Friday, July 9, 2010

A Legacy of Pie & Dixie Cups

Post July 4th -and the week has flown by. I am behind in my self-imposed blog schedule. Usually I need a brief period of free floating thinking before I start writing. Not tonight - I have been looking forward to blogging on this topic all week.

We joined friends for a scaled down July 4th celebration last weekend. Ribs were the featured main course. I was tapped to bring dessert. I was looking through my recipe stash and came across my grandmother's recipe for Lemon Sponge Pie. I never made it before, but we had a bag of fresh lemons and this seemed the perfect time to try it out. Plus my Farmer-Architect loves all things lemon. I was fairly certain this would be a hit.

And it was. Fresh and lemony with a smooth filling on the bottom - not quite pudding, not quite custard - and a sponge top that stopped just short of being a meringue. Success!
This pie was special for more than its exquisite taste and texture. This was one of the pie recipes that my grandmother developed early in the 1940's. At that time my grandfather worked for the Dixie Cup Company in Easton, PA. (The picture above is of the Dixie-cup-shaped water tower on top of the plant in Easton, Pennsylvania in the 1920s). My grandmother often packed a slice of pie in his lunch, and then started packing two and sometimes more slices as lunches were divided and traded around among the crew. My grandmother's pies were a huge success which gave my grandfather an idea - he would bring whole pies to work with him and sell them.

Soon my mother was getting up before school and starting her day rolling pie dough while my grandmother made the fillings. Next my grandmother invested in a commercial oven. The business was taking off. And then - the local health inspector got wind of the business and paid a call to my grandmother's kitchen. She didn't have to shut down the business as long as she complied with pages of health regulations designed for commercial bakeries.

And that was the end of the pie business.

For me - the good news is that my mother kept all the pie recipes. She also taught me how to make the ultimate crisp and flaky pie crust. I've tried dozens of pie crust recipes over the years, with butter, with egg, with convoluted prep techniques. But the basic recipe with crisco, flour, a dash of salt, a dash of sugar, and cold iced water gives me the best result. The only significant variation from my mother's early instruction is that I use a food processor to cut the shortening into the flour.

My grandfather only worked a short time at the Dixie Cup plant. He died at a young age in 1948. But I often heard about my grandmother's experience in the pie baking business. She never held much with government regulation after that.

Lafayette College in Easton, PA has a special collection on the history of the Dixie Cup. It is a very interesting story, intertwined with public health, railroads, and public schools. You can link here: Dixie Cup History.

Slowly but surely I'm putting together a cookbook. If you would like to be a recipe tester for the Lemon Sponge Pie, post a comment and let me know.