The English idiom “in apple-pie order,” means “tidy and well-ordered” – Yes? But what is the origin of the phrase? Well, the experts disagree, or don’t know, which is interesting in itself. I don’t expect any of us to come up with a definitive explanation today, but anything with a food connection is fair game on this blog, and I am sure we can have some fun exploring the concept.
What does seem to be agreed is that the first record of the phrase is in the Private Sea Journals of British naval hero, Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley (1734-1808), published in 1780. The words appeared in his weekly plan for his ships’ crews.
Tuesdays and Fridays – exercise great guns and small arms;
Wednesdays and Saturdays – fire volleys and fumigate;
Mondays – air spare sails;
Thursdays – master the men;
And their Persons Clean and in apple-Pie order on Sundays.
The main contenders for the origin of the phrase are that it is an English language corruption of one of two French phrases: either cap-à-pie (“head to foot”) or nappe plié (“folded linen.”) Of the two, my vote would go to the second.
There are numerous other theories, some more amusing and creative than others. One that I like, which does have a sort-of food connection, indicates that apple-pie order is perfect and orderly as the alphabet by suggesting that the phrase comes from the nursery rhyme which begins:
A was an apple-pie;
B bit it,
C cut it, ..
There are of course, theories that relate the idiom to actual apple pie cookery. I think these domestic images are highly unlikely explanations for a phrase that has strong naval and military associations, but they are fun, so here they are:
- The ‘order’ relates to the precision and skill of the housewife, systematically making and filling row upon row of apple pies.
- The neatness and order are as the neatly cut and neatly placed overlapping slices of apple in an apple pie.
- It refers to the old English custom of removing the top of an apple pie after it is cooked, pouring cream or custard over the apples, then cutting the top pie crust into neat shapes and arranging the pieces in a fine pattern on the top of the apple custard.
Whether or not the final explanation is the correct one (and it sounds a little unlikely to me) the practice described was in fact common. John Simpson, in his A Complete System of Cookery, on a Plan Entirely New, published in 1806 gives:
Apple Pie with Custard.
Cut off the top of the pie, and put the custard over the apples; cut the top in sippets, and put them round the pie.
The housekeeper's guide: or, A plain & practical system of domestic cookery, (1832) by Esther Copley gives more detail – and doesn’t the recipe sound marvelous?
FRUIT PIES. - APPLE.
It is a common error to cut apples too small, by which the flavour is injured. Each apple, when peeled, should be cut in eight; that is, in four quarters, and each quarter cut across the middle; by which means the core can be easily removed. Lay them as close as possible: to a moderate sized pie, allow a quarter of a pound of good moist sugar, with or without four or five cloves, and a little grated lemon-rind. If the apples are juicy, no liquid will be required; if otherwise, a spoonful or two of cyder or beer is much better than water. A little quince marmalade is sometimes put in an apple-pie. Puff paste. Bake an hour and a half. It is usually eaten warm. Some people like to stir in a bit of butter when an apple pie is cut hot. If the pie is to be creamed, when baked cut the middle of the crust in eight equal parts, without touching the border; then return the crust, the broad end to its place, and make the points stand up towards the middle; or the lid may be removed altogether. When cold pour on the apples a rich boiled custard.