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American History as Told by 7 Vintage Pies

Food + Drink
by Alex Bresler Nov 21, 2019

Pie is a cornerstone of American culture, as inalienable from the national identity as our fundamental rights.

Every November, we argue not if we should serve pie but rather which pie, pumpkin or pecan, deserves to grace the hallowed Thanksgiving table. An American mouth is a “pie hole,” one that’s likely belted the lyrics to “American Pie.” The Declaration of Independence may as well read “life, liberty, and the pursuit of filled pastry.”

Like America itself, however, pie’s origins trace back to the Old World.

Pie crust has roots in Ancient Greece, same as American democracy. Early iterations of the desserts we drool over today traveled from medieval Europe, where they were predominantly savory. In the words of famed abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, pie is “an English institution which, when planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”

Perhaps the most delicious way to study American history is by looking back at the nation’s favorite pies, many of which might just be due for a comeback.

1. Marlborough pie: The start of a new nation


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The phrase should really be “as American as Marlborough pie.”

Early English settlers brought more than just the concept of pie to the New World. They also introduced sweet apples to the colonies, where previously only crab apples grew. English seeds took to the northeastern soil, and it wasn’t long before colonists were desperate to find ways to use up all their apples.

One method was Marlborough pie, a custardy cousin of America’s most iconic dessert that was historically made with nearly spoiled apples. Though a recipe for apple-custard pie appeared in Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook in mid-17th-century England, the earliest written American Marlborough pie recipe comes from Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, believed to be the first cookbook authored by an American and printed in the US.

By the 1800s, sweet pies were well established as America’s preference. Chief among them in the Northeast was Marlborough pie, which appeared in several 19th-century cookbooks as a combination of grated or pureed apples, lemons, brandy or sherry, butter, sugar, and eggs to thicken the filling.

In A New England Boyhood, published in 1900, Massachusetts-born Edward Everett Hale writes, “To this hour, in any old and well-regulated family in New England, you will find there is a traditional method of making Marlborough pie,” which, he says, was eaten “at other times, but we were sure to have them on Thanksgiving Day.”

No need to toss out your family’s pumpkin pie recipe for authenticity’s sake when the holidays come around, however. According to food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson, “Pumpkin pie is unique in that it is distinctly American.” Not one but two recipes appear in Simmons’ American Cookery, Johnson notes, marking “the first time ever that pumpkin pie is in print.”

2. Shoofly pie: Early immigrant culture shapes the first 100 years


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European immigrants established settlements up and down the East Coast during the colonial era. Religious freedom was a driving force behind the move, famously landing the pilgrims on the shores of Cape Cod in 1620. Later that century, through the early 1800s, German and Swiss immigrants fleeing religious persecution flocked to Pennsylvania, whose Quaker founder, William Penn, promoted religious tolerance.

Though not from the Netherlands, these settlers would come to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, and they’d contribute shoofly pie to America’s pastry canon.

An early, crustless version of shoofly pie was unveiled in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was, appropriately, coined Centennial Cake. The recipe quickly spread beyond the city to the Pennsylvania Dutch, who added pastry dough to make the gooey, crumbly cake easier to eat with morning coffee.

Molasses is the main ingredient in shoofly pie. Some posit that this explains its name, as the filling would attract flies as it cooled. According to Jonathan Deutsch, author of We Eat What? A Cultural Encyclopedia of Unusual Foods in the United States, “the name ‘shoofly pie’ did not come into use until the 1880s and is not seen in print until 1926.” Deutsch cites several theories as to its origin, such as the name being a reference to the erstwhile Shoofly Molasses brand or Shoofly the Boxing Mule, part of a popular traveling circus in the late 1800s.

In and around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Amish country, it’s still possible to find shoofly pie. Dutch Haven off Route 30, established in 1936, even claims to make its famous, wet-bottom shoofly pie from the original recipe.

3. Peanut pie: A tale of colonialism, slavery, and innovation


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Peanuts have a long, circuitous history in what is now the United States. Native to South America, they arrived in the American South by way of the 18th-century slave trade, having first been brought to Africa by Portuguese traders. Peanuts have long been grown commercially in the Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carlina, but they were initially regarded as a poor man’s food, primarily used for oil, as a substitute for cocoa, or to feed livestock.

In the early 1900s, George Washington Carver, an American agricultural scientist and inventor who was born into slavery, became a public figure after appearing in front of Congress in support of a peanut tarriff, having developed around 300 peanut-based products ranging from soaps and lotions to cooking and salad oils, flour, milk, paper, paste, and wood stain.

It’s unclear when the first peanut pie was baked. References appear in print as early as 1887, and by the 1940s, an advertisement for Karo corn syrup included a recipe for Deep South Peanut Pie like they make in Dixie, where the ad claims it was invented. The filling is simple, calling for eggs, Karo Syrup, salt, vanilla, sugar, melted butter or margarine, and shelled peanuts.

A relative of pecan pie, peanut pie doesn’t show up on many menus these days, though it does still make appearances in restaurants throughout the South. None is as famous as the Virginia Diner, a company that’s also the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” located in Wakefield, Virginia, since 1929. Though similar to the Karo ad’s recipe, the diner’s version specifically calls for Virginia peanuts, which are the meaty, crunchy kind we’re used to seeing at ballparks.

4. Icebox pie: Urbanization changes the way we eat


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Nineteenth-century America saw two Industrial Revolutions and the Civil War. Among the war’s causes was the economic disparity between the South, which relied on slave labor, and the North, which was rapidly urbanizing and whose technological breakthroughs in the first half of the century created a demand for wage laborers.

