cross posted at Firedoglake
Letty Owings, age 89, recalls the annual fall pie supper auction in a small Missouri farming community during the Great Depression.
The Fall Pie Supper Custom
Each autumn we had a pie supper at Cabbage Neck, the one-room school that served as our community center. The idea was that a woman, or usually a girl baked a pie, and the pies were auctioned off to men. When you live in a world where you are isolated, social functions are a big deal. Women did their darndest to outshine the other women for the pie supper, so the event was a contest as well as a fundraiser. The big deal was who was going to buy the pie.
The auction was held on the school ‘stage,’ which was a space where the teacher’s desk was pushed aside. The auctioneer, who was sometimes my father, would hold up the pie and chant, “Now what am I to give for this pie, ten cents who’ll give me ten cents, ten, and raise it to fifteen, ah fifteen and twenty, twenty cents over here and thirty thirty do I hear forty…” A girl would want a good price for her pie, and she may say, “My, they paid seventy-five cents for my pie!” Many of the pies were milk-based custards because mince was expensive. Pumpkin, squash and apple pies were popular, and on occasion when someone could afford raisins, there was raisin pie. If there was mince, the pie had a crust over the top, and often had green tomatoes, apples, and spices.
The rule was that the man who bought the pie shared the pie with the girl who baked it. The quality of the pie didn’t have much to do with the price of eggs, it was the gathering and the fun that mattered. People would discuss the drought and talk about their kids, and interject with who bought what pie for how much by saying things like, “Yeah, you know, he bought her pie.” The inevitable big ‘disappointment’ that would bring a good deal of ribbing and laughter would come when a fella would shell out a few coins for a pie, expecting that a girl had baked it, only to learn that he would be sharing the pie with grandma.
Nobody ever kept any of the money for the pies. The funds went into the school. One year the funds went to purchase a dictionary. Another year, the funds were used to purchase coal.
It is hard to explain the hype of the pie supper to people today, in a world where so much is going on. People gossiped about it for months. Women were jealous of each other. If your pie didn’t bring very much, it was like insulting the Holy Grail. The pie supper was one of the rites of passage of fall. My mother made pumpkin pies, but she never wrote down the recipe, so how did she make them?
Well, for one thing, grow the pumpkins. They can’t be too big. They can’t be too stringy. They have to be watered just right. Next, the milk has to come out of the cow. Set it on the stove for a while and let it clabber a little, to give it some taste. Set a crock on the back of the heating stove, and the cream will rise. Skim that off. You don’t want your pie too slick, or too rich. The only things purchased for the pie is the flour, and the spices. If you get too much cream, the pie will be too damn rich, but if you get too little, the pie will be too watery. Maybe two cups of cream will do, with two cups of pumpkin.
Depending on how the argument works out on any given day, the pie might require three or four eggs, and they might be separated or not, but you have to grab the eggs out from underneath the chickens. When eggs are this fresh- grabbed from under a hen- they are hard to separate- so you may have to wait a day or two, to separate the white from the yolk.
No one pulled a recipe book or a recipe card from the shelf to follow, to bake her pie, for the annual pie supper event each year. Pie making was an art and a creative endeavor that passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth.