EASY AS PIE – PART THREE

She goes on to relate the story of Abe Lincoln and New Salem fruit pies. “As a lanky young lawyer, Abe Lincoln satisfied his sweet tooth with home-baked fruit pies”.

One of his biographers, the famed newspaperwoman, Ida Tarbell, told how the ladies of New Salem, remembering his youthful fondness for their fruit pies, would bake and ship fruit pies to the by-then President Lincoln. The wrapping-shipping process was a chore, more trouble in a way than the baking. Special pie baskets were enclosed in homemade wooden boxes. Apple pies were the easiest to ship (there was no quick-service railway express in those days), but in season, the ladies did not hesitate to ship the President sour cherry or blackberry pie. For home consumption, the pies were baked with lattice tops. For but protection two crusts were generally used. The steam gashes were often fancifully made in the shape of a Star or the letter L (for Lincoln, of course) or B for blackberry or C for cherry. It was a labor of love the New Salem ladies performed—one much appreciated by the war-weary President, who must have thought often and nostalgically of the ‘good old days’ when he was a young man in New Salem.

There are quite a few references to pie in Poppy Cannon’s book—bearing in mind that throughout the 1700s, 1800s, and most of the 1900s, pie was an important factor in American cuisine. Cannon writes that one of President Van Buren’s closest friends was the writer Washington Irving. The two exchanged frequent visits and shared many common interests, including good food. One of their shared interests was a mincemeat pie, a specialty of Irving’s cook, Mrs. Robert McLinden.

Cannon notes that President Adams’ family recipe for matrimony cake is actually a recipe for apple pie…which reminds me that Boston cream pie isn’t actually a pie…but is a cake! For those of you who like to know these things, Boson Cream Pie was first created at the famous Parker House hotel in Boston. It is made from very light sponge cake layers with a custard filling in-between, and a chocolate glaze on top. According to Henry Haller, author of “The White House Family Cookbook”, Boston cream pie was a dessert sometimes served during the Nixon presidency.

Most of our American presidents considered apple pie one of their favorite desserts. President Eisenhower liked a deep-dish apple pie from Mamie’s recipe collection, and for a change of pace, they enjoyed an apple pie with a sharp cheese lining (that sounds interesting). President Nixon’s favorite pie was Key Lime—Nixon also had a favorite meat pie, a Tamale Pie recipe that was popular in California years ago and occasionally makes a comeback. Recipes for tamale pie can often be found in California cookbooks.

Mrs. Nixon’s favorite pie was a raspberry pie while Lady Bird Johnson had a favorite recipe for pecan pie, made from pecans grown on LBJ ranch. There is a story that pecan pie, made from pecans grown on LBC Ranch, was prepared and waiting for President Kennedy on the fateful day in Dallas.

President Andrew Jackson was fond of fried apple pies, while President Buchanan liked a Muscadine pie made from the grapes of his grape arbor, which Poppy Cannon says he cared for “fastidiously”.

One of President Garfield’s favorite pies was made from sour apples while a strawberry pie was said to be MRS. Coolidge’s favorite dessert. One of MRS. Eisenhower’s favorite desserts was pumpkin chifffon pie. Pumpkin chiffon is no longer a part of our culinary landscape, According to Merrill Shindler, author of “AMERICAN DISH”, chiffon pies, cakes and puddings were a fad of the post war years—while this is unquestionably true, I have traced chiffon pies to community cookbooks published in the 1920s and 1930s. The earliest I have been able to find was a lemon chiffon pie published in a Los Angeles community cookbook in 1923. Patricia Bunning Stevens confirms my own research, in “RARE BITS”, stating that the first really new pie of the 20th century was the chiffon pie, introduced in the 1920s.

If I might digress for just a moment–as noted in Gerry Schremp’s “KITCHEN CULTURE”, published by Pharos Books in 1991, chiffon cake was created by a California insurance salesman, Harry Baker, in 1927. For the next twenty years, Mr. Baker became famous in Hollywood, making his famous cake for restaurants and movie industry parties. In 1947, he sold the recipe to General Mills and the world then discovered that the mystery ingredient was salad oil. It was undoubtedly during this period that the myriad of chiffon desserts were so popular.

