You may not have heard the term “desperation pie” before, but odds are you’ve eaten one. If you’ve ever had buttermilk pie, chess pie or shoofly pie…they’re all desperation pies. Otherwise known as “make-do” pies (a more positive spin), these pies were what grandma (and great-grandma!) made from common pantry items when she couldn’t get fresh fruit. And plenty of pies, like some of these 50 pies for 50 states, don’t use fresh fruit either.
Why they were big
The most popular explanation is that desperation pies were the result of economic hardship during the Great Depression, or of rationing during World War II. But while they did surge in popularity during those eras—for exactly those reasons—desperation pies actually go back much further. Pies in this category were mentioned in writings as early as the 1740s. The “desperation” in question was not economic, but seasonal. In a pre-Industrial, agrarian society that didn’t allow for refrigeration or the high-speed transport of perishable goods, what cooks created in their kitchens was determined by what was in season.
In a four-season climate, this left a hole right around late winter and early spring—after the winter stores were depleted and before the spring fruit began to come in. However, ingredients such as vinegar—like this—and molasses were still available. So is the secret ingredient for the perfect pumpkin pie. Dried fruit, like raisins and currants, were stocked away. And grains, including cornmeal and oats, were safely silo-ed. So intrepid and inventive cooks rolled up their sleeves and created some delicious new desserts.
Why they’re back
A few of these pies took root and became regional favorites, but most faded from public consciousness and were revived only during times of hardship. So why are they having a renaissance now? There are a few reasons. In the generation following World War II, these pies were associated with deprivation, so with the end of rationing, they were relegated to the back of recipe boxes and were forgotten. Why continue to ration when you don’t have to?
But current generations have none of those negative associations, and instead, are intrigued by the creativity of cooks of the past. That’s why people like to cook these recipes like grandma used to make, too. In the post-war period of the 1950s, the emphasis was on security, stability, and comfort. In recent years, adventurous and experimental food has become more popular. Pair that with a growing farm-to-table, locavore movement—an embrace of foods available locally—and a celebration of seasonal shifts is back in fashion. Add in a recent economic scare, and the resurgence of thrifty, pantry-staple desserts isn’t surprising at all.
Of course, the biggest reason these pies are seeing a comeback is simply that they’re delicious, and everyone loves discovering something so tasty! Even if it means buying some of the 11 nearly-forgotten ingredients grandma used to cook with. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and these pies show culinary invention at its best.
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