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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Boggs: American As Apple Pie

With the weather turning cold, and Thanksgiving coming ever closer, I think about apple pie.

We've taken the kids apple picking. We've filled more brown bags with apples than we can reasonably eat all winter.

I laugh at how acculturated I have become to these New England ways, which for our children and for my husband are second nature. They themselves are “American as apple pie.”

I'm always a bit puzzled by this expression. For starters, I'm not sure that we even all agree on what we mean by apple pie. Sure, it’s pretty easy to say that you need apples and a crust, and once you have those – voilà, apple pie. But there is such tremendous variety when it comes to apple pies.

Do they have a lattice or a top crust? With what sugars or syrups are they sweetened? Is it “just” apple, or also something else – cranberries? Nuts? And which apples – Cortland? Jona Gold? Macintosh?

I like most pies, and my favorites include apple, pecan, and key lime. But when it comes to apple pie, I am very picky. I only like my mother’s apple pie. And since she lives far away, I have made up my own version of her apple pie.

Our apple pie does not have an upper crust, and not even a lattice top. Instead, it has a brown sugar crumble. The crust has to be ultra thin. That’s all my kids will eat, too.

We say “American as apple pie,” but we all mean different things by that. If we are fortunate to come from families that have maintained the seasonal traditions of baking and cooking, it probably means a family recipe that is particular to us, that makes us American by connecting us through the generations, around a shared sense of tradition.

But those traditions, and that sense of connection take about as many different forms as the pies themselves. My mother taught herself to bake apple pies so my father wouldn’t be homesick living in Germany. She made apple pies so that he would have a taste of home, even though we lived far away.

Apple pie was something that made us feel American. It also made us different from our German neighbors. It gave us an opportunity to come together as a family, and also to reach out and invite others into our unique traditions.

I think that there is something uniquely American about apple pie. But being “American as apple pie” is not some uniform thing. What makes apple pie uniquely American is its variety, and the sense that we share this variety with one another, particularly this Thanksgiving season.

Colleen Glenney Boggs is a Professor of English at Dartmouth College, whose area of expertise is American literature. She is also the director of the Leslie Humanities Center.
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