In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|May 8-14, 2008
• Sustainable addiction
Forming local habits in The Kitchen
by Clay Fong
• Reusable grocery totes are replacing paper, plastic
by Carol McGraw
The Midwest’s creative contributions
by Nancy Stohs
Most people think the West was won by gun-slinging sheriffs, the prairies tamed by sweat, muscle and sodbusting farmers.
Uh-uh. It was pie.
Pie, cake, cobblers, the occasional kolache or schaum torte.
In other words, dessert. This sweet meal finale played a major role in the frontier history of the American Midwest and remains a cherished piece of the heartland’s culinary culture today.
This was unquestionably the message coloring a recent symposium, “How Sweet It Is,” which celebrated iconic Midwestern desserts. Speakers at the all-day event, sponsored by the newly formed Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and held earlier this month at Kendall College in Chicago, touched on common themes of native ingredients, transplanted (and translated) ethnic traditions and resourcefulness.
From the first settlers on, prairie women kept themselves busy baking desserts for hungry menfolk in the fields, said Jane C. Marshall, food historian and journalism instructor at Kansas State University.
At the same time, pie auctions, cake walks and other dessert-centric fund-raisers helped build schools, libraries, parsonages and other building blocks of civilization in communities all across the Great Plains.
“Pioneer women found satisfaction and joy” in feeding others in this manner, Marshall said, “and at times they even understood the power they wielded. Any food can provide the energy one needs… but desserts have a power of their own.”
Especially when there were three bakers — i.e., women — for every 97 men.
Far from the long-settled areas of the East, or the old countries from which they hailed, pioneer bakers were constantly nudged to be resourceful, Marshall continued.
Vinegar pie, for example, had “nuances of lemon and apples when both were out of season.” Eggs were precious, so eggless cakes were developed. Tin cans stood in as rolling pins, buffalo chips fueled the oven fire.
Ingredients like sugar were scarce at first, so alternative sweeteners such as maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, sorghum syrup and honey often led to the creation of all-new desserts. Even watermelon could be cooked down to a thick sweet paste.
By the mid-19th century, America and Britain tied for the sweetest table in the world, and charitable cookbooks of the day typically devoted half their recipes to desserts.
“There were a plethora of Midwestern cookbooks starting around the 1870s,” said Judith Fertig, author of Prairie Home Cooking (Harvard Common Press, 1999). “A lot of those recipes that were written down and passed down were dessert recipes because you had to be precise. Your mother could teach you how to make a roast or soup.”
Pie takes the cake
Through all the talk about Midwestern desserts — and spilling over into the symposium’s welcome “dessert breaks” — the spotlight kept returning to pie.
“I think it’s just a friendly dessert, and Midwesterners like to pride themselves on [knowing how to make] piecrust,” said Fertig, who did not speak at the symposium but was interviewed later. “Pie is democratic and it’s friendly and it’s neighborly.”
Pie used less flour than bread, Marshall said in her talk, so it was easier to bake in ovens in which the heat could not be easily controlled. Also, settlers were eagerly planting fruit trees, and “Midwesterners always want to combine fruit with sugar, flour and fat.”
It’s not hard to tick off a list of pies with a strong Midwestern following, if not origin: apple, cranberry, cherry, lemon meringue, rhubarb, mulberry, buttermilk, peach.
Three pies in particular were singled out at the symposium.
Bean pie: Before you laugh, try a piece. Essentially a bean custard, this protein-packed pie originated in the 1940s, if not sooner, with the Nation of Islam in Chicago, said food historian and research scientist Peter Engler. The founder, Elijah Muhammad, was very concerned with diet and wrote “pages and pages praising navy beans,” Engler said.
Once sold in bakeries in Chicago neighborhoods, the pie is becoming harder to find, he said, except for at Nation of Islam fund-raisers.
But Chicago’s role as the “epicenter of bean pies” remains evident. One ice cream shop even sells a bean-pie-flavored ice cream called Taste of Heaven.
Indiana sugar cream pie: Also called Hoosier pie, this simple dessert is a beloved staple in her home state, said Paula Haney, a trained pastry chef who now owns a pie shop in Chicago with her husband called Hoosier Mama Pie Co.
It falls in the category of “desperation pies,” she said, with cream, sugar and flour the only essential ingredients. Traditionally, the flour and sugar go into the pie shell first, then the cream, and it’s all mixed together with the fingers.
Fruit pies also run deep in Indiana tradition, Haney said. Two such pies that may be unique to the state include wild American persimmon and paw-paw.
Wild American persimmons are not cultivated and are very messy, she said, “but have a wonderful sweet flavor” and were very important to settlers because they ripen as the harvest is ending in the fall. With a pumpkin-apricot flavor, they’re made into a pie that’s similar to pumpkin.
Paw paws are an unusual fruit related to the cherimoya. Once important to American Indians, it offers a flavor that is a cross between banana, pineapple and mango, Haney said. Made into a custard pie, it’s a labor-intensive fruit, with large seeds that have to be removed by hand. And sadly, the trees are disappearing.
Pecan pie: Hey, isn’t this southern?
Well, actually, according to Catherine Lambrecht, a founding board member of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, pecan trees are native to Midwestern states including Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. They were introduced to Georgia sometime after the Civil War.
The earliest published recipe for pecan pie that she could track down appeared in a St. Louis newspaper in 1899.
Today’s pecan pie, she said, actually owes its existence to Karo syrup, which published a recipe in a leaflet in the 1920s and then gave it permanence on the bottle label.
Other sweet things
Other speakers at the symposium touched on the history of the Heath Bar, created in Robinson, Ill.; traced almond desserts of Scandinavian heritage back to the 12th-century Vikings; described traditional Mennonite treats such as pfeffernuesse and pluma moos, a prune and raisin soup with buttermilk; and pondered modern twists to Polish pastries.
One thing is clear: the Midwestern sweet tooth is here to stay.
back to top