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Photograph of two homemade lemon pies with a bowl a lemons
Finished lemon pies using The "76" Cook Book recipes of Mrs. J. B. Stewart and Mrs. Putnam. Photograph by Alison Kelly

When Life Gives You Lemon Pies: Consuming History through a Community Cookbook

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Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. She has provided her expertise in a number of Inside Adams blog posts related to food history such as A Brief History of Pumpkin Pie in America,  Early American Beer, and Early Mixology Books.

Title page of “76.” A Cook Book, ed. by the Ladies of Plymouth Church, Des Moines, Iowa, 1876.

When “76.” a Cook Book was published in Des Moines, Iowa in 1876, the country was occupied with celebrating its 100th birthday.  The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, America’s first official World’s Fair, showed the world how far the United States had come. It was at the fair that visitors were first introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the Remington typewriter, as well as bananas, Heinz Catsup and Hires Root Beer.

The contributors and compilers of “76.”, Ladies of Plymouth Church and their friends, were cooking in an overlap of eras, with one foot in an industrialized future and one in the regional past. Within the next 20 years, many millions of packets of Hires Root Beer powder and bottles of Heinz Tomato Catsup would be sold, but the recipes in this book reveal women who were still making their own root beer, catsup and yeast.

With its interesting mix of regional and modern, past and future, this book mixes sophistication and simplicity, with recipes calling for curry powder and anchovies alongside instructions for making “hard” soap, cleaning a new wooden pail and making a mustard plaster.   Someday I may cook my way through this interesting cookbook–from the numerous soup recipes by the somewhat intimidating Mrs. Dr. Hoffman of Beardstown, Illinois, through all of the recipes for catsups: cucumber, currant, walnut, gooseberry, grape and, of course, tomato catsup—to Mrs. Mary Myers’ Saratoga Potatoes.

But for the present, I am focused on pies.  Specifically, lemon pies.

All the nine lemon pie recipes in “76” were appealing, but the supply of eggs in my (quarantine) kitchen put a limit on my choices.

Lemon Pie Recipes from Cover page of “76.” A Cook Book, ed. by the Ladies of Plymouth Church, Des Moines, Iowa, 1876.

So, I chose just two of the nine:

Mrs. Putnam’s Lemon Pie with Three Crusts.  This recipe called out to be investigated: I needed to find out how to put three crusts on a pie.

Mrs. J. B. Stewart’s Lemon Pie. This one represents the traditional lemon meringue approach—and I figured it could represent most of the lemon pies in “76.”, with its egg, cornstarch, sugar and lemon base, and a meringue topping.

With so many lemon pie recipes—and that’s not counting related items like lemon tarts and puffs—this book feels like the opposite of popular books and articles today that promise the one and only “perfect” version of a recipe. The motive, however, was probably not to offer too many choices—or even to demonstrate the impossibility of perfection—but to include the entire community and exclude—or insult—no-one. Every contributor had her own favorite, and the outsize number attests to the tremendous popularity of lemon pies in 19th century America.

It would be an understatement to say the recipes are minimalist. Most start with a short list of ingredients and an abbreviated narrative with brief assembly instructions. There is some peeling, grating and chopping, but for the most part the reader is left to figure things out. Like most early community cookbooks, this one assumes that we have a certain proficiency and familiarity with most aspects of baking, whereas today, we might expect several pages of instructions and expertise.

Preparing to make lemon pies. Photograph by Alison Kelly, April 2020

We might, for example, expect to be advised on whether–or even how–to prepare a pastry crust or to select our tools and pans. We would be told to discard the lemon seeds, separate the eggs, and preheat the oven to a given temperature.

But what I wanted from this project was a baking adventure– I knew there would be no hand-holding. I chose not to consult any modern authorities for best practices, a decision that was remarkably freeing. I also chose to forego historical authenticity by using my stand mixer to beat the egg whites. That seemed reasonable, since I was not using a coal-fired kitchen range and most likely not the same variety of lemon available in Iowa 1876, a lemon which would have arrived on a train from Florida or California.

Still, I was faced with many decisions—and a digital scale won’t help you here! Although my two chosen recipes generally stuck to more standardized measuring cups and spoons, other lemon pies called for “a piece of butter the size of an egg” or of a nutmeg.  Mrs. Stewart’s does require a “spoon of cornstarch” which I decided was going to be a tablespoon.  Her directions to “cook in hot water until it thickens” made me stop to think.  And how thick is thick enough? Is it supposed to take 5 minutes-or twenty-five?

At least Mrs. Stewart instructs you to bake the pie – and hopefully you thought to include a bottom crust. Mrs. Putnam’s recipe, with its three crusts, abruptly ends with applying the third and top crust.  I settled on a 325 oven for the three-crust pie, which seemed about right, although it ended up baking for over an hour and a half. I have no way of knowing if this was too long in the oven, but the results were surprisingly good.

Mrs. J. B. Stewart’s Lemon Pie. Photograph by Alison Kelly, April 2020.

Mrs. Stewart’s lemon pie with meringue also turned out well. Although I found it too sweet, it was still refreshingly lemony, and the filling and meringue held their shape. The three-crust pie, however, was more reminiscent of a pastry than a typical pie.  I expected distinct layers, but the flaky pastry mixed in with the chopped lemon filling to produce something more like a lemon-marmalade pastry. It was sticky and sweet like baklava, but also sour and tangy. Although I can’t really be sure how this confection was originally supposed to taste, it ended up being my favorite.

Mrs. Putnam’s Three Crust Lemon Pie. Photograph by Alison Kelly, April 2020.

I enjoyed preparing these recipes.  Zesting and peeling, chopping and mixing, and with no screen or page of detailed instructions to keep checking or to keep me in check, I was completely in touch with the ingredients and the process. If you are looking for a culinary adventure—or just some interesting reading, you may want to check out this book and the rest of this online inventory of community cookbooks from the Library of Congress collections. You can read and download the collection at:  Community Cookbooks.   


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Comments (2)

  1. YUM! There is such comfort in the food of our foremothers, which may explain why so many of us are playing with sourdough. Can we have a followup post on macaroni and cheese? Or the odd things in casseroles… which you should definitely NOT try to reproduce.

  2. Loved this post– what fun and so much information. I don’t remember a recipe in which you chopped up the lemon itself. Would you be willing to do a Bakewell Tart?There is a recipe for Bakewell Bars in the Washington Post Food Section of May, 27, 2020 and know the tart was made twice on the Great British Baking show. I would be interested in your take on it. Are there any variations? Your pictures of the lemon pie made my mouth water. And am sure pictures of the Bakewll Tart would as well. Thanks for taking us back to the 19th-Century.

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