Honey's Innovation on Shoofly Pie, Part 1

“Tradition without innovation is mere stereotype.” – Alan Weiss

The Recipe Testing Guild has been baking away! The first round of recipes included Keturah's Lemon Pie, a Chocolate Pear Tart, and our version of Shoofly Pie. What with that Shoofly Pie becoming a bit of a calling card (someone at the writer's conference called me the Shoofly lady!) it seemed time to share what exactly that card has become and why. 

So Part 1 is how my version of the Shoofly came to be and Part 2 shall be the new recipe. Enjoy! 

From Molasses to Honey

The first time I ventured into the Shoofly Pie baking/tasting arena was actually after I had decided on the name – The Shoofly Project. (props to Kate Stoltzfus for the name idea!) I had actually never even tasted the pie (gasp!) before that decision was made. 

I admittedly balked in the face of the pie. I found it horrible! The intensity of the molasses killed any possibility of pleasure. In retrospect this intensity was due to the fact that I was using the strongest-flavored molasses on the market. The mild version would have made the pie at its very least edible.

(But that ended up a beautiful mistake. "Horrible" led me to innovation; perhaps "edible" would have led me nowhere.)

Not that I blame the shoofly pie creators. Molasses was the preferred sweetener of our thrifty foremothers - it’s the cheapest sweetener they would have had access to. Not to mention it had a long shelf life – virtually infinite. 

But at that moment, in the spring of 2011, the molasses suffering still fresh on my palate, and the project already dubbed “Shoofly”, I needed to make this pie work. And molasses was clearly not the answer 

Call it Inspiration, Resourcefulness, Desperation, Innovation. Whatever it was, I just remember looking in my pantry and seeing that jar of Honey Man honey staring out at me, a substance similar in texture and viscosity to my molasses oppressor. This Honey Man’s honey was the its pure antithesis. The honey was complex and soothing. It spoke of a farm in southern Washington teeming with honeybees and berries. It sang of a sweet man selling honey out of the trunk of his car on the Bridge of the Gods that we passed on our way back to Portland from the Columbia River Gorge. Why couldn’t I use a bit lot of honey instead? I hesitated - Traditions such as these – the recipes of our foremothers - are not to be tampered with. Maybe. Now, several months later, I am comforted by such quotes as Alan Weiss’s in an article on authenticity, “Tradition without innovation is mere stereotype.”

photo courtesy of Columbia Gorge FSBO

And low and behold, with that substitution of honey my Shoofly Pie became not only edible, but also loveable.

For the Bees and Innovation

Beekeeping is becoming an increasingly popular trend in the US, with every urban farmer donning their own backyard hive, celebrating its winter survival, maintaining the queen’s health, watching it pollinate the garden and finally basking in the gold prize – the honey. And what with the bee population in danger the timing of the urban beekeeping trend is perfect. Support your bees. Support your local beekeeper - Bake a Shoofly Pie.

Honey - So simple and pure, so antiquated. A biblical character in and of itself. One of those ingredients where the idea of terroir clings to every slow, sticky drop. It was the spring in Washington with the berries. It was the summer in Oregon with the meadowfoam.  It was fall in New Mexico with the mesquite.

Ultimately, honey is the very essence of the flower or plant within the bee’s reach. That flower is the very essence of the soil its roots call home. Which is influenced by its climate - the rain, sun, altitude. And of course our farming methods.

As Robert Reynolds taught me -
Food is soil. Food is climate. Food is culture.

Like a good wine - no honey is the same year to year. My friend’s Oregon honey from last year was musty, potent and earthy, with a heavy but welcomed mouth feel. Almost romantic in its ability to cling to your memory. Thus was the Shoofly Pie.  The New Mexican honey was floral and bright, equally distinct and eager. Thus was that Shoofly Pie.

Innovation can and will prevent stereotype. It can prevent our traditions from becoming mere caricatures of their original artform. As Molly O’neill asked me last week in class, "Is it a living, breathing cuisine or is it a museum cuisine?" We shall be the ones to answer that question. Personally I’m rooting for life.

But how is innovation defined? Where does innovation stop and the creation of a purely unadulterated new product begin? Innovation, to me, means assessing and using ingredients we now have access to and actually enjoy, not that which we cling to simply out of nostalgic tendencies. But we make those choices always with the mother of the dish in mind - its construct and concept. But I also ask - what supports our current environment and local economy?

Does the molasses from a faraway land make sense, even to the misfortune of the pie, if another superior product is accessible to me?
I think not.
I think honey. 

Stay tuned for the recipe! 

1 comment:

  1. Shoofly Pie is not part of my growing up, but I do remember hearing of it, somehow, and often enough to decide I must try the famous dish. Was it the recipe in Mary Emma Showalter's "Mennonite Community Cookbook" I used? I can't remember, but I do remember that like you, I was completely unimpressed with the results. Too many martyrs in the lineage, I may have thought. :)