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July 2, 2014

A fruity Fourth

Summer celebrations didn't always include pie

Apple pie may be as American as the Fourth of July, but it probably wasn’t on the table when the holiday first began.

“There wouldn’t have been a whole lot of apples around this time of year,” says Mary Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, the plantation estate of George Washington. “They would have eaten them all from last year, and this year’s crop wouldn’t have come in yet.”

From blueberry to strawberry to the pie that combines them to represent the flag, pie is associated with Independence Day. But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the holiday was still new, pies weren’t celebratory at all. They were simply a way of life.

“These were not treats,” says Amanda Moniz, an executive of the American Historical Association and author of the blog “History’s Just Desserts.” ‘‘They were convenience foods, and they were frugal food.”

Pies served multiple functions for early Americans. They were the original street food, Moniz says, a handy slice serving as plate, utensil and sustenance all at once. Crust was often made of coarse ingredients such as rye and suet, she says, and wasn’t meant to be eaten. It was simply a vehicle for the nutrition inside.

“Centuries ago, this would have been fast food,” Moniz says. “People would have been walking through the street hawking pie. If you didn’t have your own cooking facility, you could just buy a slice of pie the way you buy a hot dog from a cart today.”

But not all pies had disposable crusts. Hannah Glasse, author of the 18th-century equivalent of “Joy of Cooking,” had several recipes for crust, as did Amelia Simmons, who wrote the 1796 “American Cookery,” the first American cookbook. Pies with a fine crust provided an inventive way to handle inferior ingredients and those past their prime, says chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern.

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