Gimme the Sweet Stuff

Like this week’s bread, ciabatta, pecan pie is a baked good without much of a pedigree. There are no known recipes for pecan pie that date back further than 1925. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: corn syrup, one of pecan pie’s primary ingredients, wasn’t in common use before that time.

Though corn syrup was invented in the early 1800’s, it wasn’t marketed widely as a sweetner until the turn of the century when Karo hit the market. Even so, it took another few decades before it came into common household use. There is a school of thought that attributes the invention of pecan pie to the wife of a Karo marketing executive. Certainly, Karo has done much to popularize the pie over the years.

Then there’s the competing theory that pecan pie was the invention of poor southern folk, who fashioned it out of readily available ingredients (inexpensive corn syrup and wild-grown pecans). Still other theories say the inventors were French immigrants in New Orleans.

Me, I have my doubts about them all. For while pecan pie itself may be new, there is a Western tradition of tooth-achingly sweet pies that’s as old as sugar refining itself. Karo syrup, let’s not forget, was only the latest sweetner to arrive on the scene in the 1920’s. Before pecan (also known as “Karo”) pie, there was molasses pie, sorgum pie, treacle tart, sugar pie, chess pie and shoofly pie. All are alike in that they are thinly-veiled excuses for heaping almost pure sugar on a dessert plate. The only difference between them is the type of thickener they employ. For pecan pie it’s eggs, molasses and sorghum pie use flour, treacle tart is thickened with bread crumbs, etc, etc.

No, it seems that as long as there’s been sweet stuff around, people have been divising ways to consume it in bulk. The Arabs, who were the first to refine sugar back in about 700 A.D. were known for several varieties of all-sugar pastries. And let’s not forget the Greeks, who consumed vast amounts of honey in concoctions like this. Oh yes, my friends, we may condemn ourselves for the way we slurp down soft drinks, but the human sweet tooth is a timeless thing.

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