When I was younger, I never quite realized the implications of the saying that something was as American as apple pie. After all, growing up in New England, apple pie was ubiquitous, served as a favoured dessert on holidays in all seasons, whether the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Apple-picking in the fall is a time-honoured tradition, and oftentimes the fruit picked in orchards would then be baked into tasty pies for our consumption.
But while the friends I’ve made in Britain have for the most part sampled apple pie, it’s in no way a traditional end to a meal. And for that matter, neither is pumpkin pie, which is not only rare but also a food whose mention elicits a curious response. Most people ask how pumpkin could possibly be made into a sweet treat; isn’t it a vegetable, savoury if anything? My only response can be to try and conjure up the scent of sugar and cinnamon, wafting from a golden pumpkin tart – truly incomparable. It’s not just meal-ending foods either; cornbread isn’t found very much at all this side of the Atlantic, and neither are corn muffins, its brethren. Interestingly enough, snacks are also included in the transoceanic divide; a mention of Goldfish invokes questions about how you could possibly eat a squirming live fish, before I can rush to explain that in fact I mean Pepperidge Farm’s cheddar (or pretzel, or parmesan, or pizza-flavoured) crackers shaped like small fish.
In addition, foods that are highly recognizable at both ends of the pond used in what I’d consider traditional combinations as an American bring forth looks of distaste when mentioned here in Oxford. Take peanut butter and jelly, for example. PB&J is a classic sandwich, evoking memories of elementary school lunches with an apple and some carrot sticks and a chocolate chip cookie on the side. At first, when friends seemed disgusted by the idea of such a sandwich, I thought it might be because what the British call jam or preserves we also call jelly in America, mixing the terms informally. But to my surprise, when I substituted jam and described a peanut butter and jam sandwich, the response wasn’t much better. The same thing happened when I was talking about Thanksgiving specials like sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Separate, they’re both enjoyed here, but never melted together into a sweet, gooey casserole dish.
I never know when a food I view as classic is going to be viewed as a bolt from the blue in culinary conversation. Not only do I understand why some victuals are so unique as to be as American as apple pie; I realize there are a lot more than I ever imagined.