Desperation Pies: A Slice of Seasonal History

In Winchester, Indiana, one might stop in at Mrs. Wick’s Pies and Restaurant and find a slice of history. Today, Wick’s is one of the most famous purveyors of sugar cream pie, a regional dessert also known as Hoosier cream pie. This simple confection is a custard-like10481395_10154585497195010_554488321674987831_n pie made with only six ingredients: milk, sugar, flour, shortening, vanilla, and nutmeg. While Hoosier cream pie is little known outside rural Indiana, it belongs to a variety of desserts known as desperation pies. Such pies were once popular across America but have been all but forgotten in today’s culinary landscape. Important in the folk history of American rural culture, such desperation pies give a unique glimpse at how important seasonal cycles were to the lives of people in the past.

Accounts from colonial Pennsylvania tell of the first forms of desperation pies made by German immigrants as early as the 1740s. The archive of George and Martha Washington includes recipe notes for “chess pie,” a form of desperation pie common in the South. The first known recipe of a Hoosier cream pie was recorded in 1816, and food historians speculate that it originated with early Shaker migrants to Indiana. Desperation pies were a common phenomenon throughout eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, and made a brief comeback during the Great Depression in the twentieth century. Historically though, these pies were born out of a seasonal “desperation” more often than an economic one.

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In households throughout American history, pie traditionally served as the standard dessert, and sometimes the main course. While pies could be expected at many family tables, “the filling depended on the season, the baker’s creativity and the ingredients at hand.” The dessert of early Americans varied throughout the year, based on the changing seasons. In late spring, sweet strawberries and fresh rhubarb were the first fruits to fill the  crusts of American households. By June, people could look to gather wild black raspberries in the woods of New England and Appalachia and huckleberries further west and south. In the height of summer, blackberry and gooseberry pies stood in as the standard dessert in the North, while ripe peaches satisfied the sweet tooth of Southern counterparts. By August and September, apples were the bill images (1)of fare and as autumn closed in, bakers put pumpkins and pecans to use for special holiday pies. As winter frosts set in, fresh fruits became unavailable for another year. Canned fruits and barrels of apples from that year’s harvest carried families through the colder months with pies on the table. By late winter and early spring, however, things began to look bleak in the larders of earlier Americans.

Desperation pies were the solution for cooks and bakers everywhere, and they cropped up in a plethora of variations. The simple combinations arose from “ingredients that would have nearly always been on hand” and less dependent on the seasons. In the Midwest, oatmeal or sugar cream pies substituted during the scarce months of February and March. Further south, concoctions of vanilla, corn meal, and eggs became the solution to late winter fruit shortages. Another Appalachian variation—vinegar pie—combined the sweetness of seasonal maple syrup with sharp vinegar to imitate the tartness of apple pie or lemon meringue. In the Amish settlements of Pennsylvania and Ohio, shoofly pie, made with sorghum molasses, provided after-supper satisfaction for farming families whose “apple bins had dwindled.” In urban areas like the south side of the Chicago, where even milk and eggs became scarce during late winter, families soaked legumes in sugar water and made a type of sweet bean pie to placate their cravings. Across the United States, families harnessed their creativity and resourcefulness to keep pie on the table year-round, albeit contingent on the cycles of the season.

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Underbelly, an upscale Houston restaurant, now features vinegar pie as their signature dessert

With the advent of refrigeration, long-distance shipping, hothouse agriculture and preservatives in the twentieth century, seasonal cycles of scarcity and abundance became a thing of the past.  Modern grocery stores now allow people to access fruits and vegetables year-round, shipped from across the world or grown indoors in greenhouse structures. With this perpetual plenty, desperation pies became unnecessary. While seasons are by no means obsolete today, modern comforts can cloud our historical perspective. Central air now shields us from summer heat and winter cold. In an age so sheltered from seasonal shifts, it can be easy to forget how closely linked the human experience is to such cycles. People’s daily routines, even their diets, were conditioned by the seasons. Today, desperation pies persist only in residual and scattered forms—in the bakeries of Amish Country, the farm-to-table restaurants of “foodies,” and the reminiscences of country cooking magazines.

The story of such pies is not just a quaint farm tale or a whim of nostalgia though. The seasonal nature and folk elements of these recipes reflect a larger point about history that is easy to forget in the current era. People’s lives are highly influenced by the changing seasons, and this was even more true in the past. Danger of disease in the summer prompted upper class citizens to flee eastern cities like Philadelphia and Washington, DC for the countryside. Slaves were more likely to run away during the dryer months of late summer and early fall in the Low Country of the Carolinas. In the Great Lakes backcountry, spring floods eased travel on the portage routes and determined the rhythms of the fur trade. Naval commanders on both sides during the American Revolution prioritized getting their ships out of tropical waters during autumn’s hurricane season. On land, generals planned their armies’ campaigns around winter’s frosts, spring’s thaw, and autumn’s harvest. Native Americans referred to late winter as the “starving time” due to seasonal food shortages and avoided raids at that time of year. Davy Crockett once led a group of militia to desert because it was time for the spring planting back home. When Andrew Jackson’s policies callously ignored seasonal realities during Indian Removal, thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, and Creeks died of exposure during the wintry Trail of Tears. From the most minute details of peoples’ lives—what they ate for dessert, up to the most important developments in U.S. history, seasons mattered. A slice of desperation pie today is a reminder of a past world where seasonal cycles served as the tempo to historical events.

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Hungry for more food history? Satiate your interests with our article about Chinese food!

Do concepts of time and historical cycles fascinate you? Enjoy our article on the changing calendars of Colonial America.

Sources:

“A Pie Called Shoofly.” Chicago Tribune. (Aug 5, 1998).

Coplen, Katherine. “Vintage Vittles: Dreaming of Sugar Cream Pie.” Historic Indianapolis. (Aug. 17, 2013).

Eby, Margaret, “Why Desperation Pies Are Making a Comeback.” Bon Appétit. (Dec 18, 2015). http://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/trends-news/article/vinegar-buttermilk-desperation-pies

Hevrdegs, Judy. “The Pies That Were Forgotten: Old-School Creations, Born of Desperation, Deserve Place at the Table.” Chicago Tribune. (Aug, 15, 2012).

Stoller-Conrad, Jessica. “In Lean Times, Creative Bakers Turn To Desperation Pies” NPR (July 5, 2012). http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/07/03/156201134/in-lean-times-creative-bakers-turn-to-desperation-pies

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