Wednesday before Thanksgiving is always pie baking day at my house. When I open our 1952 edition of Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and turn to the pumpkin pie recipe, another recipe title catches my eye: Jefferson Davis Pie. I have to turn a few pages to find the actual recipe, but it sounds interesting.
And being a Civil War historian, I say to my mom every year, “I need to research the history of that pie.” So this year, I did…and now I can tell my mom a rambling story while we whip up our Thanksgiving desserts.
Here’s what I learned, and maybe some of ECW’s readers can add more details to the discussion.
We’ll start with the recipe in the cookbook:
JEFFERSON DAVIS PIE
A 9 inch pie
Prepare a baked Pie Shell
Cream 1/2 cup butter and 2 cups brown sugar
Beat in 4 egg yolks
Add: 1 cup cream, 1/2 cup chopped dates, 1/2 cup raisins, and 1/2 cup broken pecan meats
Fill the shell. Bake the pie in a slow over at 300 degrees until set, about 40 minutes. When cool top it with a Meringue. Bake meringue as directed. (Joy of Cooking, 1952, page 583)
So, I did a little searching and discovered Jefferson Davis Pie was popular in Southern cookbooks in the late decades of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century. The common “ingredient” in the research sources seems to be: no one is completely sure who invented the pie, if Jefferson Davis ever ate it, or when it was first made.
Jennifer Reese from Table Matters blog explored “antique” pie recipes, reporting in her article: Culinary historians believe that a Missouri slave named Mary Ann invented this pie during the Civil War, when she worked as a cook for a confederate merchant. If this story is true, the name of the pie is truly unfortunate. It is Mary Ann’s name that should be attached to this brilliant pie, an opulent confection of raisins, dates, and pecans held together by a spicy custard and topped with meringue. If you can imagine a Christmas pudding crossed with a pecan pie, you will have an idea of this intense, complex dessert, which, like cognac or espresso, is something you savor in small portions.
Dann Woellert, Food Etymologist, also shares the account of the so-called Jefferson Davis Pie invented by a Missouri slave woman and talks about the recipe’s popularity in Kentucky.
I’m starting to conclude that this Southern dessert might have a name that has little connection to the recipe’s origins. I’m still looking for some account that Davis himself ate the pie and praised it. And I’m thinking the name might have been attached to the dessert after the Civil War in a wave of Lost Cause-ism. Who knows – maybe someone was just trying to sell more cookbooks?
Thus, I’m still looking for sources or hints of sources to continue this trail of the Jefferson Davis Pie recipe. Living in California, this isn’t a traditional pie in my region and I’m hoping some readers might have some stories or tips to help me continue this research rabbit trail? Leave a comment if you like…
And now, I’m off to the kitchen to bake a pumpkin pie. Someday, I’ll bake the Jefferson Davis Pie, but my family isn’t keen on long-winded history lessons at the feasting table…so maybe not this year!
One more fun fact: I’m actually related to Irma Rombauer who wrote Joy of Cooking.