I could spend a long time writing about the presidents and their favorite pies as White House cookery is a favorite interest of minebut before moving on, would like to comment on a favorite recipe from Martha Washington’s family…it was called “HARTY CHOAK PIE” which translates today as – if you haven’t already guessed – Artichoke pie.

References to Artichoke pie can be found in centuries-old cookbooks. Lorna Sass, author of “TO THE QUEEN’S TASTE/Elizabethan feasts and recipes”, which was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976, provides a recipe for Artichoke pie, noting, “Hakluyt points out in his VOIAGES AND DISCOVERIES OF THE ENGLISH NATION (1589) that the artichoke was a relatively new foodstuff for the Elizabethans. ‘In time of memory’ he claims, ‘things have bene brought in that were not here before, as…the Artichowe in time of Henry the eight.’”

Ms. Sass provides a number of medieval pie recipes in this and a companion volume, “TO THE KING’S TASTE”, also published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She notes that the Elizabethans were fond of cooking food in edible containers and many of their recipes were for pies. Pies and tarts, she observes, were among the highlights of Elizabethan cuisine. Many of these recipes might be found cloyingly sweet for today’s palate, as they combined numerous spices and sweet ingredients.

While doing research for an article I wrote for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, titled “Kitchens West” I found numerous references to pies made by pioneer women as they made the enormously difficult trip across the plains to Oregon and California. Despite all the hardships of traveling in a covered wagon, a conveyance about the size of today’s mini-van, these women baked breads and pies usually on a daily basis! (pie-making was second only to bread making).

There are many references in Susan Butruille’s book, “Women’s Voices from the Oregon Trail”, as well as in the Covered Wagon Women series, edited and compiled by Kenneth Holmes, to pioneer women baking pies from dried fruit and occasionally from berries they and their children would sometimes find on the trail. It has been thought that the ubiquitous mock apple pie may have originated on the Oregon Trail, some forgotten pioneer woman’s effort to provide her family with their favorite dessert when there were no dried apples nor any fresh fruit to make a pie filling.

However, Poppy Cannon, in “The President’s Cookbook” writes, “The Civil War created havoc with the traditionally rich Southern cooking. Although those in Washington were not noticeably deprived, countrymen in the South were suffering from severe shortages of familiar foods…”

Cannon goes on to provide a recipe taken from “THE CONFEDERATE RECIPE BOOK”, subtitled “A Compilation of Over One Hundred Recipes Adapted to the Times.” What follows is a recipe for mock apple pie—apple pie made without apples, by soaking a large bowl of crackers in water or milk. It would seem, then, that mock apple pie was familiar to women of the south, during the Civil War, and therefore undoubtedly familiar to the pioneer women crossing the plains in the mid-1800s.

Today’s version of Mock Apple Pie, made from Ritz crackers, is astonishingly “deceiving”—it tastes just like the real thing. Considering that a box of Ritz crackers, today, costs more than several pounds of apples, you’d have to ask yourself – why bother? But pioneer women didn’t have fresh fruit and after months on the trail, they sometimes didn’t have any dried fruit, either. An early Minnesota cookbook provides a recipe for mock mince pie that was also made from crackers, “Boston or butter crackers”. Americans became incredibly adept at creating all sorts of ‘mock’ foods, from mock turtle soup to mock coconut pie, made from potatoes. In Lincoln’s time there was even a recipe for fried oysters without oysters, made from corn—this is a subject we’ll have to delve into another time).

Writing on the subject of pie-baking on the Oregon Trail, Jacqueline Williams, author of “WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS” says that pies placed a close second in the baking department, after bread. Apple pie headed the list but mince, pumpkin, peach, currant and pot pies were mentioned in diaries and letters. “Even though baking pies involved mixing dough, making a crust, stewing fruit (usually dried), and lighting a fire, pies were such a part of the American cuisine that women were expected to make them for most meals…” The main complaint on the trail about pies, says Williams, was their sameness. “Spit in my ears and tell me lies, but give me no dried apple pies” was one of many ditties coined by the emigrants. (Other baked foods written about in diaries included apple dumplings, crullers, fruit cakes, doughnuts, fritters, bran dumplings, ginger snaps, fruit cakes, molasses cake and cookies!).

