Grim's Grub: Despite the name, this treat does not taste like desperation

Don't knock this marvel until you've tried it!

Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Struggle isn't great, that's no secret. But that doesn't change the fact that struggle often births innovation, and sometimes that means innovation in food.

The Great Depression was one such struggle that led to a surprising number of foods we still eat today. There was cake made from tomato soup, Spam, submarine sandwiches, hotdish and cream of soups.

This last one is surprisingly connected to the history of the sweet treat we explore today. That's because certain ingredients, specifically flour and dairy, were slightly more available to families even during that time of struggle.

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During the Depression, there was a shortage of almost all ingredients. But families still needed to eat, and they often still wanted to eat something that excited their taste buds. That's where "desperation pie" came in, a dessert that often should not work, but - surprisingly - does.

Technically, some desperation pies hail from before the Depression. One of the earliest recorded examples comes from 1740s German immigrants. Martha Washington left behind recipes for a desperation pie called "chess pie." And while Hoosier pie is often associated with the Depression, it traces back to 1816 thanks to Shaker migrants.


Desperation pies were once a product of seasonal desperation. Apples, cherries and other sweet goodies could only keep so long out of season. In the meantime, what was the family to eat at the end of their meal?

As a result, people often used whatever they had in their pantry to make approximations of what they really wanted. There are tales of early green tomatoes being baked with apple pie seasonings before the apples ripened, and oats being substituted for pecans after those ran out.

The Depression often took this to a whole new level with some bakers making pies with almost nothing at all.

There is a family of pies out there called "custard" pies. Technically, custard pie would involve milk, eggs and various flavorings combined with a thickener that, when baked, creates a uniform, gelled filing.

They are very versatile, but it turns out they are so versatile you can cut out all but three of the traditional ingredients, substitute the most plain ingredient of all and still make them work. That's how Depression era cooks came up with water pie, an example of something that shouldn't work, but does.

Water pie starts like many pies, with a traditional pie crust. Into that crust you add water, a combination of sugar and flour and a dash of vanilla, and chopped up butter on top. You don't even stir these ingredients together, lest it all fall apart.

Something magical happens while it bakes. The butter emulsifies with the other ingredients and the gluten from the flour leaches into the water to gel it. The heat caramelizes the sugar, vanilla and butter to create a pie you really have to eat to believe.

The name "water pie" gives you the impression that the pie will be soggy, watery and bland; but on the contrary, the flavor is extremely sweet with the decadent taste of caramel.


Similar tricks are employed for a few other desperation pies, including Hoosier pie, which replaces the water with cream, milk or a combination and sweetens the whole shebang with maple syrup.

In the case of those yearning for key lime pie, there was the vinegar pie. Once again a custard pie, this time made with vinegar, though eggs do find themselves in the mix this time as a thickener.

I urge you to try the water pie as is, but you don't at all disrupt the chemistry that makes it work if you tweak it just a bit. I made one water pie with Taster's Choice coffee crystals, hazelnut creamer and a dash of cocoa powder, and another with strawberry flavored, unsweetened carbonated water.

Somehow, the natural caramel flavor still dominated both, but they were both delicious.

As for vinegar pie, there are so many vinegars out there. While a raspberry balsamic vinegar would defeat the penny saving origins of desperation pie, they should make for some truly amazing twists when times are better.

The simplicity of desperation pies is what gives them incredible possibilities that I don't think have been fully explored yet.

Water Pie

water pie
This desperation pie, called water pie, packs flavor that will surprise anyone who knows the secret ingredient is water.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

  • 9-inch pie crust
  • 1 1/2 cups water (or substitute other liquids, but try not to use sweetened liquids)
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 5 tablespoons of butter, cut into five pieces

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees.
Pour the water into your pie crust. In a bowl, combine the sugar and flour, then sprinkle this mixture over the water as evenly as possible. Do not stir the water. Drizzle the vanilla over the water filling and then gently place the butter slices over the surface, spread out evenly.


Bake the pie for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake the pie for another 30 minutes. If the crust appears to be browning, cover it with foil.

The filling will appear wobbly when removed from the oven. It must cool before it will gel completely.

Martha Washington's Chess Pie

Traditional Southern US chess pie dessert.
Photo illustration /

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 9-inch pastry crust

Cream the butter and then slowly beat in 1/2 cup of sugar, reserving the rest. Next, beat egg yolks with salt until light and lemon colored. Slowly add the remaining sugar to this mixture. Fold in the lemon juice and grated rind.

Combine this with the creamed mixture and stir in the wine. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until set.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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