The expression “as American as apple pie” is used in the United States with a certain tinge of pride. Apple pie defines anything typically American, despite the fact that it might not entirely be a product of America.
Fork deeper into the history of apple pie, and you’ll find that the apple pie reflects the essence of American culture. When the first colonists arrived, America didn’t even have the apples that we now pick at orchards or pay a ridiculous amount for at Seeds marketplace. The only native apples available were crab apples, a wild breed with a “puckerful” tartness, not ideal for dessert pies, so colonists brought apple seeds over to grow their own orchards.
Take a stroll through the city streets now, and you can see the same “apple pie” phenomenon still happening between ethnic enclaves. Or, better yet, taste the different “apple pies” across the city baked according to ethnic preferences.
They might not be inspired by “American” apple pies, but that’s just how the United States and apple pies are anyway. Nobody knows who created the world’s first apple pie, just as nobody knows the exact definition of a “true American,” because Americans come from all sorts of backgrounds. So why not enjoy and celebrate them all?
Take empanadas: small, stuffed and crimped pastry pockets that have origins in Spain and Portugal (and perhaps even the Arabian Peninsula), popularized in the United States by immigrants from various regions of Latin America. These mini, portable pies have a flaky, triangular-shaped exterior and are usually stuffed with savories like meats and cheeses. But at Argentinian Empanadas, in West Los Angeles, they are also available with an apple filling similar to that in apple pie. Superior Grocers at the University Village also sells these apple empanadas in its bakery section.
In Koreatown, apple pie takes the form of a flaky, puffy pastry. The sweetness tends to be mellow. Paris Baguette in Koreatown (also a popular bakery chain in Korea) sells them as a crunchy, buttery package, enveloping a sticky, chunky apple filling that has more tart and less spice than traditional American apple pies.
At any Korean grocery store (the closest is Han Nam Chain store on Olympic Boulevard), you can also find boxes of “apple pie” in the snack section with individually packaged strips of puff pastry, crowned with a slick of shiny apple jam. Don’t expect anything revolutionary — they are, after all, prepackaged goods — but it’s still an interesting look at what kinds of tastes Koreans prefer in apple pie.
The quintessential American pie route, however, might be the fried apple pies served at McDonald’s, even if food snobs and health nuts will scoff at the blasphemy of it. The McDonald’s in the United States no longer serves apple pie fried, but elsewhere across the world, from Hong Kong to Singapore to Mexico, good ol’ pies fried by the whole are still served.
You can get a pricier and fancier fried apple pie at Luna Park near Wilshire. Its glorious pie is served drizzled with caramel sauce and oozing with slowly melting caramel ice cream, good enough to satisfy the infamous American sweet tooth and make any dentist howl.
So is there such a thing as an “American” food? Other typical American foods, such as pizza and hotdogs, also have origins in other cultures, although Italians and Germans would have a hard time accepting our New York-style delivery pizza and mustard-and-relish-topped ballpark hotdogs have any roots in Naples pizza and bratwurst. Likewise, the Chinese scorn the American chop suey and fortune cookies served in paper cartons, and no proud Mexicans would accept Taco Bell as traditional Mexican cuisine.
But that’s what makes the United States unique and fascinating, and why it is, indeed, an apple pie culture: a distinct creation and experience popularized through a combination of imported flavors and histories.