IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

My, my — it's American pie

From a nation of crust lovers, here are 7 regional classics with devoted followings. By Romney Steele
/ Source: contributor

Everyone loves a slice of pie. No matter the season, pies play a starring roll at picnics, church gatherings and family suppers across the nation.

True, pie isn't exactly an American invention, but try and find another country that embraces pie crust the way we do. Fruit pies, custard pies, coconut pies, meringue tops or the all-American apple pie — what's your pleasure?

Here are seven regional favorites from across America.

7) Derby pie (aka Kentucky pie, Run for the Roses pie, Race Day pie, thoroughbred pie)
A time-honored favorite in the winning rooms of Churchill Downs on race day and at picnics and gatherings throughout the season, this chocolate nut pie has several names and a zillion variations: spiked with bourbon, topped with whipped cream, made with pecans instead of walnuts.

Just as at the races, there’s an ongoing bid for the winning pie at local events, and an enduring argument about what should and should not go in it — corn syrup being one of the questionable ingredients. The original Derby pie is said to have been a specialty of the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Ky., in the 1950s, and was later marketed by the Kern family under a now-registered and heavily defended trademark, Derby-Pie. Members of the Kern family drew the name for this rich, chocolate confection out of a hat, and it has made history ever since. Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville is run by the grandson of the founders, and he has the recipe under lock and key, but they proudly proclaim on their Web site that they use chocolate chips, English walnuts and vanilla.

Peggy Stevens, a chef and master taster at Woodford Reserve Distillery, in Versailles, Ky., affirms the Kern family's hold on the name, but calls the Derby pie a classic Kentucky dessert and “the best kept secret” of Louisville.

Unlike the Kerns' pie, which is made with finely ground nuts and a thin layer of chocolate, Stevens' Race Day pie is made with a thick nougat-like filling of chocolate and pecans — and of course, some of her distillery's bourbon.

6) Funeral pie (aka raisin pie, rosina pie)
This humble pie is aptly named for the fact that for many years the Amish presented it to families who had recently lost a loved one. Traditionally made with raisins (because they were in the pantry and didn’t spoil), funeral pie can be made with any non-seasonal dried fruit, plumped in a bit of water and then folded into a simple filling of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and a bit of lemon rind.

Some recipes include milk, making it more like a custard pie, and others include water, but they all seem to agree on the necessity of a double-crusted pie, usually with a lattice top. Early references suggest this pie was also made with sour cherries, and in Wisconsin a similar pie can be found with sour cream — a possible ode to German and Norwegian heritage. It is likely that it arrived on our shores via Pennsylvania Dutch settlers from Germany, which might explain the alternate name rosina pie (rosine means raisin in German). It is referenced as such in the “Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook: Fine Old Recipes” as early as 1936.

5) Chess pieThis very simple curd-like pie is a Southern favorite, made with everyday staples from the kitchen larder: eggs, sugar, butter, and flour — the pie’s equivalent to the pound cake.

The origin of chess pie is a little uncertain, but there are many folk tales associated with it. One is that it used to be called “chest” pie, because it was made with so much sugar that it could be stored in a chest. Another was that when Virginia plantation cooks were asked what kind of pie they were making, they’d answer “jes pie.”  A similar story reminisces that it was a creative Southern housewife who made the pie for her husband, and when asked what she was making, she answered the same. But it most likely comes from the 17th-century English cheese pie (cheese is the English word for curd). Cheese pie was a common name used to describe a pie that had a curd-like texture, but didn't actually contain cheese — not unlike English lemon curd, a filling used to make tarts.

The many variations of chess pie may include chocolate, lemon or vanilla as flavoring, with some recipes calling for cornmeal and vinegar. Buttermilk is another common ingredient. According to the Pie of the Month Club, an online group that sends out monthly postcards to a group of friends with pie cartoons and recipes, chess pie was a favorite of Lyndon B. Johnson. The site also includes a recipe for Stack Pie: several chess pies stacked on top of each other and glued together with caramel frosting. Craig Claiborne included a recipe for a classic vanilla chess pie in his cookbook “Southern Cooking” (1987), but lemon chess seems to be the perennial favorite.