Charles Perry notes that in the late 1800s, American lumberjacks in a logging camp were described as eating mince pies three times a day and adds that the idea of pie for breakfast still hangs on in some places, especially Pennsylvania Dutch country. (One can’t help wondering—did the lumberjacks eat mince pies three times a day because they liked it so much, or was it because nothing else was available?).

Writing of lumberjacks reminded me of a recipe found in “HOW AMERICA EATS” by Clementine Paddleford, published in 1949. The author was directed to a place in Massachusetts, where a lady there made—in batches of a dozen at a time—a lumberjack pie, which starts out with “3 lbs fresh pork shoulder, 3 lbs chuck beef…” Need I say more?

Some of my favorite food historians are oddly remiss on the subject of pies—I found little written in Evan Jones’ “American Food” and Katie Stewart’s “The Joy of Eating” and even less in Reay Tannahill’s “Food in History”. While “The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages” provides a number of pie recipes it offers no historical background on the subject.

However, there are a fair amount of cookbooks entirely devoted to the subject of pies. Sometimes they are in booklet form, such as Crisco’s “AMERICAN PIE CELEBRATION” volumes one and two, which featured the prize-winning recipes of the Crisco pie recipe contests, or the Good Housekeeping Party Pie book which originally sold for 39 cents. Better Homes and Gardens published a cookbook called “PIES AND CAKES” which originally sold, I think, for $1.95 in 1966. A few years later, BH&G devoted an entire cookbook to “ALL-TIME FAVORITE PIES”, published in 1978.

In 1965, Farm Journal published their “COMPLETE PIE COOKBOOK”—As anyone who collects cookbooks knows, the Farm Journal cookbooks are great books to have on your kitchen shelf.

Not a cookbook devoted entirely to pies, but “FORGOTTEN RECIPES” compiled by Jaine Rodack, published first in 1981, contains some pie recipes worth mentioning—ranging from grape skin pie to carrot pie and including something from 1921 called prune pie.

Cookbook author Teresa Kennedy is the author of “AMERICAN PIE” (subtitled ‘Irresistible recipes for fillings and crusts from four generations of champion pie bakers”), published in 1984. In the introduction, Ms. Kennedy observes that “It wasn’t until the bicentennial in 1976 that our nation really rediscovered ‘American food”. She says that, fueled by a long, nostalgic look at our past and its traditions, we began to recognize that American cuisine consisted of more than just fast-food burgers, hot dogs, and meat loaf and that American cooking was thriving in unique and infinite variety. “Pies,” notes the author, “piled high with fresh fruit or rich with cream—have been cooling on American windowsills since the colonial days. Perhaps no single product of this country’s cooking is more indigenous or more inspiring. After all, it was Mom’s Apple pie that sent soldiers into battle…”

Ms. Kennedy waxes poetic in writing that pies are what American food is really about. Pie baking competitions and pie-eating contests have been part of the American tradition from Bangor to Baton Rouge.

Speaking of pie baking competitions brought to mind the “BRAHAM’S 1991 PIE COOKBOOK”, from Braham, the Homemade Pie Capital of Minnesota. The folks in Braham have an original pie recipe contest out of which 104 were selected for this cookbook. (Curiously, ice cream pies were the big winners in 1991. What happened to mom’s apple pie?).

Does anyone in Minnesota know whether this contest is still going on? What do you have to do to become a judge?

“BLUE RIBBON PIES” was compiled by Maria Polushinkin Robbins in 1987. This is a compilation of “75 of the mouthwatering award-winning recipes from America’s State, County, and Local fairs”, proving that pie still captivates the American heartland.

Cookbook author Teresa Kennedy returned with more to say on the subject, in 1993, with the publication of “THE HUMBLE PIE/50 TORTES, QUICHES, PIZZAS AND EMPANADAS”, published by Collier Books. Ms. Kennedy notes that, “Although the main-dish pie has never become as popular in America as it has throughout the rest of the world, it is my own feeling that it is an idea whose time has very definitely come…” Kennedy states that as cooks the world over have long known, main-dish pies are easy, economical and nutritious. Many of the recipes in “The Humble Pie” would be absolutely ideal to serve at parties.

Leisure Arts, whose books you may have discovered and found captivating, published “EASY AS PIE” in their ‘memories in the making series’ in 1996. Although it does contain some nice pie recipes, this is really a dessert cookbook, replete with pie, cake and other pastry desserts.

There is a great little book called “Far Flung Hubbell” by Sue Hubbell, published in 1995 by Random House, which includes an essay called (what else?) “The Great American Pie Expedition”. Ms. Hubbell is a writer/bee-keeper/truck driver who has written numerous pieces for The New Yorker. While the author was on the road (delivering honey from her bee keeping ventures to retailers hither and yon), she sampled pie…pie made by the Shakers of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, Kentucky; Nantucket Cranberry Pie in Maine, pecan pie, banana pudding pie, apple pie and sour-cream raisin pie at the Potato City Motor Inn in Potter County, Pennsylvania.

“Americans”, says Hubbell, “discovered that other tasty pies could be made from materials at hand. A mock-cherry pie could be made with Cape Cod cranberries. Vermont pie was made from apples, with syrup cooked down from the sap of maple trees. American pioneers improvised and created our very own pumpkin pie. Americans, says Hubbell, were the first to discover what pies could be. Hubbell pulls no punches revealing what pies were good and which ones not-so-good in this most entertaining article.

More recently, cookbook author Pat Willard wrote “PIE EVERY DAY”, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1997.

Mindy Marin is the author of “THE SECRET TO TENDER PIE/AMERICA’S GRANDMOTHERS SHARE THEIR FAVORITE RECIPES” published by Ballantine Books, also in 1997.

Ms. Marin’s cookbook is charming “Some of these delicious old-fashioned recipes,” claim the publishers, “are pulled from the backs of kitchen drawers and corner cupboards, some strictly from memory, never before written down. Some were scrawled in faded ink on yellowed bits of paper, some scrupulously copies from the margins of old cookbooks…Mindy’s own Grandma Bessie Cecil finally reveals the secret to her unforgettable apple pie made from Gravensteins or Granny Smiths….”

The cookbook itself was inspired by Mindy’s grandmother and a recipe she gave to her. During the Christmas of 1992, Mindy’s grandmother asked her what she wanted for a present. The author realized that what she wanted most was her grandmother’s recipe for apple pie—and when she received it, two weeks later in the mail, it occurred to her that if her grandma had a recipe that meant so much to her, so must grandmothers everywhere. The Los Angeles Times published an article about her quest and she received hundreds of recipes from which to choose (I wish I had thought of this). “The Secret to Tender Pie” isn’t limited to pie recipes, but it is charmingly written, replete with photos, and a worthy addition to your cookbook collection.

Not to be overlooked is the subject of pie crust. As noted earlier, pie crusts in medieval times wasn’t even meant to be eaten. The flaky, tender pie crust that evolved in the 1800s and 1900s was certainly a product of American pride and engenuity. That, and lard. There is a most entertaining essay on pie crust in Jeffrey Steingarten’s “THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING” in which the author embarkes on a pilgrimage to find the perfect pie crust. He had an ulterior motive; he wanted to impress cookbook author Marion Cunningham, who was coming to town. The objective of the Perfect American pie crust, says Steingarten, must be seven things at once—flaky, airy, light, tender, crisp, well browned, and good tasting. He goes on to say that the tricky ones are flaky, tender and crisp,–because these are independent virtues. Getting flaky, tender and crisp to happen at the same time in the same pie seems nearly impossible.

Yet, he concurs, millions of American women and men in the early 1900s could do it in their sleep and probably tens of thousands can today. Marion, he says, is one of them. (You will have to read the book to learn more).

(Had Mr. Steingarten read John & Karen Hess’ “THE TASTE OF AMERICA”, first published in the USA in 1977, he might have discovered early on the importance of weighing, rather than measuring, flour—but then wouldn’t have had such an entertaining article to write in the aftermath).

