Civil War Cookin’: Jefferson Davis Pie

Wednesday before Thanksgiving is always pie baking day at my house. When I open our 1952 edition of Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking and turn to the pumpkin pie recipe, another recipe title catches my eye: Jefferson Davis Pie. I have to turn a few pages to find the actual recipe, but it sounds interesting.

And being a Civil War historian, I say to my mom every year, “I need to research the history of that pie.” So this year, I did…and now I can tell my mom a rambling story while we whip up our Thanksgiving desserts.

Here’s what I learned, and maybe some of ECW’s readers can add more details to the discussion.

We’ll start with the recipe in the cookbook:


A 9 inch pie

Prepare a baked Pie Shell

Cream 1/2 cup butter and 2 cups brown sugar

Beat in 4 egg yolks

Sift, then add: 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg.

Add: 1 cup cream, 1/2 cup chopped dates, 1/2 cup raisins, and 1/2 cup broken pecan meats

Fill the shell. Bake the pie in a slow over at 300 degrees until set, about 40 minutes. When cool top it with a Meringue. Bake meringue as directed. (Joy of Cooking, 1952, page 583)

Jefferson Davis

So, I did a little searching and discovered Jefferson Davis Pie was popular in Southern cookbooks in the late decades of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century. The common “ingredient” in the research sources seems to be: no one is completely sure who invented the pie, if Jefferson Davis ever ate it, or when it was first made.

Jennifer Reese from Table Matters blog explored “antique” pie recipes, reporting in her article: Culinary historians believe that a Missouri slave named Mary Ann invented this pie during the Civil War, when she worked as a cook for a confederate merchant. If this story is true, the name of the pie is truly unfortunate. It is Mary Ann’s name that should be attached to this brilliant pie, an opulent confection of raisins, dates, and pecans held together by a spicy custard and topped with meringue. If you can imagine a Christmas pudding crossed with a pecan pie, you will have an idea of this intense, complex dessert, which, like cognac or espresso, is something you savor in small portions. 

Dann Woellert, Food Etymologist, also shares the account of the so-called Jefferson Davis Pie invented by a Missouri slave woman and talks about the recipe’s popularity in Kentucky.

I’m starting to conclude that this Southern dessert might have a name that has little connection to the recipe’s origins. I’m still looking for some account that Davis himself ate the pie and praised it. And I’m thinking the name might have been attached to the dessert after the Civil War in a wave of Lost Cause-ism. Who knows – maybe someone was just trying to sell more cookbooks?

Time to bake a pie!

Thus, I’m still looking for sources or hints of sources to continue this trail of the Jefferson Davis Pie recipe. Living in California, this isn’t a traditional pie in my region and I’m hoping some readers might have some stories or tips to help me continue this research rabbit trail? Leave a comment if you like…

And now, I’m off to the kitchen to bake a pumpkin pie. Someday, I’ll bake the Jefferson Davis Pie, but my family isn’t keen on long-winded history lessons at the feasting table…so maybe not this year!

One more fun fact: I’m actually related to Irma Rombauer who wrote Joy of Cooking.

11 Responses to Civil War Cookin’: Jefferson Davis Pie

  1. As a Hattiesburg, Mississippi native who attended Jefferson Davis grammar school and was steeped in “things Southern,” I never heard of Jefferson Davis pie until I read your article. I’ll contact relatives to see if any of them heard of it.

    I checked my Joy of Cooking, (c) 1951 and, indeed, found the recipe for the Jefferson Davis pie.

    Thanks. Keep ’em comin’.

    1. You might want to google custard pie with raisins and pecans. That’s all we ever called it — certainly nothing to do with Jefferson Davis.

  2. I have a Jefferson Davis Pie that came from a maid in 1930-1940 of a friend. The maid was from Corsicana and was said to be a great Southern Black American by the name Carrie Bell Hawkins. The recipe is detailed and goes back to before 1890.

