What Apple Pie Means to Me as a First-Generation American

As an immigrant, I had never tasted homemade apple pie—until I met my father-in-law, who made his pie crust from scratch.

Growing up, I never had real, homemade apple pie. I would marvel at the American holiday dinner scenes on shows like The Wonder Years and Full House. The perfect spread with glistening turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and of course, the quintessential American apple pie for dessert.

My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 9 years old, and while my parents are both excellent cooks who can craft beautiful dumplings, baozi and pillowy, sweet red bean-filled steamed buns, they knew nothing about American cooking. The oven was a mystery, seldom touched. If I wanted any American meal at home, it was up to me to make it happen.

Not knowing where to start, I purchased “Thanksgiving in a box” from the grocery store, hoping to re-create those beautiful, imagined dinners. The meal was always a disappointment. I could never heat the turkey properly. The stuffing tasted too salty (though, to be fair, we didn’t know how stuffing was supposed to taste in the first place). The premade green bean casserole was limp and soggy. It wasn’t the real Thanksgiving experience.

The apple pie, though, was another story. Even store-bought, it got devoured every time.

Because the whole American holiday experience was elusive, homemade apple pie became a dessert that filled me with longing. It wasn’t until grad school, when I met the person who would become my husband, that this changed. He brought me home to Michigan to meet his family, who welcomed me immediately with love. And each holiday, I got my TV family-inspired spread.

I will always love my father’s mapo tofu and my mom’s fried rice, but I came to embrace turkey tetrazzini and apple pie as tastes of home, too.

Apple Pie Narrative Apple Pie With Pi SymbolCourtesy Michelle Yang

My father-in-law was the pie man. He made the crust from scratch and took so much pride in the art. Any extra pie dough would be transformed into warm cinnamon sugar roll-me-ups to tide us over until the main event. Each year, he made a pecan pie, which is my husband’s favorite, a pumpkin pie for his other son and an apple pie for me.

At first, I didn’t know that my apple pie was the most labor-intensive—requiring fresh apples to be individually peeled and cut, unlike the pumpkin puree from a can or the sugary mixture for pecan pies. I didn’t notice…until my father-in-law began to weaken from cancer.

He still insisted on making his pies, decorating the tops with a π symbol (he was a renowned mathematician) or the names of his grandkids, and watched proudly as each family member took seconds and thirds.

Apple Pie Narrative Family Photo Courtesy Michelle Yang

As time ran out, each meal became more significant—each pie turned both sweeter and bitter, tinged with grief.

The last holiday season he was with us, my father-in-law taught my husband how to make the pies. I watched from a respectful distance as they mixed flour and shortening with a pastry cutter, working past hurt into harmony by creating perfect pie crust together.

For me, apple pie will forever symbolize my father-in-law’s love. He was someone who loved fiercely and without question, against the odds and through the pain. I will savor the memories of the silly, doting grandfather with each lingering sweet, cinnamony bite of apple pie from his beloved recipe.

Bake an Apple Pie of Your Own
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Michelle Yang
Michelle Yang, MBA, is a mental health advocate who speaks and writes about the intersection of Asian American identity, feminism, and mental health. Tired of the stigma, she is empowered to humanize and normalize mental illnesses as another part of the human condition. Her articles have been featured in InStyle, HuffPost, Shondaland, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and more. Follow her @michelleyangwriter.