Samuel Slater is often credited with starting the Industrial Revolution when he opened America’s first industrial mill in Massachusetts in 1791. Next came the cotton gin, then the steamboat, telegraph, and transportation networks like railroads and canals. A second boom arose after the war, resulting in bigger cities, more factories and machines, and the introduction of electric power, which led to innovations like the telephone in the late 1800s.

Much as the shift from agrarian to urban changed the way Americans worked, it changed the way they ate. Workers started brown-bagging lunches. People began buying more and making, or raising, less, relying on convenience foods “designed to replicate items that previously would have been very labor-intensive to produce,” explains food historian Sarah Johnson.

Smack in the middle of it all is the icebox pie, so named for the early refrigeration unit it was cooled in. A precursor to the modern refrigerator, which first came onto the scene in the 1940s, the icebox was commercialized in the mid-19th century as city dwellers lost the ability to harvest ice. Unsurprisingly, the desserts of the day capitalized on this early refrigeration.

Icebox pies are frozen pies that often incorporate gelatin so as to set without heat. (Jell-O was trademarked in 1897.) They first became popular around the turn of the 20th century, appearing in various flavors, with lemon quickly establishing itself as a quintessential take.

5. Mock apple pie: Desperation pies during the Great Depression


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When a nation prospers, its people eat well. After World War I came to a close, ending with it the practice of food conservation, Americans entered the Roaring Twenties, an era of indulgence à la The Great Gatsby that ran on Champagne and cocktails despite Prohibition.

The country’s economic stability was short-lived, however. When the stock market crashed in 1929, food culture shifted from extravagance to essentials, forcing home cooks to create new recipes using whatever ingredients they had on hand.

“Desperation pies” or “make-do pies” are a time-honored American tradition in meager times. Southern classics like chess and buttermilk pie require only basic ingredients, such as butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and buttermilk. Vinegar pie, made with tangy cider vinegar, became a substitute for lemon meringue pie. During the Great Depression, some bakers even resorted to making water pie, which has a filling made from water, flour, sugar, and butter.

In 1934, just as the nation was beginning to recover from the worst of the financial crisis, the National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco, launched Ritz Crackers. Shortly after, the brand began advertising a recipe for Ritz Mock Apple Pie on its boxes, offering a thrifty dessert alternative at a time when apples were hard to come by.

The original recipe calls for Ritz Crackers to be broken up and placed in a pie crust, slathered in a lemon sugar syrup, topped with pats of butter or margarine and a dusting of cinnamon, then covered with a pie lid and baked. The result looks like an apple pie, smells like an apple pie, and supposedly even tastes like an apple pie, despite the primary fruit flavor being lemon.

Mock apple pie remained popular throughout World War II when, again, fresh apples were not always an option for home cooks. The recipe continued to appear on Ritz Cracker boxes even decades later.

6. Grasshopper pie: Sweet, processed, and alcohol-filled abundance


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The post-World War II era largely defined modern America’s eating habits. It was a time of adjustment as soldiers returned home from being stationed abroad and women returned to being homemakers after having joined the workforce. Families moved to the suburbs and began shopping at supermarkets stocked with processed, prepared, homogenized foods.

In 1954, Swanson & Sons rolled out the TV dinner. In 1957, Pillsbury launched ready-made cookie dough. Tang, Cheez Whiz, and the first frozen pizzas also hit the shelves in the 1950s. Following the creation of the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower, the country saw a spike in fast food, as well as chain motels and the beloved road trip.

According to Darra Goldstein, author of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, grasshopper pie also hit the scene in the 1950s, when Mad Men-style advertising targeting a new domestic goddess intersected the Mad Men-style drinking culture to create a mod-green, liqueur-infused pie reminiscent of mint chip ice cream.

Grasshopper pie gets its name from the grasshopper cocktail that inspired its ingredients: creme de menthe, creme de cacao, and cream, which are to be shaken with ice and strained into a cold glass. Tujague, a restaurant in Louisiana’s French Quarter, claims to have served the first grasshopper cocktail, attributing the drink to Philibert Guichet, whose family bought the bar from its original owners and who’s said to have invented the recipe for a New York City cocktail competition in 1918.

Though both the drink and pie had already begun flaming out of fashion by the late 1960s, grasshopper pie notably carried the no-bake-dessert tradition into the next generation. Chances are, it’s no coincidence that frozen pies started making a comeback shortly after electric refrigerators became common household appliances.

7. French silk pie: A new era that looks back


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Don’t let the name fool you. French silk pie is all American.

In 1951, Betty Cooper placed in a Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest with a pie filled with chocolate mousse. Though not seen often these days, French silk pie had some staying power, appearing in cookbooks like Bon Appetit’s 1986 Pies and Tarts and Better Homes and Gardens’ New Cook Book a decade later, albeit in a no-fat version. Around the same time, the more rudimentary pudding pie, made with instant mix, also had its moment on the dessert stage.

Examining history through the lens of pie informs not just where we’ve been, but where we’re going. In 2015, for example, Bon Appetit published a feature on the return of desperation pies. Like all trends, America’s go-to desserts will continue to change over time, incorporating new and old influences and pushing culinary boundaries.

Lucky for us, though, we’re unlikely to see the day an old-fashioned American diner isn’t serving up a warm slice of something à la mode in our lifetime.

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