A frontier recipe that got popular when it wasn’t necessary anymore.
While another popular iteration uses zucchini, and rare versions will turn up with things like potatoes or cottage cheese, the classic American mock apple pie is made with crackers doused in a tart, cinnamon-touched sugar syrup. And when Ritz crackers are used, as they so frequently are, the buttery touch turns the effect into something similar to the flavor and texture of apple pie filling.
Some of the magic is provided by cream of tartar, which breaks down some of the sucrose into fructose and glucose. Inverting some amount of the sugar ends up creating a substance that cools to a texture kind of like pecan pie (and, unsurprisingly, we talked about the chemical process for this in the post for pecan pie from Ceres, California).
The rest of the magic is in your imagination: lemon, cinnamon, and sugar evoke the flavor of apple pie in the memory.
These substitutes most likely started as preparations for hard tack. In the post for biscuits from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we talked about how Civil War soldiers would, among other indignities, sometimes have to crush their tack with the butt of their rifle. But once crushed, a soldier longing for a taste of home could trick his taste buds for a moment with recipes sort of like this one, from the February 27, 1857 edition of The (Brookville) Indiana American:
Mock Apple Pie–Over one and a half cups of bread crumbs, pour four cups of boiling water; add one cup of sugar, one grated nutmeg, small piece of butter, large teaspoonful of tartaric acid; when cool, add an egg well beaten. Bake with two crust. This is an excellent substitute when apples are scarce.
Quaker girl, Minnie.
Alliance, 1st [something?] 1857.
By the August 19, 1875 edition of The (Aurora, Indiana) Dearborn Independent, we’d realized that crumbs weren’t necessary, if you had a higher-quality source of dry starch (note that soda crackers of the day were certainly thicker and often larger):
Mock Apple Pie–Two soda crackers, one egg, one cup of sugar and one of water, the juice and yellow rind of a lemon. Bake with upper and under crust.
One counterintuitive aspect to the mock apple pie is that, in many cases, it can be cheaper than a real apple pie. When people talk about the history of the Ritz mock apple pie, they say it became popular during the depression “when apples were scarce” or something like that. And we all think, “oh, those poor souls,” and think how lucky we are that apples are cheaper than Ritz crackers.
If you think about it, this whole “when apples were scarce” thing is utter nonsense. I admit that I’m not a botanist, but I’m reasonably certain that the apple trees didn’t know there was a depression and kept producing the same number of apples regardless of the stock market–there was no scarcity of apples. Consider these ads from December 1934, in Pennsylvania:
|Ritz Crackers: 19 cents a pound||Apples: One cent a pound|
December 13, 1934 The Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) Times
December 27, 1934 Chester (Pennsylvania) Times
Hmm. Admittedly, it shouldn’t be too hard to get apples in December in Pennsylvania. But what about March, about as far from the growing season as you can get? Let’s look at Colorado and this ad from the March 13, 1936 edition of The Greeley Daily Tribune:
And entering the picking season, obviously, makes apples that much cheaper. Consider these competing ads from the September 23, 1938 edition of The Hutchinson (Kansas) News:
|Ritz Crackers: 13 cents a pound||Apples: Under four cents a pound|
Now here’s the wrinkle: while it takes about three pounds of fresh apples to make a real apple pie, the official Ritz recipe calls for just 36 crackers–which used to be just one sleeve, or a quarter-pound (they’ve shaved a couple crackers per sleeve since in a cost-cutting measure). So to do an apples-to-mock-apples comparison of cost, we need to multiply the per-pound cost of the apples by three, and divide the per-box cost of the Ritz by four.
If you look at local prices in your store, you’ll probably notice about the same thing: regardless of the variety of apples involved, a box of Ritz is more expensive than two or three apples, but less expensive than the twelve pounds (give or take a few pounds in light of the smaller size) of apples it replaces in a pie.
From the box of J.L. from Westborough, Massachusetts.
Mock Apple Pie
36 Ritz crackers
2 cups H20
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
Grated rind of one lemon
Butter or margarine
(Pie shell, unbaked)
Break Ritz crackers coarsely into pastry-lined plate. Combine H20, sugar, and cream of tartar in saucepan. Boil gently for 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and rind. Cool.
Pour syrup over crackers, dot generously with butter or margarine, and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake in a hot oven (425 deg. F.) 30 to 35 minutes.