Resurrecting Virginia’s Forgotten ‘Caramel’ Pie

In January of 1959, a Virginia woman wrote to her local newspaper’s food editor in search of a pie recipe.

“I’ve looked in all my cookbooks for a caramel pie which my husband tells me is made with damson preserves. There just ‘ain’t no sech animal.’ Please see what you and your readers can do to solve this marital difficulty.” The letter was signed “CPJ, Richmond.”

Apparently there was such an animal, and it had once been a popular regional dessert. Prompted by the kitchen mystery, dozens of readers sent in recipes for damson caramel pie (sometimes simply called caramel pie) to the Richmond News Leader. Many of the letter-writers attributed the recipe to their grandmothers or earlier, placing the heyday of the recipe in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The versions were remarkably similar, containing a generous measure of damson plum preserves—a jam with an intensely plummy, almost spiced flavor—blended into a rich base of butter, eggs, sugar, and a dash of vanilla extract. Some included a scattering of cornmeal as a thickener, and others were tarted up with meringue tops. Not one called for actual caramel.

During its heyday in Virginia, the pie was ubiquitous. It was the kind of recipe that was handed down through generations and recorded in family “receipt” books in flowery script, before eventually appearing in hyper-local community cookbooks compiled by church groups and ladies’ auxiliaries.

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The venerable Edna Lewis, who grew up in Freetown, Virginia, included recipes for both damson preserves and damson pie in her famous cookbooks, which were essentially love letters to her childhood home. In The Taste of Country Cooking, she wrote of her family’s tree: “It was a prolific bearer of hundreds of small plums, the shape of birds’ eggs, of intense navy-blue with a purple tinge. Damson preserves are the first that I really was aware of, mostly because of the attention bestowed on the tree.”

I have a personal connection to damson caramel pie. My grandmother happened to be that food editor who fielded the recipe request in 1959. She had written about damson caramel pies before, in a 1953 piece where she described the fruits as “piquant, hard plums that are now almost extinct in Virginia” and the preserves as a once-important pantry staple in the months when fresh fruits were unavailable. She had also inherited her great-grandmother’s hand-written recipe book from 19th-century Virginia, which contained at least two recipes involving preserved damsons. (I now have this well-worn notebook, along with her reader letters, on my shelf.)

In Alabama, a 1961 Birmingham Post Herald article proclaimed, “it [is] possible to trace a family’s history through the kind of food it eats. For instance, a liking for Damson pie indicates Virginia ancestry; a preference for blackberry jam cake, forbears from Kentucky or Tennessee.”

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Today, however, most people in the United States, and even Virginia, would be hard pressed to even tell you what a damson is, much less offer a recipe for its signature jam pie.

To explain the rise and fall of the pie, one needs to examine the history of the damson. The fruit is classified as a subspecies of plum, Prunus insititia, which some botanists have argued belongs in a category of its own. In Damsons: An Ancient Fruit in the Modern Kitchen, Sarah Conrad Gothie writes that the fruit’s supposed roots lie in a region near Damascus, Syria, where it still grows, and that the name derives from an older moniker, damascene.

Although the era of their exact arrival to Europe is unknown, archaeologists have excavated damson plum pits in Germany that date as far back as 4060 BCE, and Gothie notes that damsons have grown in England “since the island’s earliest recorded history.” Later, the English brought this orchard favorite to the original American colonies, where it thrived, eventually spreading westward and throughout North America. Early American cookbooks contain methods for preserving the fruit, including spiced pickles, condiments, and jams.

Beth’s Farm Kitchen (Hudson Valley) and Jam According to Daniel (Charlottesville, VA).

Pie Crust Recipe

If you’d like to make your own crust, try this recipe for a 9-inch crust, adapted loosely from The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book.

Ingredients:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (roughly ½- inch pieces)
½ cup ice water (or less)

Instructions:

  1. In a food processor, mix the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and pulse into the dry ingredients until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Drizzle in the water, pulsing a bit at a time, until the dough starts to clump together into a shaggy mass but has not fully come together in a ball. You may not need the full amount of water. Alternatively, you can do this by hand, using your fingers to pinch and work the butter into the flour.
  2. Pour the dough onto a floured surface and press it together gently into a flat disk. Fold it over a few times onto itself, then press it into a disk shape again. Wrap it in parchment or plastic, and place in the refrigerator for an hour or so to rest.
  3. Once dough has rested, allow it to soften a bit at room temperature for 20 minutes or so, until it is workable but still cold and firm. On a floured surface, roll the dough out evenly with a floured rolling pin, working from the center outward to the edges, occasionally rotating the dough a quarter turn. Once the dough is wide enough to fill a 9-inch pie pan and cover the rim, pick it up and gently lay it into the pie pan, taking care to fit it into the edges. Trim any excess dough with kitchen scissors and crimp or flute the edges as you like, using your fingers or a fork. Cover, and allow to firm up in the refrigerator for around a half hour, or until you are ready to bake.

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