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Author Rossi Anastopoulo on her new book, "Sweet Land of Liberty"

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

You've almost certainly heard the expression, as American as apple pie. But why is apple pie considered so American? And is the explanation really so simple?

ROSSI ANASTOPOULO: Apple pie is not American because it is wholesome and hearty and certainly not because it is indigenous. It's American because it embodies the way cultures and traditions from all over the world have blended, reshaped and ingrained themselves into the fabric of this country to define the reality of our national narrative.

PFEIFFER: That's food writer Rossi Anastopoulo. As you can tell, she considers the apple pie-America connection complicated. She uses pies to explore our country's evolution, including religion and gender roles and an economy built on slave labor, in her new book "Sweet Land Of Liberty: A History Of America In 11 Pies." Rossi Anastopoulo, thanks for being here.

ANASTOPOULO: It's wonderful to be here, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: This was a really fun and interesting book, also very funny at times. You say upfront in your book that pies are not the most obvious lens for looking at American history. So why did you use them to do that?

ANASTOPOULO: First of all, pie as we know it in the United States is very distinct to our country. There are versions of pie in many different countries and cuisines and cultures, but what we think of as pie here in the States is completely distinct to our food culture. Another big element is that pie is really incredibly versatile and malleable. There are so many shapes and forms it can take. It really is just a filling and a crust, and so what that filling is and what that crust is can change depending on so many different factors, like the people who are making it, the people who are eating it or not eating it, the ingredients that are available or not available. And so because of that, the different shapes that it can take I find to be incredibly revealing for a lot of elements of our history and our national story.

PFEIFFER: You give many examples of how pies of different eras tell us something about how we view race and class and gender. Some I expected, like what pumpkin pie symbolizes when it comes to Indigenous people and how molasses pie has roots in sugar plantations that relied on slavery. But others surprised me, like Jell-O pies in the 1950s. Tell us the connection you see between Jell-O pies and the role of women at that time.

ANASTOPOULO: Oh, absolutely. The advertisements and messaging around Jell-O and recipes for Jell-O pie were pretty explicit about what they expected women to be and to do in a certain aspect of American society. So, you know, there's the element of perfection and reliability and always having this beautiful centerpiece that a woman could be judged by when it comes to her homemaking abilities. And so these expectations were used as part of a brand to sell these products and help women achieve this in many ways unattainable ideal for what an American housewife was supposed to be, and that was through Jell-O and through Jell-O pies.

PFEIFFER: You also wrote about how it was this convenience product. You could just tear open a little packet, pour it into a crust. You have a pie. So it reflected women trying to balance a lot of things at the time, sometimes parenting and also working out of the house as well.

ANASTOPOULO: Exactly. It was convenience but still an element of cooking and an element of baking that existed in the creation of pie. There's a reason that it's not just Jell-O. It's a Jell-O pie. You're putting some sense of active labor into it to be able to, in some ways, show what you're willing to give and to still be an active participant in the kitchen.

PFEIFFER: I learned from your book about bean pies sold in the street by members of the Nation of Islam and how they were touted as a healthier alternative to what was considered an unhealthy, quote, "slave diet," as you termed it. Tell us about bean pies.

ANASTOPOULO: Oh, absolutely. So that concept of the slave diet comes from Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and he was really the person who set these very strict and then sometimes idiosyncratic tenets for diet. And part of that was a real promotion of the navy bean and, at the same time, a real opposition to sweet potatoes because of that connection to a diet of enslaved people. And so as part of that, the navy bean pie, which was a big favorite of Muhammad Ali, really became a central dessert for many members of the Nation of Islam and became this symbol for a new Black diet in America and this new Black culture meant to be created separate from a dominating white culture. And so this pie becomes a real symbol of empowerment for many members of that community.

PFEIFFER: Mock apple pies. You write about these, too. I've never had one. They, as you write, reflect creativity and ingenuity during economic crises like the Civil War and World War II. These don't even contain fruit. Is that right?

ANASTOPOULO: That's correct. They are completely absent of any fruit. They're really just mostly crackers.

PFEIFFER: So talk a bit more about what that tells us about that era in which pies like that were being made.

ANASTOPOULO: Yes. I mean, we first see mock apple pie really crop up around the Civil War and even a little bit before that when people were going west. In many cases - you know, there's an anecdote in the book about one party who - a member of their party made mock apple pie. And they had no access to apples nearby, and so she made it with these crackers. And it really replicated Mom's apple pie. And so in many ways, it wasn't just something to fill their stomachs but really to capture this nostalgia and comfort and maybe alleviate some homesickness in addition to physical hunger.

And so I think that thread continues through the Civil War, when this became something that was baked in the South, and on through to the Great Depression and other periods when, you know, ingredients aren't always easily accessible. And so I think that mock apple pie really represents the spiritual and emotional connection that pie has in addition to the physical one.

PFEIFFER: Quiche is not something I think of as a pie, but you point out it's basically an egg pie. And it got tied up in gender issues because of that book, "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche." I think that was - what? - the 1980s.

ANASTOPOULO: Yes, the early '80s.

PFEIFFER: How did that book end up harming the reputation of quiche?

ANASTOPOULO: That book is so fascinating because it was really meant as a satire. It points out so many sort of stereotypical things that men do not do. Real men do not eat quiche, amongst many other kind of farcical declarations. But in many cases, that type of language became embedded in American culture. And, you know, there's an anecdote about, you know, people holding up a sign at a Yankees game that said, Reggie Jackson eats quiche, and some funny insults that sprung up around whether or not someone ate a quiche.

PFEIFFER: Your book made me realize I've never tried a tomato pie, although maybe that's just another term for pizza.

ANASTOPOULO: Oh, no, it's very different. So I'm from the South, and tomato pie is very much a thing there, and I highly recommend it. My aunt makes a delicious one. But it's more similar to a quiche, like a savory type of pie, but it'll often have a sort of, like, mayonnaise-based filling. It's very creamy with tomatoes. It's in a pie plate, and it is very tasty. I highly recommend it.

PFEIFFER: I will try it. Rossi, you have an apple pie recipe in the book named after your dad. And I understand that your dad liked pie but didn't like cake, so is this pie very symbolic of your father somehow?

ANASTOPOULO: I would call that my pie origin story. For as long as I can remember, I've been baking him an apple pie for his birthday in October. You know, for me, apple pie represents my dad, and that particular recipe is one that is so closely tied to him and to my family and to how we celebrate that. It was really special to be able to include it, and I think, you know, kind of represents how so many of us, I think, have our pie stories and our personal connections to pie in this country.

PFEIFFER: That's Rossi Anastopoulo. Her new book is "Sweet Land Of Liberty: A History Of America In 11 Pies." Thank you very much. This was really fun.

ANASTOPOULO: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN'S "INSTRUMENTAL (TAKE 2, COMPLETE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.