From Survival Food to Family Heirloom: The Story of the Pie

The pie is so much more than just a sweet, round dessert designed to tempt the taste buds. It’s full of tradition, heritage and memories, and has sustained families for generations — in more ways than one. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

It’s a cool Sunday evening in late 1960s Chicago. Catherine Lambrecht and her sisters race up the stairs to their grandmother’s apartment. Their first destination? The kitchen. Having verified the dinner menu for the evening, they move on to her back porch where the desserts are kept. There is a collective squeal of joy when they see that they will be having Oma’s famous German apple cake, which would later become Lambrecht’s inspiration to learn to make apple pie, the American version of the childhood dessert she loved so much.

Today, Lambrecht has become something of a pie expert. She has turned her passion and love for Midwestern comfort food into a career as the founder and president of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “celebrating, exploring and preserving unique food traditions and their cultural contexts in the American Midwest.”

According to the organization’s website, “why we procure, prepare and serve the food we do has cultural, sociological, geographical, financial and political influences.” And pie is no exception. From its working class beginnings to its role in bringing entire communities together, the pie has never failed to serve its purpose in whatever role it found itself.

A section of Oma’s German apple cake. Image courtesy of Catherine Lambrecht.

The pie has been woven into the fabric of American culture since its earliest days. For settlers in New England and later the pioneers to the Midwest, the pie was a practical, no-frills type of meal.

“It was survival food,” Lambrecht said in a presentation to the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “When they ran out of food in the winter, those dried apples… You could take 20 bushels of fresh apples and compact them to about three bushels dried. That was breakfast, lunch and dinner for months on end.”

Families would soak their apples in the evening and put them into pie crusts in the morning. These pies were nothing close to the sweet desserts we know today. The apple filling contained no sugar or cinnamon, and the flour was rough — sometimes to the point that hungry mouths would eat only the pie’s interior.

“And you could make them in your Dutch oven out on the prairie,” Lambrecht said, “You didn’t need a brick and mortar oven to make a pie.”

Catherine Lambrecht’s homemade American apple pie inspired by her Oma’s German apple cake. Image courtesy of Catherine Lambrecht.

You didn’t need a whole lot to make a pie. And for farmers and working class families, it was just what they needed to have a healthy meal with what they had on hand.

“The savory pies were a great way to use up leftover ingredients or just stuff on the farm that might not be so great by itself. But you mix it all together and put it in a pie crust, and it’s amazing,” Valeri Lucks, Founder of Honeypie Cafe in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said.

To Lucks, the history of pie-making is quintessentially Midwestern in spirit. 

“It was very practical and utilitarian, which is a very Midwestern thing,” Lucks said.

She points to the pasty, a big hand pie stuffed with meat, that traces its roots back to the upper Midwest and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a meal for miners. The hand pies would be baked in the morning, and miners would take them down to the mines to have for lunch, where they were eaten cold or placed in a shovel to be warmed by a candle in a miner’s hat.

In addition to serving as nutritious, inexpensive meals, pies became the foundation for hospitality by providing early Midwesterners a way to serve their neighbors even when they didn’t have too much to offer. Indiana’s famous sugar cream pie got its start as so-called “desperation pie.”

“You got the minister coming down your driveway with his horse and buggy. And you have nothing to offer at the moment as a dessert. And you can easily and quickly put together a shell,” Lambrecht said. “You always have cream or milk, and you have sugar and you have flour. So you put the sugar, flour and cream into the pie. And with your fingers, you could just sort of stir it around. Maybe sprinkle some nutmeg on top and throw it into the oven, and in a little while you have pie to offer the minister.”

Lambrecht believes that Ohio’s very own Buckeye pie, made with cream cheese, sugar, peanut butter and whipped cream, can also be considered a”desperation pie” since it’s made with ingredients common to most kitchens.

Catherine Lambrecht’s homemade buckeye pie. Image courtesy of Catherine Lambrecht.
Catherine Lambrecht tastes her buckeye pie. Images courtesy of Catherine Lambrecht.

Since its humble beginnings serving guests on short notice, the pie has maintained its spirit of bringing people together until today.

“You go to some communities, they have a church supper, and the ladies bring their pies. And it’s all sliced up, and you grab your slice of pie before you go in line for dinner because the pie you want might be gone by the time you’ve gotten around to thinking about dessert,” Lambrecht said. “And it happens where somebody just by looking at the pie table, they’ll know who made it. And they know whose pie they want. And so it becomes part of your signature in a social setting.”

Lambrecht said that signature pies often become so much a part of someone that when they pass away, the pie goes with them.

“You’re sorry you’re never going to have that kind of piece of pie again,” Lambrecht said.

Pie slices offered at a church supper. Image courtesy of Catherine Lambrecht.

Her grandmother passed away in 1975, when Lambrecht was only sixteen. She spent years trying to recreate Oma’s lost recipes, and when she got it just right, she documented it and sent it to the rest of her family. The recipes became a family heirloom — a way for her grandmother to live on in her grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s kitchens.

Lambrecht’s not the only one looking to keep — and make — memories through pie. The desire to rediscover and preserve lost pie recipes and techniques regularly draw in new students to Valeri Lucks’ pie making classes.

“We get people who are very interested in wanting to learn more about pie making, truthfully, because they were shown once by their grandma, and now their grandma’s gone,” Lucks said.

Families and community members gather for Valeri Luck’s pie making class. Image courtesy of Honeypie Cafe via Instagram.

Lucks was inspired to start teaching pie making classes at Honeypie because she sees it as a dying craft.

“I learned from my mom,” Lucks said. “Most people learn from their mom or from their grandmothers. And if we don’t have those folks teaching us anymore, who’s going to teach us?”

Valeri Lucks with her mother who taught her to make her first pie when she was eight years old. Image courtesy of Honeypie Cafe via Instagram.

Honeypie brings families together in another way, too. Lucks began hosting the annual Great Midwestern Pie Championship, a local competition inspired by the Wisconsin State Fair, where Lucks herself won a blue ribbon at in 2005. During the height of Wisconsin’s crisp fall, the championship brings the whole community together, complete with bands as well as local organizations to judge the championship.

“It’s just kind of everyone from the community. It’s a very wide range of people. Whole families have gotten together… [like when] mom and kids made a pie. We’ve had older folks, younger folks. I’ve had 15-year-olds enter pies, and it’s the first time they ever made it in their life,” Lucks said.

Pies from the fifth annual Great Midwestern Pie Championship in 2020. Image courtesy of Honeypie Cafe via Instagram.

The conclusion? There’s a pie for everyone. Savory or sweet, to make or to eat — to satiate, to memorialize, to remember. The pie has fed starving families and wandering ministers; it has been both a hallmark of grand community celebrations and a personal, full-of-love gesture dropped on socially-distant doorsteps.

“All these things have associations that have nothing to do with the flour and the sugar and the salt; it has to do with all the other things that happened that day,” Lambrecht said.

Fizzah Arshad contributed reporting to this article.

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