Vinegar Pie: Straight From The New Frontier

Aug 9, 2018

One of my kids just finished reading Farmer Boy, the second book in the charming “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The main character, a boy named Almanzo, spends his days doing an absurd amount of wood chopping, ice cutting, and dirt-plowing, all without a word of complaint. … I’ve never known a nine-year-old who hadn’t perfected the art of the whine. My kids won’t even flush the toilet without a 50-decibel gripe.

So, what’s the secret?

Sure ... in the book there is plenty instilling-of-work-ethic, and the fact that Almanzo’s family would starve if he didn’t do his chores every morning. Plus, his father bribes him with a horse, which goes a long way for Almanzo. But … and this is the point … there is a lot of food available to this hard-working kid.

That got me thinking … maybe the key to silent chore-doing is frontier food. Almanzo is constantly hungry, always salivating over the prospect of the next meal. Listen to this ...

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. ... He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.

I can’t even read that without drooling. If I cooked like Almanzo’s mother, my kids would probably come huffing in from the barn at 5:30 every morning with a little drool slipping from their lips too.

A major feature of every meal in Farmer Boy seems to be pie. Later in the book, Almanzo faces this conundrum:

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.

I was intrigued by the idea of vinegar pie … it was a real frontier recipe, apparently, used when fresh staples like fruit and berries were in short supply. A vinegar pie is a simple dessert. The recipe is similar to a lemon meringue, but with cider vinegar substituted for the fresh lemon juice, and flour as the thickening agent. It was a recipe of necessity … similar to a bean pie, if you’ve ever tried one of those from a home-food storage enthusiast, or the mock apple pie recipe you can find printed on the cracker box.

There is actually a long tradition of necessity pie-making: Shoo-fly pie, which has a simple molasses filling, buttermilk pie with just buttermilk custard, invisible pie -- pecan pie without the nuts -- or Jefferson Davis pie made with easily stored raisins and dates.

I plan to whip up some vinegar pie, for some historical taste-testing. Who knows what my family will think … maybe I’ll make them plow a field before dinner, just for the peace of mind.

This is Lael Gilbert, for Bread and Butter.