If you are a serious about pie making and aspire to something greater than what the frozen food section of your supermarket has to offer, may I suggest Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “THE PIE AND PASTRY BIBLE”, published by Scribner in 1998. Few cookbook authors take the time to delve as deeply into a subject as Beranbaum, whose chapters include everything—from crusts to equipment. Sandwiched inbetween are chapters on everything from fruit pies to chiffon pies, from custard pies and tarts, to savory tarts and quiche, from puff pastry and croissant to fillings and toppings and sauces and glazes. There are helpful line drawn illustrations and color photographs that are guaranteed to make your mouth water.

An article about pie-making would not be complete, I think, without the inclusion of impossible pies. It took a bit of research to come up with some background material about impossible pies. I knew that the first one was a coconut impossible pie that has been around for decades, showing up in church-and-club cookbooks during the 60s. Impossible pies are, in case you have been living in Tibet and have been oblivious, a kind of pie that makes its own crust. I finally unearthed some information about impossible pies in Al Sicherman’s marvelous “CARAMEL KNOWLEDGE” (mine is a soft-cover edition published in 1988 by Harper & Row. Sicherman acknowledges that Impossible coconut pie was the first and no one knows how the recipe originated.
In any case, it wasn’t the people who make Bisquick. When they first heard about the recipe, they didn’t think it had enough potential—it didn’t use enough Bisquick. However, Mr. Sicherman did contact the people at General Mills, where Bisquick is manufacturered, and spoke to a representative who agreed that they didn’t know how the impossible pies got their start, but when the people at General Mills began to realize its potential (much like, one assumes, the people at Pillsbury began to grasp the potential of the tunnel of fudge cake), they began working up their own recipes. Now there are infinite impossible pie recipes for both dessert and main dish categories. I have often made Impossible pumpkin pie (and like it very much, thank you), and Impossible brownie pie. But if those are not to your liking, you can also choose from an assortment of other impossibles—cheesecake, pecan pie, chocolate cream pie, banana cream and French apple. And, of course, the original Impossible coconut pie.

Of the dozens of main-dish recipes, you can choose from impossible beef enchilada , impossible cheeseburger pie, impossible turkey & stuffing and impossible chicken pot pie.

One summer I was spending a few weeks visiting some friends and the two daughters and I took turns, almost nightly, whipping up various versions of an impossible vegetable pie until we finally became impossibly tired of it all and went to El Torito’s for margaritas and burritos. (Actually, the impossible pies are great, simple, and they reheat nicely. You just might not want to eat it every night for two weeks).

As I dug into dozens of cookbooks, searching for pie history and pie recipes, I realized that many recipes have faded into obscurity, pies such as grasshopper pie and shoo fly pie, chess pie and vinegar pie, even the chiffon pies of the 40s….some recipes disappear for a few decades and then re-appear, sometimes with a bit of a face-uplift, such as tamale pie while still others re-appear with a slimmed-down version, with less calories, less fat, less sugar.

Is pie disappearing from our culinary landscape?

What do you think?

“Delicious Pies”

Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, on November 10, 1907. Author unknown.

In Spring men sigh
For Cherry pie
To soothe their taste capricious
‘tis with delight
they surely bite
and say that it’s delicious.

But later on
Ere Spring is gone,
They want a change from cherries,
And then they cry
For fragrant pie
That’s stuffed with luscious berries.

In summer days
The same old craze
For pie a new trick teaches,
With strong desire
Men then inquire
For pastry filled with peaches.

In chilly fall
For pie they call
But this time it is noted,
They want the kind
in which they find
sweet pumpkin thickly coated.

In winter drear
They persevere
For pies they still are scheming
But when it’s brought
They want it hot
And packed with mincemeat steaming.

Thus all year ‘round
Can pie be found
And men are quick to grab it—
Advice they spurn,
For pie they yearn,
And won’t give up the habit.

As a bit of a postscript to this, I would like to let all of you know that the kind of writing I used to do for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange for which this was originally published, would not have been possible without all of the assistance given to me, by my faithful researchers, Pat & Stan Stuart, Mandy Leon, and Sue Erwin, who all, often, tracked down information for me. I began to feel like Sue was looking over my shoulder as I wrote, for she often anticipated exactly what I was looking for even before I start writing.

Hope you all found this in apple-pie order!

–Sandra Lee Smith

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