Puttin' On The Ritz: All About Mock Apple Pie

When I was growing up, Ritz crackers were one of the staple foods in our house. We ate them with cheese. We ate them with peanut butter. I think my sister ate them with chopped liver and apple juice. There was usually a box of Ritz on the table. This is important, because we also had a strict no-reading-at-the-table-when-other-people-are-present rule. My mother believed that we were a family and should converse regularly, even when we were all entirely sick of each other and had no news to report. Consequently, there was very little a reading addict like me could do except read the back of the Ritz box. And so I spent a lot of time studying the recipe for Mock Apple Pie.

"Mock," I learned, meant something that is fake. How this applied to a pie made out of crackers, I was never quite sure. I looked at it so often, it seemed completely normal, but also one of those foods, like tuna noodle casserole, that other people ate, but not us.

Time dragged on. I grew up and moved out and got to read whatever I wanted during meals. Ritz removed the Mock Apple Pie recipe from the back of the box, and I completely forgot about it until recently. Because what else would one think of in apple season? And then I got curious. Could a pie made out of crackers taste like it was actually made out of apples?

The Ritz Mock Apple Pie may have vanished from the box, but it lives on all over the internet in double crust and Dutch mock apple (that is, topped with streusel) variations. Serious Eats has even created its own version, which differs from the original in that it contains vanilla and calls for brushing the top crust with milk and sugar. But all of them contain the same basic ingredients: crackers (naturally), sugar, water, butter, lemon juice, cinnamon, and cream of tartar.

A rumor circulated, probably by the Nabisco marketing folks, that Mock Apple Pie was invented by thrifty housewives during the Great Depression, coincidentally around the same time that Ritz crackers made their debut. But this is untrue. Mock Apple Pie has a long and honorable history dating back to the mid-19th century. The New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant wrote that mock apple pies were popular among pioneer families crossing the Great Plains. (Imagine baking a pie over a campfire!) The ever-thorough and reliable Food Timeline has found two versions of the recipe printed in newspapers as early as 1857, which implies that mock apple pie was invented sometime earlier. One early recipe used bread crumbs, the other crackers, but both recommended mock apple pie for times when apples were scarce. By 1869, cooks were specifying that the pie be made with soda crackers. One variation called for all the water to be pressed out for what sounds like a very dense and sugary pie, more like pecan than apple, but this seems like an aberration.

Ritz crackers first appeared in 1934. They were more buttery and flaky than soda crackers, and I assume that bakers felt these were better qualities for a mock apple pie. A recipe printed in the Algona Upper of Des Moines Upper Des Moines of Algona, Iowa, in 1956 that specified Ritz credited this innovation to the writer's mother, Mrs. Harold Hobson. But I'm sure lots of other cooks came up with the idea independently. After all, as the old jingle went, "If you want a cracker, you want a Ritz." It didn't take long for Ritz to catch on and start printing its own recipe on the back of the box. It called for more crackers than Mrs. Hobson's, plus lemon juice and zest. And thus it was codified forever.

So how do sugar syrup, lemon, and cream of tartar transform crackers into something that tastes like apple pie? I assumed that all the sugar would override the saltiness of the Ritz, but why would it have an apple flavor specifically? Why not lemon? Or just plain sugar?

A 2015 article from io9 gives the credit to the cream of tartar, which writer Esther Inglis-Arkell described as "a crystallized acidic compound that is precipitated from wine, and used to be found in the bottoms of wine barrels." Its winey origins plus its acidity give cream of tartar a tart and fruity taste. The lemon juice would add some extra tartness, and of course the cinnamon is a key ingredient in real apple pie and would be instrumental in tricking a palate into thinking it was tasting apples instead of crackers.

All right, then. It all sounded plausible enough, or at least more plausible than a good percentage of things that have happened in the past year. I went to the store and bought a family-sized box of Ritz (because that was all they had left) and began assembling them into a pie.

It is very easy to make a Mock Apple Pie, even easier than a regular apple pie because you don't have to peel and core and cut the apples. It can also be a lot cheaper, depending on where you live and what your apple situation is. (Yesterdish did a cracker-apple cost comparison for various historical periods.) I made a variation with a streusel top, also made from Ritz crackers and lots of brown sugar. It took me about half an hour to throw the thing together, including time to roll out the crust. Instead of cinnamon, I used Penzey's Pie Spice for a little more complexity. Now that I think about it, maybe I should have made a crust out of crushed Ritz crackers and butter, but instead I used a regular pie crust. (The recipe called for a store-bought crust, but I thought I had some buried in the freezer and when I discovered this was not the case, I didn't feel like going back to the store. The recipe also called for margarine, but I ate so much margarine during my cholesterol-fearing childhood that I have vowed never to go near that shit again.) As it cooked, it smelled lovely, just like real apple pie.

Then it came out of the oven and cooled a little bit, and the moment of truth arrived. It was not any different than any other moment of truth from just about anyone else who has tasted a Mock Apple Pie over the past 175 years. (Or so I'm guessing. If it hadn't worked, don't you think the recipe would have died off?) It was rich and buttery and sweet and tart and not salty at all. It was not in any way remotely recognizable as Ritz. It tasted like apple pie! A really good apple pie, not the kind with mushy apples or glutinous filling. It was like magic! (What made it even better was a dollop of whipped cream, which is also magic.) And I'm sure that's what everybody else said, too, because "It was chemistry!" is so much less exciting.