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More American Food Histories

My post last week about American food history was well received, so since we still don’t know the election’s winner for sure, I’ve decided to tell two more food histories.

Apple Pie

You’ve heard the phrase "as American as apple pie", but did you know that apple pie isn’t really all that American? The first apple pie recipe is from England in 1381 and was printed by Geoffrey Chaucer. There is also evidence of Dutch apple pies from 1514, and it was Dutch bakers who create the lattice-style crust typically used today. The first mention of an American apple pie recipe is from 1697. Then in 1796, Amelia Simmons included two similar recipes in her book "American Cookery", which is considered to be the first American cookbook. Despite apple pie clearly originating outside of the US, settlers decided that apple pie was a uniquely American food.

We don’t know the exact origin of the apple crop, but Alexander the Great did write about the fruit in what is now Kazakhstan in 328 BCE. European explorers brought apple seeds with them and produced new varieties here. At one point, 17,000 types of apples were being produced in the US. The crop was useful because the trees are efficient to grow, they don’t require much maintenance, and they can be harvested in October long after most other crops are harvested.

The only type of apple native to the US is the crabapple, which is smaller and more bitter than the apples typically used in recipes. Initially, Americans used apples to make cider. The exact variety of apple doesn’t matter too much in making a decent-tasting drink. In fact, John Chapman - known as Johnny Appleseed - mainly cultivated crabapples for cider. Before refrigeration methods were created, all cider was hard cider. It first became popular in England in the late 16th century because it was safe to drink, like beer and ale, but was easier to make than those drinks because brewing cider doesn’t require heat. This made cider more popular when wood became scarce in England.

A PR campaign was needed during prohibition, when alcoholic cider was not an option and farmers needed a new market for their apple crops. Before this, apples were not commonly eaten, so farmers began breeding apples that were harder, redder, rounder, and sweeter to increase their appeal.

During World War II, apple pie became a national symbol. Journalists asking soldiers why they were fighting were told it was "for mom and apple pie". The actual phrase "as American as apple pie" can be traced back to a 1924 advertisement for Lestz Suits, but the saying came back around during the war and has been used ever since.

Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese is another classic American food, but its origins are also murky.

The 1861’s "Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management", there was a recipe for macaroni and cheese that mentions it being "a favourite food of Italy". In 1873, Alexandre Dumas’s "Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine" was published posthumously. That book says macaroni and cheese is originally from Naples and was brought further north by Catherine de Medici in the 1530s when she moved from Italy to France to marry King Henry II. The only problem with the claims of Italian origin made by Beeton and Dumas is that the extensive records of Italian pasta making do not mention a hollow pasta like macaroni being made in Naples in that time. We do know another version of the dish existed, as the earliest written recipe for mac ’n’ cheese was written in the 14th century in the Liber de Coquina, but it was not the kind of food we know today.

The earliest recipe for our modern version of the dish appeared in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book "The Experienced English Housekeeper". It’s not known for sure if the story is true, but legend says that Thomas Jefferson is responsible for bringing macaroni and cheese to the US. He ate the dish for the first time while visiting France and had noodle recipes and a pasta machine shipped home. When he was president in 1802, he served macaroni and cheese at a state dinner. Before you ask - no, Yankee Doodle was not in attendance.

Processed cheese was first made in Switzerland. In 1916, James L. Kraft applied for the first patent for it in the US. The prolonged shelf life of processed cheese made it one of the first convenience foods and the Kraft company was the first to include the powdered cheese in a box of macaroni. So, while the original macaroni and cheese is not of American origin, boxed mac ’n’ cheese is. The Kraft company created it in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, and it eventually gained worldwide popularity. The product could serve four people for just 19 cents, and they sold 8 million boxes in the first year of production. Moving into World War II, when proteins like fresh meat and dairy were being rationed, the boxed mac n cheese became a staple. Beginning in the 1960s, its sales increased as more women were entering the workforce and looking for faster, easier dinner options for their families.

Today, roughly 364 million boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese are sold each year. It doesn’t look like the comfort food will be losing popularity any time soon, especially since we’re still at a time in US history when comfort foods are needed more than usual.

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