No matter how you slice it, pies are a Thanksgiving treat

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Mary Ann Yoder prepares pies galore Tuesday morning at Fifer Orchards. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER –– One Thanksgiving dessert staple, pie, has a long history in Delaware, dating back to at least the 18th century.

Although making a pie seems like a complicated, labor-intensive process for the average cook these days, it’s a breeze compared to when pie baking was commonplace on the John Dickinson Plantation back in the 18th century.

Things weren’t as easy as getting a recipe from the internet, grabbing the ingredients out of the pantry and preheating the oven to 350°.

Firstly, most recipes had been handed down through generations and they required a lot of eye-balling instead of standard measures.

“You might have a recipe calling for something like butter the size of a hen’s egg, but it required a lot of interpretation because there were different types of hens that laid different size eggs; unlike today when you go to the grocery store and all the eggs are pretty much the same size,” said Vertie Lee, a historical interpretor at the Plantation.

It wasn’t only the amount of each ingredient used that was different, it was also the ingredients themselves. Today we rely on chemical compounds like sodium hydrogen carbonate, better known as baking soda in most of our baked goods. Before the production of baking soda, chefs relied on pearl ash, a salt containing potassium that had to be mined and ammonium bicarbonate was used in place of baking powder.

Anna May King prepares doughnuts as she waits for apple caramel walnut pies to cool. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Anna May King prepares doughnuts as she waits for apple caramel walnut pies to cool. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

“The ovens they used back in the 18th century were called bake houses and they were most like a pizza oven of today with brick chamber and an open fire,” Ms. Lee said.

But at some places like the John Dickinson Plantation, they used a Dutch oven placed against a wall. The Dutch oven was placed over hot coals and covered with a lid and maintained a more even temperature than a bake house.

“Although the Dutch oven kept a pretty consistent temperature, there was usually one side that stayed hotter than the other so you couldn’t just leave something in the oven,” Ms. Lee said. “It was important to keep an eye on it and regularly rotate it to ensure even cooking.”

Luckily things have changed greatly over the past 300 years or so, and making a pie from even from scratch is easier than ever before with the availability of precise measurements and consistent ingredients.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, Fifer Orchards bakes hundreds of pies from scratch on the premises, but lucky for the orchard and its bakers, they use an electric oven that can bake up to 15 pies at a time with no need to constantly rotate them.

The crust is made from scratch before the filling is added before sending the pies into the oven with or without a top layer of crust depending on the type of pie.

“Everything we bake is 100 percent natural and it’s all baked fresh, right here,” said Michael Fennemore, a fourth generation farmer at the Orchard. “We also try to use as many ingredients grown on the farm as possible.”

Fifer’s top seller for Thanksgiving is pumpkin pie, but Mr. Fennemore said apple comes in as a close second followed by pecan, apple caramel walnut and rhubarb.

Mary Ann Yoder puts a tray of pumpkin pies into the oven at Fifer Orchards Tuesday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Mary Ann Yoder puts a tray of pumpkin pies into the oven at Fifer Orchards Tuesday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

To meet the Thanksgiving demand, Fifer’s had bakers working overnight shifts all week.

An even greater advancement than baking 15 pies in one oven is producing them on a commercial scale, seen most notably this Thanksgiving with the national Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie craze. The pies, sold only at Walmart, have been selling out since their release. The Walmart in north Dover reported selling out multiple shipments, so last minute shoppers are out of luck.

The 8-inch pies originally sold for $3.50 in stores but since selling out can be found online on websites like eBay, ranging from $10 to $20 for a single pie.
According to Yahoo!, over the weekend of Nov. 13 to 15, Walmart was selling an average of one Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie every second for 72 hours adding up to about a $1 million in sales.

Although pie production has greatly evolved since the early days in America, one thing that has endured is American’s love of the Thanksgiving dessert staple.


Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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