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Desperate for Pie

March 23, 2017

“I’M LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINAL RECIPE FOR SUGAR CREAM PIE.”

More than once, excited patrons have written to our library in search of this holy grail of Indiana recipes. After all, the chocolate chip cookie has a verified origin story. Why not our official state pie? However, like the Devil’s Lake Monster or the Beast of Busco, it doesn’t exist. Sugar cream pie probably originated with Shaker communities in Indiana or Pennsylvania, then arose separately in Amish baking. It’s what today we call a “desperation pie,” one made without seasonal ingredients like fruit.

The Indiana Historical Society library has a wealth of historic cookbooks ranging from early statehood to the present, and only two of the fourteen I looked at failed to include a recipe for cream pie. It appears that the full name “sugar cream pie” is a more recent invention, and didn’t become common in recipe books until after the Second World War. The creation we now call sugar cream pie has only one constant ingredient: sugar. Most recipes, however, also feature cream or milk and seasonings such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla; some include thickening agents such as flour or corn starch.

Eggs aren’t used often nowadays, and in fact can be a major point of contention. Some Hoosier bakers claim that anything with eggs is a custard pie, and must thereby be excluded from further consideration. The consensus among IHS staffers seems to be that while a sugar cream pie can have eggs, it probably shouldn’t, and there is easily such a thing as too many eggs. And how many is too many? “More than one or two,” says Digital Resources Assistant Kathy Mulder, not inclined to be generous.

Mulder and others swear by Wick’s commercially-produced sugar cream pies (“It’s because of the consistency of the filling.”), which Duane Wickersham famously started selling in Winchester, Indiana in the 1940s. Still run by the Wickersham family, Wick’s clearly takes its pies very seriously. “We like to think it is similar in taste to that of a crème brûlée,” gushes the company’s website.

It has always amused me that a dessert with the rich flavor of a crème brûlée can be described with anything like the word “desperation.” The word brings to mind truly odd recipes, like vinegar pie or oatmeal pie, that were popular during the Great Depression. My great-grandmother Eva Leak Whistler, born in Lizton, Indiana in 1877, made a concoction called “juice pie” a simple but delicious crust with fruit juice poured over it prior to baking. I can verify the crust’s deliciousness, as the recipe is still in my family.

Does your family have any “desperation pie” recipes? Can a true sugar cream pie have eggs in it? Share your pie memories with us below!

Images: Recipe from Edibilia: A Cook Book of Valuable Private Receipts Published by the Ladies of Christ Church, 1873; Pie Eating Contest Winners at the Recorder Picnic, 1962.

Kate Scott

Kate Scott Kate Scott works in Reference Services, answering your questions about everything in Indiana history from Civil War uniforms to tenderloins the size of your head.

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