Posted on March 3rd, 2011
The origins of the word “pie” are as murky as the midnight waters of the Dagoba System, but, the general consensus seems to be that our modern definition stems from the word ‘magpie’–the implication being that the contents of the pastry are as varied and disparate as the scraps found in a magpie’s nest. I’ve yet to find the ribbon of a cassette tape hanging out in a pastry envelope alongside a huckleberry, but, here at the Farmer General, we’re discovering that there are plenty of other equally confounding pie ingredients that have been lost to the ravages of time and far sexier seasonal components.
Let’s start with vinegar.
Vinegar pie. It’s not a name that sings off of the page, promising tender crust and sweet interior. And it’s not a name that you see gracing any sort of list being made by a mainstream food publication when they’re trotting out that tired summer trope of “classic American desserts” or “twenty crowd-pleasin’ picnics”.
A little research into pioneer cuisine however, proves that there could be, perhaps, no pie more American than one involving the soured by-product of last fall’s apples. As long as we’re going to ally our national identity with that of our wagon-bound forbears, and to celebrate ourselves as a country of innovators tested by adversity, honed by hanging from bootstraps, then, we owe it to this pie to get over our love affair with the rosy cherry. It’s time, friends, to hunker down in the dust of the prairie with a pie of vinegar.
That’s what I can say, now, having baked two. When I showed up at Onstad’s, sweaty and ferrying recipes, I felt glad that we had more on the dinner docket than two rounds of vinegar pie, and that the sun was out in Portland for the first time in weeks.
I was armed with two contenders—the first, from the “Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook” (circa 1950), and the second, from the not-so-antique Gourmet online archives, whose author assured me that this recipe was all but plucked from the bony hand of a long-dead pioneer. My money, in terms of tastiness, was on the Gourmet entry, but, for authenticity, was in the arms of the yellow-covered cookbook, whose dimensions were roughly that of a doorstop-heavy meatloaf. If you can’t trust a book that smells like libraries and gin, (whose pages had also yielded a stained napkin from a defunct railroad) whom can you trust?
The stage was set. In short order, flaky pie dough was chilling in two tightly bound packets in the fridge. Cocktails were being consumed that paid homage to both contributors—homemade strawberry wine, cold as though plucked from a willow-shaded creek, and craft-brewed local beer, as au courant as pine filled dining pillows. After an hour of waiting, twenty or so minutes of dough-wrangling and par-baking with beans, it was the vinegar hour.
We’d chosen to divide and conquer—I was going to handle the Berolzheimer version, Onstad was going to man the prairie. From the outset we were intrigued by both the brevity of the ingredient lists, and the differences in preparation techniques. This was a pie that had been invented out of necessity—something that promised fruitiness in the dead of winter, when all fresh produce was scarce in the cellar of your sod home, and the natives were restless for something sweeter than a potato. Both fillings were of the cooked kind—mine in a double-boiler, the other directly in the pot (and both, mid-process, bore no small resemblance to bodily fluids). The ingredient lists were no more complicated than a few tablespoons of flour, a dab of butter, some sugar, water, and that all-important namesake, vinegar (in this case, apple cider). My pie also included cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, whose addition seemed rather expensive for the pie’s humble origins, but, welcome in that they seemed to up the chances of the pie tasting like something other than a cleaning solvent. We eyed Onstad’s recipe suspiciously—eggs, vinegar, and sugar, cooked together in a method not unlike that for lemon curd. My roux-esque mixture, once assembled, was equally dubious, and quivered its way into the pie shell with no small amount of Sally Struthers jiggle. The general unspoken thought was that we might’ve just made hobo-curd, and that the night would see us using it to kill the grout mold that lurked in my bathroom.
A few hours and a batch of tarragon whipped cream later though, all I can say is that the pies were a revelation. Again and again, the most common exclamation from our test crew was ‘are you SURE there’s no fruit in these?’ When they’d emerged, humbly, from the oven, still wobbly in their newness, there had been a fresh round of skepticism. This one smelled like wet dog. That one smelled like Christmas but had the disturbing hue of industrial carpeting. We might want to fortify ourselves with more onion dip first. But then, oh then, when they’d both been cut, plated, and tasted, the surprised hush that descended must’ve been as sweet to us as it had been to the pie’s originator. “Hey. You know. This is…good.”
The spiced pie was tart and fragrant with apple, redolent of orchard tang and smooth like strained fruit butter. Its warm, wintery sweetness sang against the rich crust, and its custard texture was shot through with the brightness of new fruit, despite the lack of any real fruit in the recipe. Its Gourmet prairie cousin, baked in a tart pan, was palely golden, a sophisticated looking entry whose smooth filling was sweet and acid, like a pinch and a kiss. It was lemon curd without the lemon, and a flavor unlike anything I’d tried in a pie. We kept eating bites of it, enjoying the slight sharpness with the grassy tarragon whipped cream, thinking that in short order, we could launch a Sod Cuisine revival on the strength of this pie alone.
And that was the thought that lingered, as the day went down to dusk, as the solar lanterns flickered on in the trees, as the pies slipped across our palates. America is nothing, if not the story of endless reinventions and revivals. Pioneers re-imagined vinegar as dessert blooming in the dead of winter—and here we were, eating the fruits of those inventions, everything new again, the bright flavors anything but lost.
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. ground allspice
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 9” pie crust that had been briefly baked (about 3 minutes) at 450 degrees
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream butter and sugar. Sift together flour and spices then add to flour mixture, mix well. Beat in egg, vinegar and water. Pour into a double boiler and cook over boiling water until thick. Pour into the pie shell and bake about 30 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.
Pioneer Vinegar Pie
1 heaping tablespoon flour
1 c sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat ingredients together and add 1 tablespoon of sharp vinegar and a cup of cold water. Flavor with a little nutmeg (optional) and pour into an unbaked pie shell (or, you can do as we did, and press the unbaked pie shell into a tart pan for a thinner, crisper crust). Bake for an hour.