question the extent to which people truly relish their apple pies: hey, if it's all so delicious, one might critically ask, why do you always feel compelled to pile whipped cream or ice cream on top of it?
But apple pies did have the virtue of getting rid of a lot of apples, children could be counted on to consume them, and the great labors involved in their preparation helped to transform the apple pie into the ultimate symbol of motherly love and American family values. Thus, a delicious apple pie being taken out of the oven made the Hardy Boys cherish their usually intolerable Aunt Gertrude, and the same gesture virtually defined the sitcom family of the 1950s. Untold thousands of American mothers devoted hours of labor to slicing apples and making pie crusts to cover them, convinced that such efforts were virtually essential in order to demonstrate their devotion to their children and their patriotic fervor. Later, when McDonalds began to offer some desserts, one logical choice to emphasize the wholesome appeal of its otherwise unhealthy menu was a miniature apple pie. Thus, this expedient solution to the longstanding problem of unwanted apples somehow became enshrined as part of an American trio of icons elevated to a stature beyond the possibility of criticism: no one could possibly be opposed, it was said, to "motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag."
Now, finally, there is someone brave enough, and stupid enough, to defy these false gods, and leaving the deficiencies of motherhood and the American flag to be dealt with some other day, I address the problem of the ubiquitous apple pie and say, in the words of George H. W. Bush, "This scourge must end."
Americans must stop living in the past. Today, we live in a world defined by globalization; instead of dedicating ourselves to eradicating our perpetual oversupply of apples, we can simply ship them to potential consumers all over the world, just as we can import their different fruits to provide our diets with more variety. We don't have to squash our apples to make men drunk or quench our babies' thirst; we don't have to coat our apples with caramel to make our children eat them. And if even the starving children of Africa express no interest in our apples, we are prosperous enough to throw them away without any sense of guilt.
And, after taking these steps, we can appropriately limit ourselves to making pies out of fruits like cherries and strawberries that actually taste sweet before one adds several cups of sugar and do not require coatings of flavored cream to make them palatable. We can stop persuading ourselves that we like a treat solely because it has improperly been designated as a defining aspect of the American experience. Along with Johnny Appleseed himself, we can toss the apple pie out of our history books, forget that it ever existed, and move toward a future of eating only genuinely appealing desserts.
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