It’s quite simple

Iain Bagwell

American desserts are characterized by their ruggedness and practicality. Fruit pies and stack cakes were baked to make the most out of what the vast landscape offered, without the complicated steps and multitude of ingredients typical in many prominent European pastries. A basic butter and lard crust filled with warm sweetened fruit and cakes baked out of cast irons and topped with simple sugar syrups and frostings typify the early-American approach to dessert that has shaped so many of the traditions we hold today.

But before widespread refrigeration and the mass transportation of produce from around the world, what did bakers make for dessert when nothing was growing and the pantry was limited: desperation pies. These baked marvels are simply the product of creative bakers who would not allow a shortage of ingredients to prevent them from making something sweet and delicious. Desperation pies are made from simple ingredients that are almost always on hand. Chess pies are a type of desperation pie that only contain flour, butter, sugar, and eggs at their most basic. Vinegar pies are the desperation pie version of lemon meringue pie, using vinegar (which was available all year) instead of the juice of lemons for acidity and tang, allowing the baker to offset the sweetness of the rest of the custardy pie filling.

WATCH: How to Make a Classic Buttermilk Pie

Even though vinegar pies and four-ingredient chess pies might sound like an unnecessary dessert choice due to the produce now available year round, pastry chefs across the South are harkening back to old recipes and finding that these desserts born out of scarcity are also works of genius. Delicately balancing rich sweetness and the savory tang of simple ingredients, buttermilk pies and cornmeal chess pies can now be found both at the diner in your grandmother’s hometown and as plated desserts at some of the best restaurants in the South.