4) Olallieberry pieA tradition up and down the California coast, this pie is made with the olallieberry, a cross between the loganberry and youngberry, a fruit developed in Oregon by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1949. It is not completely unlike a blackberry, in fact the Native American name for berry is olallie, but it is slightly more tart — think a combination of the sweeter blackberry and the tartness of a raspberry, and perfect for making pies.

Duartes Tavern, just south of San Francisco and a few miles inland from the coast, is known for their olallieberry pie, and have a regular following of people who make the detour just for a welcome slice. Down the coast in San Luis Obispo county, in the small town of Cambria, the Linn family created a whole business out of the olallieberry, farming them since the late 1970s and soon after starting a pie business. Linn's originally became famous for their double-crusted ready-to-bake olallieberry pies, and they now ship prepared pies and preserves across the country.

Being a coastal gal myself, I'm partial to a family recipe: a deep-dish olallieberry pie with a brown sugar crumb topping, served warm with vanilla ice cream.

3) Sugar cream pie (aka Indiana cream pie, Hoosier sugar cream pie, finger pie)
Here's a pie that capitalizes on the dairy-rich Midwest (and is also attributed to the Amish) and can be found at almost every diner and cafeteria in Indiana.

Made with creamed butter, brown sugar (or maple syrup) and just a sprinkling of flour to form the bottom layer, it is then filled with a vanilla-flavored cream and baked. Brandy and nutmeg are fairly common additions. In some cases it was known as finger pie because the filling was stirred with a finger rather than a spoon while baking, to prevent breaking the bottom crust.

Texas Dirt, a banana pudding pie with crushed Oreos, is said to be a descendent of the sugar cream pie. Further distillations can be found as buttermilk pie (or magnolia pie), sour cream pie and banana cream pie. Even pecan pie is thought to descend from this Midwestern favorite.

2) Sweet potato pie
When I think of this classic Southern dessert, I think of my 16th birthday in Atlanta, Ga., at a legendary homestyle restaurant with my grandmother. This was a place where a meal wasn’t complete without a slice of sweet potato pie — and buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes and fried okra, too.

Sweet potato pie [find recipes] is no doubt a Southern comfort food, most likely arriving via Africa by way of England, as an “Old World meets New World” recipe. This pie was originally a savory dish transformed by plantation slaves into something sweet, and the rest is history. Abby Fisher, a former slave and author of "What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking” (1881), used orange juice and orange peel in her recipe.

Sweet potato pie is very much like a pumpkin pie, perhaps more rustic and earthy in flavor. Classic pumpkin pie spices — cinnamon and nutmeg, typically, though ginger and allspice were also common additions — are folded into a puree of cooked sweet potatoes with sugar, eggs and cream, then poured into a rich crust and baked.

This is a one-crust pie, usually served with sweetened whipped cream, and sometimes with a covering of gooey marshmallows baked on top — a fluffy and extremely sweet holdover from mid 19th-century kitchens when marshmallows were in vogue.

1) Apple pie
This quintessential American favorite transcends borders and race lines like no other, according to John T. Edge, who traveled the country eating prime examples and then wrote “Apple Pie: An American Story” (2004).

Originally from Europe, apple pie [find recipes] was brought to our shores by the settlers, a comforting offering after a hard day, and it soon enough spread across the country, as did apple production, making the United States the world's largest producer of the fruit.

When I asked about the pie's origins, Edge replied in a recent e-mail: “There are origins and antecedents, but no one original. Such a pursuit is fruitless.”

Since 1999, Vermont has claimed the apple pie as their state pie, and Edge fondly recalls a slice of apple pie with Vermont cheddar. “I think they bake great pies up that way,” he says, “but no one state owns apple pie.”

At its very basic and most standard, apple pie is a generous helping of sliced apples, sugar and a touch of flour baked between layers of crust. And though each baker seems to have their own recipe, and perhaps a trick or two for their favorite crust, the classic apple pie recipe is rarely messed with.

Then there is Marlborough pie, a pie of shredded apples or apple sauce accented with sherry.

“I love it because it subverts the idea of what apple pie is oftentimes thought to be,” says Edge, “The addition of sherry gives it this musky sweetness.”

California-based Romney Steele writes about food for Edible East Bay and is working on a book about salad greens.