History of the South’s Favorite Pie
In the American South, there is one pie that rises above all others as a perennial favorite. It is a simple concoction of melted butter, eggs, sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, a dash of salt, and the South’s most delicious native nut. Mixed together and baked for about an hour, these ingredients produce a luscious pie that is richly satisfying. Add a dollop of whipped cream and you have heaven on a plate.
As a true G.R.I.T.S. (Girl Raised in the South), I have always taken this comfort food for granted. The holidays, or dessert for that matter, cannot happen without at least one pecan pie. Whether you pronounce it PEE-CAN or puh-CON, the noble pecan is the favorite nut for baking, congealed salads, and just cracking and eating straight from the shell. Some would argue that the peanut holds this distinction, but I would submit that you will find more recipes of greater variety featuring the pecan.
Pecan pie is such a ubiquitous item in homes and on restaurant menus, it is tempting to believe that the South has never been without it. This is not the case; although, the nut has been used as a food since before recorded history. Pecans are native to North America and were consumed by Native Peoples. The first recorded cultivation of the trees occurred at Oak Alley Plantation (built 1837) in Louisiana. In 1846, a gardener named Antoine successfully translated pecan trees. Today, though cultivated pecan groves dot the lower south from the Atlantic to the Texas Hill Country, Georgia actually produces the nation’s largest commercial pecan crops.
While the noble nut may have been consumed for centuries, pecan pie came to the southern table relatively recently. The recipe, as we know it, dates back to the late 19th century and is little changed since the first pie was cut. Both Louisiana and Texas lay claim as the pie’s birthplace. Louisiana cites the pie’s similarity in ingredients to the state’s signature candy, the praline, developed during French colonial days. Texas lays claim by virtue of a 1898 recipe that appeared in a St. Louis cookbook but which was submitted by a Texas woman. Pecan groves thrive throughout east Texas and the Hill Country and the pie is served so pervasively, that pecan pie has been named the Official Dessert of Texas. A third claimant to the pecan pie crown is the manufacturer of Karo syrup. By the turn of the century, pecan pie recipes were appearing in cookbooks throughout the South, but it was not until the some time in 1920’s or 1930’s that Karo syrup became an integral ingredient in what was to become the traditional pie recipe. One rumor has it that the wife of a company executive developed the recipe to help her husband’s career. Another whispers that the addition of the syrup was simply a ploy created by the marketing department. Whatever the truth, the Karo company has put their recipe on every bottle of syrup since.
Mary Allen Perry writing in Southern Living Magazine summarizes the pie’s history as follows.
The South’s signature pecan pie is actually a relative latecomer to the Southern table. Recipes for milk-custard-based pecan pies can be found as early as 1824 in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, but it wasn’t until the 1930s when promotional recipes for a syrup-based pecan pie appeared on the labels of Karo syrup bottles that its popularity soared. Some historians credit the original recipe to the wife of a Karo executive, but an even earlier version of the syrup-based pie appeared in the Texas Brownwood Bulletin in 1921. Thirty years later, Marion Brown’s landmark Southern Cookbook proclaimed it “the South’s most popular pie”. Clever variations soon followed, including Tar Heel Pie and Kentucky Derby Pie. Our latest twist? A stellar riff on the flavors of German chocolate cake, for which the Lone Star State also claims bragging rights, German Chocolate-Pecan Pie. This pie has a caramelized ribbon of coconut and pecans topping a silky, profoundly chocolate filling. Need we say more?
My personal favorite recipe follows. It is the Karo recipe with one small addition.
Classic Pecan Pie
A traditional recipe.
Bake Time: 60 to 70 minutes
Cool Time: 2 hours
Yield: 8 servings
- 1 cup Karo® Light OR Dark Corn Syrup
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1-1/2 cups (6 ounces) pecans
- 1/8-1/4 teaspoon salt (my addition)
- 1 (9-inch) unbaked OR frozen** deep-dish pie crust
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Mix corn syrup, eggs, sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla using a spoon. Stir in pecans. Pour filling into pie crust.
Bake on center rack of oven for 60 to 70 minutes (see tips for doneness, below). Cool for 2 hours on wire rack before serving.
**To use prepared frozen pie crust: Place cookie sheet in oven and preheat oven as directed. Pour filling into frozen crust and bake on preheated cookie sheet.
RECIPE TIPS: Pie is done when center reaches 200°F. Tap center surface of pie lightly – it should spring back when done. For easy clean up, spray pie pan with cooking spray before placing pie crust in pan. If pie crust is overbrowning, cover edges with foil.
NUTRITION TIP: To reduce calories, substitute new Karo® Lite Syrup for the Karo® Light or Dark Corn Syrup.
High Altitude Adjustments: Reduce sugar to 2/3 cup and increase butter to 3 tablespoons. Reduce oven temperature to 325°F.
VARIATION: coarsely chopped walnuts may be substituted for pecans to make a walnut pie.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.