A Fresh Look at the History of Pecan Pie

The following is a guest blog post by Rebecca Sharpless, author of Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South, available now wherever books are sold.

            Come Thanksgiving, pecan pie, a gooey concoction of syrup, eggs, and butter, and pecans, will be on many American tables. Along with pumpkin and apple, it’s one of the most popular holiday pies. 

            When I wrote my book Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South, I was surprised at how new the pecan pie as we know it (hereafter PPAWKI) is. It is very much a twentieth-century creation, so if you ever see a recipe entitled “Old South Pecan Pie,” you know it’s bogus. 

            Sadly, I didn’t dig deep enough into the origin of PPAWKI when I was researching the book, and I bit on a corporate line from the Karo Syrup website. I wrote that the pie was the invention of the wife of a Karo employee, likely in Chicago. I was dead wrong. 

            So, in honor of Thanksgiving and PPAWKI, let’s look at what I’ve found since Grain and Fire came out. 

            My first clue that I was wrong was when I was (yes, again) reading rare cookbooks. And there it was, in a cookbook from a Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church of Dallas in 1925: pecan pie made with sugar, flour, eggs, pecans, dark Karo, butter, and vinegar, from Mrs. H. W. Woodruff (whose name may have been Margaret; she has been sadly difficult to track). 

            Well, drat. That sent me scurrying to do more research. To my relief, I found that I had gotten some things right. 

            First, pecans were shockingly rare in nineteenth-century cooking. They were confoundingly difficult to domesticate, and it wasn’t until agronomists figured out how to make pecan growing profitable that they started showing up regularly in recipes. 

            Second, pecan pies did exist before 1900, but they were cream pies with nuts in them, and they persisted into the 1930s. A good example came from Myrtle Mainer Neff, the wife of Texas governor Pat M. Neff, in 1922. Her recipe began with milk, sugar, egg yolks, and cornstarch boiled together. Then the pecans, “lemon,” and vanilla were stirred into the custard mixture. The whole was put into a prebaked crust, browned, and served with whipped cream. It was probably delicious, but it’s not PPAWKI. Folks in San Saba, in west-central Texas, made a big fuss over pecan pie in the late 1920s, declaring theirs world-famous. The San Saba Pecan Company offered the recipe for “Mrs. Bell’s famous pecan pie.” A later account credited a “Mrs. Smith.” But, despite the hype, the San Saba pecan pie was also cream-based. 

It is very much a twentieth-century creation, so if you ever see a recipe entitled “Old South Pecan Pie,” you know it’s bogus. 

            So, Texans were eating both kinds of pecan pie in the 1920s: Karo based, and cream based. I still needed to figure out where PPAWKI came from. So back I went onto the Internet.

            In 1942, Florida author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings compared her “Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie” to treacle pie. Treacle, from England, is a sugar syrup that is lighter and sweeter than American molasses. And treacle pie, I discovered, is layers of treacle and crust. It was treacle tart that I was looking for: “made on a flat dish, exactly like an open jam tart,” an English writer declared in 1881. In London in 1905, Mrs. A. S. Peel instructed cooks to line a tart tin with pastry; fill it with “some golden syrup or treacle” thickened with breadcrumbs and flavored with lemon juice and rind; and bake. Pretty simple: no butter or eggs and definitely no nuts. But sort of like pecan pie. 

            I also found a complaint from “Deliverance Dingle,” an Englishwoman living in Massachusetts in the 1880s about how molasses appeared in everything in America but that “treacle tart . . . is an unknown luxury here.” So, hmm. Maybe molasses pie was what I was looking for as the forerunner of the Karo-based pecan pie. 

            Molasses—the thick liquid boiled off as sugar is refined—was an important food for nineteenth-century Americans. One early pie recipe, baked in a double crust, came from cooking maven Eliza Leslie in the 1850s. Another appeared in 1879 from “Mrs. Dr. J.,” who likely lived in Virginia: “Three eggs, beaten separately, one pint molasses, one tablespoonful melted butter. Bake on a rich crust.” Not much in the way of instruction but getting closer. But I didn’t find anyone combining molasses with pecans until 1925—the same time as the Dallas Karo recipe—when a manual on pecan growing included a recipe with eggs, molasses, sugar, flour, pecans, and butter. That wasn’t the solution. 

            Next, I started trying to figure out when Karo syrup came into the picture. Karo itself appeared in 1902. And I didn’t find anything older than Mrs. Woodruff’s 1925 version calling for that specific product. But I discovered a lot a few years later. In Memphis in 1929, Vieh Bakeries sold “everyone’s favorite, Vieh’s Karo Pecan Pie, made of pure Karo Syrup, full of pecans” for thirty-three cents. Down the road in Clarksville, Mississippi, the Delta Baking Company offered its Large Karo Pecan Pie for forty cents. And over in Shreveport in 1930, Big Chain’s Balcony Cafeteria sold “Our Delicious Karo Pecan Pie” for ten cents a slice. So clearly PPAWKI was a thing in the South by the late 1920s.  

Pecans were shockingly rare in nineteenth-century cooking.

            What finally cracked the case for me was a cookbook published in New York in 1932: The National Cookbook: A Kitchen Americana, compiled by professional cookbook writer Sheila Hibben. Her recipe for “Pecan Pie (New Orleans)” included eggs, brown sugar, butter, Karo syrup, pecans, vanilla, and salt, baked on a single crust. New Orleans! Maybe PPAWKI has Louisiana roots, I thought. Into the computer I went one more time, and I hit pay dirt with A Book of Famous Old New Orleans Recipes Used in the South for More than 200 Years, a slender volume that appeared in the Crescent City in 1900. The compilers are anonymous and there isn’t much on the cookbook’s origins. But there on page 47 is the proof: a pecan pie made with eggs, sugar, “Louisiana syrup,” pecans, butter, vanilla extract, and pecan halves. The cookbook editor noted, “The little lumber town out of Orleans, seems to be the original home of pecan pie. Signs all over Slidell advertise the pecan pie and many New Orleanians drive out to buy them during the season.” The pie uses cane syrup, not Karo, but it’s very close to PPAWKI. So. Slidell. Cane syrup. 1900. 

            I have as yet been unable to find much on the Slidell pecan pie. But I apologize to all the Tammany Parish cooks whom I slighted. Pecan pie is indeed southern, and as you enjoy the nuts and the goo, give thanks for the creativity of southern cooks. 

Rebecca Sharpless is professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is the author of several books, including, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.