What Are Desperation Pies, and Why Are These Vintage Treats So Hot?

“Desperation pie” may sound alarming, but these vintage pies are downright delicious—and they’re making a comeback!

You may not have heard the term “desperation pie” before, but odds are you’ve eaten one. If you’ve ever had buttermilk pie, chess pie or shoofly pie…they’re all desperation pies. Otherwise known as “make-do” pies (a more positive spin), these pies were what grandma (and great grandma!) made from common pantry items when she couldn’t get fresh fruit.

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Why They Were Big

The most popular explanation is that desperation pies were the result of economic hardship during the Great Depression, or of rationing during World War II. But while they did surge in popularity during those eras—for exactly those reasons—desperation pies actually go back much further. Pies in this category were mentioned in writings as early as the 1740s. The “desperation” in question was not economic, but seasonal. In a pre-Industrial, agrarian society that didn’t allow for refrigeration or the high-speed transport of perishable goods, what cooks created in their kitchens was determined by what was in season.

In a four-season climate, this left a hole right around late winter and early spring—after the winter stores were depleted and before the spring fruit began to come in. However, ingredients such as vinegar and molasses were still available. Dried fruit, like raisins and currants, were stocked away. And grains, including cornmeal and oats, were safely silo-ed. So intrepid and inventive cooks rolled up their sleeves and created some delicious new desserts.

One of the most unusual of these creations is Grandma Pruit’s Vinegar PieFind out what happened when one home cook attempted it.

Why They’re Back

A few of these pies took root and became regional favorites, but most faded from public consciousness and were revived only during times of hardship. So why are they having a renaissance now? There are a few reasons. In the generation following World War II, these pies were associated with deprivation, so with the end of rationing they were relegated to the back of recipe boxes and were forgotten. Why continue to ration when you don’t have to?

But current generations have none of those negative associations, and instead are intrigued by the creativity of cooks of the past. In the post-war period of the 1950s, the emphasis was on security, stability and comfort. In recent years, adventurous and experimental food has become more popular. Pair that with a growing farm-to-table, locavore movement—an embrace of foods available locally—and a celebration of seasonal shifts is back in fashion. Add in a recent economic scare, and the resurgence of thrifty, pantry-staple desserts isn’t surprising at all.

Of course, the biggest reason these pies are seeing a comeback is simply that they’re delicious, and everyone loves discovering something so tasty! Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and these pies show culinary invention at its best.

Hazel Wheaton
Hazel is a writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years in the fields of travel, jewelry arts and food. As the editor of the Taste of Home Christmas Annual (among other titles), she's in the holiday spirit all year round. An enthusiastic baker, she's known for her cookies, cakes and other baked goods. And she still wishes she could cook like her mother.