A recent article by Cincinnati Enquirer Food Editor, Polly Campbell, taught us about Transparent Pie from Maysville, Kentucky. Popularized by Magee’s bakery in Maysville, owners Ron and Judy Dickson, have been serving the popular Kentucky pie since 1979. It’s described as pecan pie without the pecans, and is a favorite of Augusta, Kentucky native George Clooney. This sparked a dive into the origin of a family of pies called Kentucky Custard Pies, all who claim the chess pie as their ancestor. There are suttle differences between the pies, like the addition of cream, or the exclusion of lemon juice or vinegar, or using spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.
The Kentucky sweet custard pies all harken back to the days when Appalacian housewives without more expensive ingredients like fruits, nuts or candies, could use simpler ingredients like eggs, sugar and butter to make ‘just pie.’ Some say chess pie came from the fact that it could be stored in a pie chest and didn’t need refrigeration. Whatever name you call them, chess pie, buttermilk pie, transparent pie, vinegar pie, or sugar pie, they all play a big role in the Kentucky sweet culinary landscape.
One of these Kentucky custard pies has a pre Civil War History – the Jefferson Davis – and is named after the former President of the Confederacy. With a name like this, and its popularity in the south, you’d think that it was invented there. But it wasn’t.
The story behind the Jefferson Davis Pie opens as some of my other blogs have about food originated by slave cooks. Mary Todd Lincoln had her father’s cook, Aunt Chaney, in Lexington, Kentucky, to teach her how to make beaten biscutis. Jefferson had his French-trained cooks James Hemming, Mary Hemings, and her son, Peter Fossett, to make his beloved macaroni, ice cream, and other French dishes.
And the Jefferson Davis pie has its origins as well with a slave, who was bonded to the family of George B. Warren in the northern slave state city of Dover, Missouri. Aunt Jule Ann was the master cook in the Warren family. When the family entertained distinguished guests in their home in the early 1860s, Aunt Jule Ann served a new kind of pie, she called Jefferson Davis pie. It’s a tragedy that the pie is not named Jule Ann Pie after its inventor.
The invention and attribution of the pie to Aunt Jule Ann was documented in a St. Louis Dispatch article in August 17, 1916. The story headline was “Jeff Davis Pie Feature of Howard County (Missouri) Reunion: Delicious Cream Pastry from Recipe of Old Slave Cook Served to Hundreds at Fayette, Missouri.” It was the delicious end to a barbecue with fried chicken.
The Jefferson Davis pie has a few recipes – one that includes pecans, dates and raisins and one without. But the base is a ‘spiced kentucky custard pie,’ with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. It can be topped with meringue (which is called ‘cow froth’ in Kentucky) or whipped cream.
The pie was extremely popular in Berea, Kentucky, at its Berea College because it was served at the Boone Tavern Hotel by Richard T. Hougen, owner from 1940 to 1976. Apparently he was a real stickler for following recipes and if he caught a cook prepping a dish without an open cook book in front of them, they were severely reprimanded. All Berea bakers knew how to make this pie.
The Boone Tavern Hotel in Berea, Kentucky, where Jefferson Davis Pie was served for over 35 years.
The cool thing about Berea being the epicenter of Jefferson Davis Pie is that Berea College houses the Appalacian Center, which now houses the oral histories of the former Cincinnati Appalacian Council of Over-the-Rhine.