For many of us, the holiday season means pie, and lots of it. While pumpkin and pecan pies will likely be on the menu at your holiday feasts this season, buttermilk pie is a favorite here in Texas, as well.
For the uninitiated, buttermilk pie is part of the custard-pie family and consists of simple, easily sourced ingredients, such as sugar, flour, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla extract and butter (think crème brûlée though slightly sweeter, with a hint of tanginess and without the caramelized-sugar top). It’s often confused with its cousin, chess pie, but the latter lacks milk or buttermilk. What the two pies have in common, though—and what has enabled both to endure—are deliciousness and simplicity of preparation. Home cooks throughout history could easily blend the ingredients out of items they already had on hand, then pour into a piecrust to create a comforting, sweet treat.
This simple pie wasn’t always reserved for the holidays, though. In a different time, it was an everyday treat in homes across the South. Cookbook author, food writer and North Carolina native, Nancie McDermott, has written extensively about pies, and her cookbook, “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan,” includes an entire chapter on custard pies, including buttermilk pie. “Glance through historical cookbooks,” she writes, “and you’ll see that from colonial times forward, there were more meat pies than sweet for the first century, and that what sweet pies there were had a common base: custard.”
In the case of buttermilk pie, families who churned their own butter ended up with buttermilk as a byproduct and had to use it up. More tangy than cow’s milk (which was called “sweet milk” to differentiate it), buttermilk was often used to fry chicken and make biscuits, cakes and pancakes. It was a treat all on its own, too. “It’s hard for most of us living today to imagine wanting to pour a big glass of buttermilk and drink it, much less with crumbled cornbread in it as I saw my grandfather do on the dairy farm where he and my grandmother worked and lived throughout my childhood,” says McDermott.
We’ve seen the return of Prohibition-era cocktails, hand-cranked ice cream makers and now the “comeback” of buttermilk pie and other pies often referred to as “desperation pies” or “make-do pies”—terms created by food historians to describe simple treats that helped lift spirits during hard times. Yet, McDermott takes slight issue with these labels. She says there’s no need to attach a hard-times edge to these pies; they’d already been popular for many, many years. “I think we make much of the desperation idea because the simplicity and repetition of everyday food and cooking seem severe to us. But these buttermilk-pie-making home bakers may also have thought ‘yummy, love me some buttermilk pie!’ Not ‘too bad we don’t have x or y or z. Oh well, we’ll make do.’”
Local food writer, private chef and food historian, MM Pack, concurs. “It makes sense that people used buttermilk because they had buttermilk,” she says. “However, the practice of making custards and custard fillings from cooking eggs, milk and sugar together goes back to medieval Europe and the early Middle East. It’s a flavor/texture combination that has appealed to the human palate well outside the lean times like on the early U.S. frontier, and during the Great Depression and the two World Wars.”
Bastrop resident Jaynie Buckingham’s own storyline changed when she entered a pie-baking contest using her grandmother’s buttermilk pie recipe. Then a nurse, she now owns the pie truck, Cutie Pie Wagon. She says that buttermilk pie is so popular now because “it transports us back to a simpler time of shucking peas and eating Grandmother’s chicken on Sunday. In our hurry-up society, something like buttermilk pie touches your heart and warms your soul.”
ELM Restaurant Group’s Executive Pastry Chef Mary Catherine Curren says, “It seems like, for the past few years, chefs have been going back to simpler food—less fuss and flair and more of a focus on just highlighting quality ingredients. Nothing seems simpler than a buttermilk pie.”
By Jen Hamilton Hernandez • Photography by Jenna Northcutt