Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When the going gets tough...the tough use apple substitutes

Times are tough, kid. Unemployment rates are soaring. Poverty rates are consistently increasing, reaching the highest they've been in half a century. 17.2 million households are now food insecure.

So why all the hum-drum glum talk? No, I haven't turned into some crazed socio-politico, ranting about this policy or that election result (I'll wait until I get a larger and more dedicated reader base to switch to those topics). I recently reviewed my own personal budget, which got me to thinking about what, if anything I should be cutting out or reducing in my life to help save a few pennies during this dastardly recession.

But it's clearly more fun to daydream about times past than it is to think critically about one's own situation, so I quickly let my mind drift to wondering what life was like during the last time this country saw such economic strife. We've all heard stories about bread lines, seen the Dorothea Lange photographs, read The Grapes of Wrath, but I was curious to find out what kind of money-saving techniques housewives used when preparing daily meals for their families. Obviously, any frugal family would immediately cut out any and all necessary sweets and desserts, leaving room and money for the more important and energizing meats and carbs, right?

After perusing the incredibly fascinating and addictive Food Timeline, I learned that not every household during the 1930's was at bread line level (those images we all saw in our grade school text books illustrated the worst-case scenarios). Middle class families, though conscious of their spending, did not completely cut out fun treats, but instead found ways to make their favorite foods on the cheap by substituting lesser priced ingredients for their more expensive counterparts.

The most interesting example I was able to find (and this is where I tie in the above history lesson with an actual pie recipe...don't worry, pictures are coming real soon) is the bizarre Ritz Mock Apple Pie. Ritz Crackers were introduced to America in 1934, and some culinary genius somewhere discovered that with a little lemon and cinnamon these crackers tasted exactly like spiced apples - an incredibly helpful trick to mothers everywhere, because apples at the time were $0.03/lb, and it takes almost a pound of apples to make a whole pie, and, well, you can do the math (because I certainly can't).

- 2 cups sugar
- 2 tsp. cream of tartar
- 1 3/4 cups water
- 1 lemon - zest and 2 tbsp. juice
- 36 Ritz crackers
- 2 tbsp. butter, cut into small bits
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 2 pie crusts (top and bottom) - either pre-made refrigerated or homemade; I used the recipe for homemade pie crust detailed in this post

How To
Make the pie crust according to directions (if you're using a pre-made crust, skip this step). Refrigerate the dough until you are ready to assemble the pie

Over high heat, mix the sugar and cream of tartar in a medium saucepan, gradually adding the water. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for about 5 minutes on low heat. Stir in lemon zest and juice, then remove from heat and let cool completely (about 30 minutes).

While the mixture is cooling, crumble the Ritz crackers. The easiest and cleanest way to do this is to put them all in a Ziplock baggie and crush them with your hands.

It is at this point I realize the majority of my recipes include a step that requires one to put something in a Ziplock baggie and crush it with her hands. I'll let the Freudian wannabe's out there have at that one.

Once the mixture is cooled, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out the dough and place the bottom crust in the pie plate. Fill the bottom of the crust with the Ritz cracker crumbles.

Pour the syrup mixture into the pie, then sprinkle everything with cinnamon and dot with butter.

Cover with the top crust, seal and flute the edges, and cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Bake 30-35 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Let cool before serving.

Look Ma! No apples!

And here's the surprising part - it actually tastes like an apple pie! I admit I had my doubts. I mean, Ritz crackers? With a cheesy dip, sure, but in a pie?

Ritz Mock Apple Pie

Yep, Ritz crackers in a pie. The whole thing kind of even looks like apple pie. It was a bit on the sweet side, however, and very rich (Ritz are already butter-crackers, so I wonder if the added dots of butter were necessary).

I'm not sure if this pie has a place in the kitchen outside of novelty, however. Price-wise, it wasn't actually cheaper than making an apple pie (I paid over $4 for the box of crackers, while Granny Smith apples at my grocery were selling at $1.79/lb. I also didn't already own cream of tartar, so that added another $3.50 to the total bill).

My roommate couldn't identify the mystery ingredient though, so if for some reason you find yourself needing to make a hard-to-figure-out pie, this is the recipe for you (and if you do find yourself in that situation, please do tell me about it. And then invite me along). This could also be a great recipe for a kid to bring to school for one of those "make a recipe from a certain decade" assignments because it results in something you'd actually want to eat. I still feel bad for those kids who were stuck with The 1950's - A Decade of Promise, Innovation, and Spam.

I used a Rockwell photo filter to make it look historical ;)

A special shout out goes to this other fascinating website on the history of food and dining.


  1. As a part-time labor economist I need to point out that the unemployment rate isn't actually soaring Mary, sorry. The unemployment rate actually just dropped from 8.7 to 8.5 percent and is down from over 10 percent a little more than a year ago. There were also a net of 200,000 jobs created last month, where the U.S. net population gain was only about 140,000 and net working population gain was less than 80,000.

    In fact, over the last year more than 2 million jobs have been created, though, they do lean mostly towards those with a four-year college education (good for you, bad for me) which only further deepens the economic divide between the have and the have-nots.

    All this to say, that's crazy! I want to try a Ritz pie!

    1. Point taken, thanks for fact-checking for me! In my defense, I spent a full three minutes making cursory glances at websites that seemed to have statistics to suit my needs AND cited my sources...but from now on I'll stick to pie and leave the socio-economic stats to you ;)

  2. Oh, screw the diet - now I want to try this just to find out what it tastes like. That's crazy & wonderful!