There aren’t many foods that are as closely tied to American identity as apple pie. And, despite a contrarian article published last summer in Slate titled “Pie: It’s Gloppy, It’s Soggy, It’s Un-American”, Americans love apple pie so much that, at times, we’ve felt compelled to make it even when we don’t have any apples. I’ve heard about a recipe for apple-less apple pie from a number of people over the years, but I’ve never talked to anyone who’s actually eaten it. So this past weekend, I decided to give it a try.
Mock apple pie, or chemical apple pie as it is less-appetizingly known, is defined by three main ingredients: crackers, sugar, and cream of tartar. When these three ingredients are mixed and soaked in hot water, the resulting mushy cracker mixture is supposed to taste something like apples. I was skeptical. But as I stood over a boiling pot of slowly dissolving Ritz crackers, I thought I caught a faint whiff of apple. Maybe. It was an apple-ish smell anyway. I didn’t have any pie crust on hand and didn’t have the patience to make my own, so I settled for making a mock apple crisp. I poured my cracker filling into a baking dish and topped it with cinnamon and a mixture of flour, oats, sugar, and butter, and baked the whole mess for half an hour at 350 degrees.
For the sake of comparison, I also made a real apple crisp using actual apples. When the two crisps came out of the oven, the mock apple crisp looked a lot like the real thing. It was the right color and smelled like cinnamon with maybe even a hint of apple. On closer inspection, the filling was more uniform and gelatinous than the real apple filling, but it looked more or less the same. So far, so good. When I took a bite it tasted sweet and cinnamony, with a mild apple flavor – kind of like an overly sweet, bland apple crisp. I’m not really selling it here, but it actually wasn’t bad. It tasted less like mushy crackers and more like apple crisp than I expected it would anyway. But when I followed it up with a bite of real apple crisp, the mock crisp paled in comparison. It lacked the tartness and flavor of real apples.
So how does it work? What makes a cracker pie filling taste like apples? Some focused googling failed to produce a definitive answer to this question, but a few possible explanations did turn up. Some people seem to think that cream of tartar is the secret ingredient responsible for the apple flavor. Cream of tartar (no relation to tartar sauce) is the potassium salt of tartaric acid, an organic acid that’s found in a lot of fruit, including apples. Because it’s also found in grapes, tartaric acid is present in most wines and often crystallizes on wine corks. When people who know about such things talk about a wine’s acidity, they’re mostly talking about the tartaric acid content. Tartaric acid (and cream of tartar) is sometimes used in cooking to impart a tart, sour flavor. And that’s probably the purpose it serves in the mock apple pie recipe as well. Even though apples contain tartaric acid, it’s not primarily responsible for the fruit’s distinct flavor. Another very similar organic acid found in apples, called malic acid, is more commonly associated with a tart, apple flavor (it’s name is even derived from malum, Latin for apple). Although malic acid is added to lots of foods these days as a flavoring agent and preservative, it doesn’t appear in the traditional mock apple pie recipe, probably because it wasn’t widely available when the recipe was developed. But more on that later. If someone were really serious about making a better-tasting fake apple pie, they might try using malic acid instead of cream of tartar.
Another possible explanation is that the mock pie doesn’t taste much like apples at all, we’re just tricked into thinking it does. It’s sweet, it’s buttery, it smells like cinnamon, it has a crust (or in my case an oatmeal topping), it looks just like an apple pie. So our brains fill in the missing piece – the taste and smell of apples. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. It turns out that visual cues are more important to our sense of taste than you might expect. In a 1980 study of the relationship between color and taste perception, researchers found that study participants had trouble correctly identifying the flavor of fruit-flavored drinks when the the drinks were inappropriately colored. For instance, when a cherry-flavored drink was colored green, 26% of participants thought that it tasted like lemon/lime, but when it was colored red, everyone thought it tasted like cherry. A problem with this study was that the participants were not aware that the flavors and colors of their drinks were mismatched, and so may have relied on color when they weren’t exactly sure about their drink’s flavor. But in follow-up studies participants were told up front that the color of the drinks they were tasting had nothing to do with the flavor, and they still had a hard time correctly identifying the flavor of inappropriately colored drinks. One widely accepted interpretation of these results is that a food’s color (and more generally, it’s appearance) sets up a largely unconscious expectation of what the food will taste like. This expectation can be so strong that it actually influences how we perceive the taste of the food – sort of like a gustatory placebo effect. Something similar may be going on when we eat mock apple pie.
When I told my mom, who’d heard of the recipe before but never tried it, that I was making a mock apple pie, her response was, “Yuck. I never understood why anyone would want to make an apple pie out of crackers.” This seems to be a pretty common response. So who were these people who invented an apple-less apple pie? It turns out that the recipe is much older than you might expect. It dates back at least as far as the mid-19th century. As pioneers settled across the American West, they found themselves without access to apples, which aren’t native to the region. Craving the apple pie they were used to eating back east, some resourceful pioneers came up with a substitute pie made out of soda crackers. There’s a recipe for a cracker-based mock apple pie titled “California Pioneer Apple Pie, 1852” in the 1894 cookbook, How We Cook in Los Angeles. During the Civil War, apples, which were imported from New England before the war, became scarce in the South. So in 1863, a recipe for “Apple Pie Without the Apples” appeared in the Confederate Receipt Book: “To one small bowl of crackers, that have been soaked until no hard parts remain, add one teaspoonful of tartaric acid, sweeten to your taste, add some butter, and a very little nutmeg.” Decades later, there was a resurgence in popularity of the mock apple pie during the Great Depression, when apples became prohibitively expensive for many Americans. It was at this time that Ritz crackers capitalized on the recipe’s popularity by printing it on their boxes. The original Ritz recipe is still available online today.
There’s an impressive amount of history and psychology behind the mock apple pie. But as I ate my mock apple crisp, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d probably never make it again. It’s not that it tasted bad, just that I’d rather make a real apple crisp if I’m going to put in the effort. But if you want to try some mock apple pie for yourself, the recipe I used was adapted from this recipe at Allrecipes.com.
References and Further Reading
Ritz Mock Apple Pie – An Old Time Favorite from the Seattle Times
Food Timeline for Mock Apple Pie
Spence, C., Levitan, C., Shankar, M., & Zampini, M. (2010). Does Food Color Influence Taste and Flavor Perception in Humans? Chemosensory Perception, 3 (1), 68-84 DOI: 10.1007/s12078-010-9067-z