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Desperate for 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. According to Joanne Raetz Stuttgen, sugar cream pie probably originated with Shakers in eastern Indiana in the early nineteenth century. A similar recipe arose among the Amish in Indiana and Pennsylvania, who still make it today. 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. Usually, sugar cream pie falls under this very broad umbrella. The actual name  "sugar cream pie" doesn't become common in cookbooks until the mid-20th century,. Most of the cream pie recipes feature cream or milk, eggs, and sugar. Some include flour, corn starch, cinnamon, nutmeg or vanilla. The eggless version we all know and love today was likely passed down through families and local communities for most of its lifespan rather than through any formal printed recipes.

Eggs can in fact can be a major point of contention when it comes to sugar cream pie. 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, that doesn't mean it should. There is also 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.

My favorite sugar cream pie comes from Locally Grown Gardens at 54th and the Monon in Indianapolis, but Mulder and others swear by Wick's commercially-produced sugar cream pies ("It's because of the consistency of the filling."). Duane Wickersham famously started selling them 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.