"a pie that you made when you had nothing left to make it with,"
Joanne Raetz Stuttgen
Before I even start on the weirdness of this dish (and some others too), I want to know why the Americans call tarts pies. A pie to me has a lid on it. To the Americans pie seems to be a tart. Not sure what they call an actual pie. Just found out - it's a pot pie. And I gather they don't really go for them anyway. But they do go for pies - ergo tarts, the name of which, one commentator suggested, came when the Americans gained their independence and wanted to differentiate themselves from the British. All very confusing.
Anyway vinegar pie. Yes vinegar - and here is a pretty traditional version on the left. I'm writing about it because it was mentioned in passing in the last novel I read for book club, and I wondered what on earth it was.
As an aside - on Sunday the grandchildren and I made a lemon slice (a slice is also a kind of tart but not usually round and cut into pieces). It was utterly delicious. The recipe is from Belinda Jefferey. I chose it because it's very easy to make - a pastry base and a filling of eggs and sugar plus a bit of flour and lots of lemon, poured on top and baked. I mention it because the concept is more or less the same as the vinegar pie.
Vinegar pie is an American thing, and you will find lots of commentators claim that it is one of several 'desperation pies' concocted in the Depression era. However, a rather more historically accurate explanation was that it was much older than that and dated back to at least the early 19th century, if not before. and was the result of the climate.
"In a four-season climate, this left a hole right around late winter and early spring—after the winter stores were depleted and before the spring fruit began to come in." Hazel Wheaton - Taste of Home
No fresh fruit and vegetables available - just basic stuff like flour and sugar and perhaps a few raisins and sultanas. There would have been milk/cream and eggs as well - because, at least out in the countryside, people had cows and chickens. I must say I did wonder about the eggs, because to my mind, brought up as I was on rationing, when there were no eggs, just egg powder, eggs would not have been readily available in the Depression era. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe even then, in the cities, people had eggs. I do remember my mother and aunt saying that they used to keep a couple of chickens and some rabbits in their backyard in Portsmouth. There would not have been the same rules about how many chickens you could keep in your backyard back then.
Anyway whether it was seasonal scarcity or poverty, the desserts that Americans call Desperation pies were born. Other than vinegar pie there were also pies made from:
molasses (shoo fly pie)
sorghum (sorghum pie)
cream (sugar cream pie),
crackers (mock apple pie)
cornmeal (chess pie)
And lo and behold there is a revival of these things - in particular, it seems, the vinegar pie. Why vinegar? Well the vinegar is to replace the lemons - to give a tart taste to a sweet tart. The various cooks I found who talked about it said that yes, you perhaps could taste that it was vinegar, but then again maybe not, and anyway this was not unpleasant. I found quite a few variants of the recipe, ranging from an ex Master chef winner Larissa Takchi and her rather gourmet Honey vinegar pie with spiced whipped cream, to a fairly basic version by The Pastry Chef Online (which is the one pictured at the top of the page). Below is an assortment, beginning with fancy Master Chef version and cycling through an even fancier Vinegar pie with salt brittle, which is featured in Bon appétit, but alas with no recipe. It's an apparently famous dish from an American restaurant named Underbelly which is probably reluctant to part with the recipe. Bon Appétit describes the taste as: "like a dessert version of salt and vinegar chips." . Then there is Vinegar pie from The Spruce Eats, which includes dried fruit in the mix, and finally a pretty authentic version called Pioneer vinegar pie from the queen of American baking, Martha Stewart. Curiously, to my eyes, that and the one at the top of the page look to be the most tempting.
So looking at all of those you would have to say it's worth a try. Any kind of vinegar will do by the way - and there is not a lot in the mix anyway - but many seem to think that apple cider vinegar is the way to go. I wonder what trendy balsamic vinegar would do to the taste?
And, like my lemon slice, it is very easy to make. Some of the writers talked about farmer's wives rushing in from the fields throwing it all together very quickly and leaving it to bake whilst she continued with her work in the fields.
"The process for making vinegar pie couldn’t be easier. You simply mix together eggs, sugar, butter, vinegar and vanilla and pour into an unbaked or par-baked crust. In less than an hour, you’ve got a finished pie on your hands! You can add spices like cinnamon or nutmeg, extra flavors like maple or lemon, or raisins or brown sugar when they’re on hand." Taste of Home
The more I think about it the more I think that it must be an early invention by farmer's wives. I mean milk and/or cream or buttermilk? In rationed Britain there was no cream that I remember, though there was milk - rationed of course.
I didn't look at all of those other Desperation pies, but I was intrigued by the Mock apple pie and the concept of making Ritz crackers taste like apples. So I had a look and found a step by step recipe in, of all places, Business Insider Australia. The picture shows the finished result and you'd have to say it looks pretty convincing. But those layers you see are not apples, but Ritz crackers - over which you pour a lemon flavoured syrup. The Business Insider writer, Carina Finn, decided to put a further lot of crackers on top as a crumb topping. Her verdict?
"I’m almost loathe to admit it, but I liked the Ritz cracker pie better than some pies made with actual apples. It’s reminiscent of Milk Bar’s recently-renamed Milk Bar Pie, but with more complexity from the sweet-tart tang of the filling. ... The whole point of this recipe is that it’s a kind of magic trick – a pie that goes into the oven in less than 10 minutes, and that tastes like pure nostalgia."
She used a ready made pastry case by the way which is why it only took 10 minutes, but even if you made your own pastry it wouldn't take much longer.
There is no vinegar pie in England - well Britain - and not in Australia either, but I couldn't quite believe that the British and the Australians were not as resourceful in times of scarcity as the Americans. And of course they are. Jam tarts - you can't get more basic than that, but that's a different thing. No, I think the equivalent though subtly different thing is the Custard tart. I remember them from my youth. It's a more delicate taste too is it not? And like the vinegar pie of America, it seems the custard tart too is undergoing a revival and reaching high culinary recognition with a prize-winning version served by Marcus Wareing in his London restaurant and also to the Queen on her eightieth birthday. It's the first one shown below, followed, by Donna Hay's version of Vanilla custard tarts which uses masses of eggs, and a more basic version, probably from Coles Magazine which I found on the Taste website (bottom left).
And a final thought. Vanilla. They all include vanilla. Isn't vanilla one of the most expensive spices in the world? It's something to ponder on, is it not, that vanilla should be considered as something even the poorest of households would have in their pantries. Of course there are different grades of vanilla - ranging from humble (probably watered down) vanilla essence to an actual vanilla pod grown by the world's best producers. And yes I do remember my mother always had vanilla - essence I think - nutmeg, and mixed spice too. And she did make custard tarts - probably using custard powder and/or dried eggs.
These days we are spoilt for choice. Too many different ingredients to choose from and so many cuisines to dip into as well. Which maybe explains the nostalgic popularity of such things as custard tarts, and also the continual invention and ingenuity of chefs in making these old, old simple things, more exciting and relevant to modern tastes.
Margaret Eby of Bon appétit says:
"Pie, with its humble beginnings and relative simplicity, is representative of the roots and ingenuity of American cooking."
But I think that's a very insular, not to say nationalistic thing to say. Because surely the ingenuity she speaks of can be found all around the world, from the deserts of Africa to the cities of the developed world. And looking back at this difficult time, I think that ingenuity will be one of the hallmark characteristics of the age.
The next big thing here in Australia I suspect will be the picnic, when we are allowed out but not into restaurants. Bespoke picnic hampers from gourmet restaurants perhaps.