I’m inspired by strong mountain women, and Carrie Blake was definitely one of them. I never met her before she died, and I know little about her life. Still, there’s much I can glean about her resolve just by waking up every day on the same farm where she lived by herself for 30 years in the early 1900s. After spending a few years tending to this property myself, I know how arduous the work can be, but I still have no clue what it takes to tackle it all by my lonesome.
She may have lived by herself, but in the kitchen at least Carrie Blake was hardly alone. A relic of her time here—a small black booklet of dozens of recipes, both handwritten and clipped from local newspapers—describes more than casseroles, pickles, and desserts. It represents a robust cooking community. Such collections were once commonplace, reflecting a critical bond among cooks from disparate rural kitchens who would likely never meet face to face. Whether it was attending church recipe swaps or mailing family favorites to newspaper editors, sharing recipes was part of a broad knowledge-sharing tradition. The first time I looked through Blake’s collection of brittle, yellowed clippings from the Clarksburg Exponent newspaper (now The Exponent Telegram), I came across a recipe for “Old Fashion Vinegar Pie,” written by Mrs. Flossie Hannah, of Sedalia, West Virginia, about 30 miles away.
Bright and tangy but not overly sweet, vinegar pie is a dish I’ve long cherished for its ability to showcase the enterprising spirit of Appalachian home cooks. It helps that it’s also incredibly delicious, which is surprising to those who can think of a million other uses for vinegar before they put it in a pie. From a combination of rural seclusion and the financial constraints of the Great Depression emerged a class of desserts known as “desperation pies,” made with inexpensive, available ingredients. The parameters of Appalachian cuisine may be open to interpretation, but working creatively with what’s on hand is a trademark of the region’s underappreciated culinary canon.
At a time when lemons were hard to come by in rural West Virginia, cooks would tap the acidic qualities of vinegar to create a nearly perfect citrus substitute. When I think about the negative connotations of the term desperation, I find myself wondering if such dishes shouldn’t be known as “innovation pies” instead. Thrift, persistence, and inventiveness are the threads woven throughout the stories of Appalachian cooks as they have perfected the ratio of vinegar, sugar, and nutmeg to match the tartness and sweetness of lemon-curd pastries.
Flossie Hannah didn’t create this version of vinegar pie—the Exponent notes that it had “long been a favorite with her family.” But, like the other cooks represented in Blake’s little black booklet of recipes, Hannah probably felt a responsibility to pass it on. After discovering her recipe, I feel a similar obligation to share it.
This recipe was originally submitted by Flossie Hannah and published sometime between the 1930s and the 1950s in the Clarksburg Exponent series Family Favorites: Contributed Recipes from Central West Virginia Homemakers. Though I stick to the original amounts and ratios, I’ve made a few adjustments; most notable, I’ve doubled the recipe for a thicker pie with lots of filling. Hannah’s original recipe also calls for the addition of meringue topping, made with the leftover egg whites, after the fully baked pie crust is filled with the chilled cooked custard. I like to skip the meringue, instead baking the pie once more at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, until the custard top becomes firm and develops a slight golden-brown color. I then chill the pie once more before serving it with ice cream or homemade whipped cream. For the perfect crust I recommend this recipe from my good friend Emily Hilliard, the West Virginia state folklorist and a renowned pie aficionado.
(Serving: 6 slices)
For the custard filling:
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon nutmeg
3 tablespoons flour
⅛ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup water
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 egg yolks, beaten
9-inch pie shell
For the meringue topping (optional):
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 350 F. (Skip this step if adding meringue topping.)
Mix sugar with nutmeg, flour, and salt.
Melt butter in water and add the vinegar. Add sugar mixture gradually and stir until smooth.
In a double boiler or mixing bowl over boiling water, cook until thick, stirring occasionally.
In a separate large mixing bowl, slowly add the hot custard mixture to the beaten egg yolks, stirring constantly. Return to heat and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer, stirring constantly.
Let the mixture cool. Pour into a baked, cooled 9-inch pie shell.
Bake at 350 F for 15–20 minutes.
First, let the egg whites come to room temperature. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt and a pinch of cream of tartar (this helps stabilize the meringue).
Very slowly work in the sugar, beating constantly until the mixture is smooth and has thickened. It’s most efficient to work with a hand-held electric mixer or upright stand mixer, although it is possible to mix by hand with a whisk.
Spread meringue over the pie filling, ensuring the filling is at least room temperature. With a large spoon spread the meringue evenly to the edge of the crust. For decorative effect, fluff the meringue with the back of a spoon. Bake once more at around 350 F for 15 minutes.
Mike Costello is a chef, farmer, and storyteller. He and his partner Amy Dawson operate Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia.