The Mile High Pie and Its Journey from NYC to NOLA to Cincinnati

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Recently I posed a question to my facebook friends to compile a list of iconic Cincinnati desserts.     I received great response.  Many of the desserts were on the list I had already compiled.  But I was seeking confirmation on them.   From one response, I was reminded of a pie that was famous at a restaurant known for its desserts, appropriately named the Grande Finale.   The dessert was called the Mile High Pie.    It was a decadently high tower of chocolate mousse, whipped cream, and topped with cherry cordial, in a pecan crust.    It was recently renamed the Cherry Cordial Pie, and is still on the menu.

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Grand Finale’s Cherry Cordial pie, formerly known as the Mile High Pie.

 

But another restaurant- the New Sovereign in Price Hill, west of downtown, also had a Mile High Pie in the 1980s.     The Primavista Restaurant now occupies the former space.    It was described as a tower of spumoni ice cream surrounded by a scorched meringue on a chocolate chip cookie crust.

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Chef Louis Evans of the Caribbean Room who while not its inventor, served its Mile High Pie for decades.

The New Sovereign version of the Mile High Pie is based on the pie invented in the 1950s at a New Orleans restaurant called the Caribbean Room, which was in the Pontchatrain Hotel on St. Charles Street, along the streetcar line, on the edge of the Garden District.    Their pie is four layers of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peppermint ice creams, surrounded in scorched meringue and topped with a decadent chocolate sauce.     It’s creation was self-credited to African-American creole chef, Louis Evans, who was chef at the Caribbean Room, and who just passed away two months ago.   But it was probably his mentor, the first African-American chef,  Nathaniel Burton, who invented the dish in the 1950s, after the restaurant had been opened in 1946 inside the hotel.  Both Burton and Evans have their own cookbooks, filled with creole recipes they made famous at the restaurant.   But Burton, who mentored many New Orleans chefs like our Chef Jean Robert de Cavalle did to many chefs who now own their own restaurants, is described as being “to the skillet what Louis Armstrong was to the trumpet.”     Burton’s Creole Feast  is coming out in revised edition next month, and I can’t wait to read it.   Both chefs were widely acclaimed at a time in the Jim Crow South when it was unusual for the color line to be crossed.

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The Pontchartrain Hotel in the 1940s.

The Pontchartrain Hotel was built and developed in 1927 by Lyle Aschaffenburg, from a prominent New Orleans hotelier family.  Its Caribbean Room restaurant opened in 1948 and quickly became a hangout for New Orleans elite,  Hollywood movie stars and international performers.   The 12-story building was initially designed as a residential hotel, but would change in the late 1930s to a conventional guest hotel.   Of its 100 rooms, a dozen or so were always under annual lease, mostly to well-heeled New Orleanians in their later years.    Among them were Edith Stern, heiress of the now bankrupt Sears department store fortune, and Frankie Besthoff, of the Katz & Besthoff drugstores family who popularized the nectar flavor soda (that New Orleans claimed they invented!)    Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote at the hotel in a room he rented.     Being on the streetcar line, perhaps A Streetcar Named Desire was written or inspired during his stay there.

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The inside of the Caribbean Room in its heyday.

After passing from Lyle to his son Albert and his grandson Honore, the hotel and restaurant closed.   The hotel and Caribbean Room were redeveloped and reopened in 2016 by a Chicago firm.    Longterm guests who knew the Mile High Pie scoffed when it was served not in a towering slice, but perfectly stacked mini rounds of ice cream.     The Caribbean Room closed early this year and reopened as the Jack Rose restaurant, which decided to continue the legacy and still serves the Mile High Pie as it was meant to be served – in a towering slice.

But this pie’s legacy continues back in time.   The New Orleans Mile High Pie was based on the original American dessert, the Baked Alaska.   That iconic dessert was invented in 1867 by New York City’s Delmonico French Chef Ranhofer to commemorate the purchase by Seward of Alaska.     It was a scorched meringue outside housing an ice cream interior.    Ranhofer is also famous for popularizing the avocado, then known as the ‘alligator pear’ in American cooking.   Avacado toast predates the recent hipster revival of it by over a century.

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Chef Ranhofer of Delmonico’s in NYC, inventor of Baked Alaska.

Chef Burton’s NOLA creation of the Mile High Pie spawned many different versions of itself throughout the country.   Bone’s Restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood serves a Mountain High Pie – which replaces the peppermint ice cream with Rum Raisin and chocolate chip, but drizzles with both chocolate and mint sauce.    I hope there’s a restaurant in the south that serves a version with a bourbon ice cream or sauce.   The Blue Springs Restaurant in Illinois serves the traditional version.     There are also Mile High Peanut Butter pie with a Nutter Butter cookie crust,  a Mile High Turtle Sunday Pie, and a Mile High Mud Pie, which is more like Grand Finale’s version of the pie, with chocolate mousse rather than ice cream.      The New Sovereign’s pie might have come to Cincinnati through a New Orleans trained chef, but I haven’t been able to verify.

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Bones’ version of the Mile High Pie, called the Mountain High Pie.

In Hawaii, there’s a version that recently got the Food Network Magazine Award for best frozen dessert of the Hawaiian Islands.   It’s served at the TS Restaurant chain, but originated at the company’s first restaurant, Kimo’s in Old Lahaina Town in Maui.     The Hula Pie starts with a crumb crust made of Oreos. Then an entire quart of macadamia nut ice cream is piled on to form a huge mound. Finally, the whole thing is drenched in fudge sauce and topped with whipped cream and more macadamia nuts.

My litmus test for a dish becoming iconic is its presence in a national chain.   And the Mile High Pie, has passed that test.   The Red Robin Chain has a Mile High Mud Pie on its menu at all locations.

With Graeter’s and Aglamesis ice creams in town, our chefs would surely be able to come up with some very interesting variations of the Mile High Pie we could call our own.

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