  3. The Jeff Davis Pie recipe I have is different than this one shared here. The recipe I have was handed down (according to my momma) from Jefferson Davis’s wife to my great grandmother, who in turn passed it to my grandmother, and on it follows to me and to my children. My great grandmother said that his wife took the original recipe and changed it according to his particular liking. I have no printed documentation on this, just the word of my family.

  4. My grandmother, Virginia Pearl Goslin 1909-2007, made the pie frequently. She did not add the dates, pecans or raisins. It was like a cream pie with meringue. A bit of history, a little girl named Lindy, who was African American, along with her siblings were given away by their momma, as momma couldn’t keep them due to the husband was gone. The little girl was only six when she was adopted into my grandfather’s family, William Aurthor Goslin, 1909-1979. They lived in Middle Grove, Missouri, later moving into Moberly. I recall stories of Aunt Lindy, as they called her from my Grandmother recollection. She shared that Aunt LIndy was always invited to sit at the table and eat with the rest of the family, yet never would. She also would go into the the woods and forage for herbs, greens and mushrooms. Aunt Lindy would never let anyone go with her. My grandmother always said she could not understand how the child knew what she knew being that little. This may be of interest on the history of the woman Mary Ann. Perhaps Lindy was one of her children adopted into my grandfathers family, who they called Aunt Lindy. Please feel free to contact me, Lisa Love 850 274 7299.

  5. I got the Jeff Davis Pie receipe from my husband’s grandmother, who was born sometime in the 1880’s. I had to stand next to her in her kitchen as she would put the ingredients in a bowl and I would then measure each one and write it down. At the end she took a spoon and dug out some butter and said “butter the size of an egg”. So that is the way I wrote it down. The first time I made it I thought “what size egg?” Never did find out.
    The story she told me was that in Missouri some of the Union Army Officers went to a farmhouse and told them to feed them. The family of the house were confederates and owned slaves. At the end of the meal a pie was served to them. The commander called the cook out and demanded what the name of the pie was because it was the best pie he had ever had. The cook, a slave, looked him in the eye and said “Why, that was a Jeff Davis Pie!”
    His grandmother was from Arkansas and told me it was a family recipe. It is different than yours.


    1 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 tsp Nutmeg
    5 Tbls flour 1/4 tsp salt
    1 tsp Cinnamon 1 1/2 cup milk
    1/2 tsp Alspice 3 egg yolks, beaten
    1/4 tsp Cloves Lump of butter size of an egg

    Sift flour & spices together than mix with sugar. Mix milk and yolks in a sauce pan. Add dry ingredients. Cook until bubbling and thickened over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add butter. Pour into cooled baked pie shell.

    You can use the leftover egg whites to make a meringue.
    3 egg whites beaten until peaks form
    Add 3 teaspoons water and 8 teaspoons sugar while beating
    Add a teaspoon vanilla
    Cover pie and bake about 15 minutes at 350°

    I believe that I first measured the flour at 4 tbls. but sometimes it was too runny, so I increased it to 5 tbls. Could be that sometimes I put in too much butter, hehe. It is my husbands favorite pie and I have been cooking it for almost 49 years now.

    About 5 or 6 years after we were married we were helping some friends who had just moved into their first house. The garage was full of stuff and we were dragging out old boxes and going through them before trashing them. We found an old cookbook. In it was a recipe for a Jeff Davis Pie but it was a vinegar pie. Never did copy it down because mine sounded so much better.

    1. So, Cindee- how big an egg did you use for size of butter? And you COVER the pie? with foil or what- the whole time cooking? Does crust edge still brown up?

  6. Sarah- is that correct that a blind-baked pie shell is used, and then cooked 40 minutes after it is filled? Is there no problem with bottom of it being overdone? I have to be very careful about that with my lemon meringue and it is in oven only 15–20 min although at 350º- maybe the 50º difference allows twice as long a baking time, but I’d hate to ruin my pie by guessing.

  7. I used to make a pie and I thought the name of it was Thomas Jefferson. I got the recipe from one of those My First Cookbooks put out by Imperial sugar. The little books have long since to be published.

  8. My 88-year old father has always said that he loves a good Jeff Davis pie…one of his favorites. When I remember what my grandmother made (and he refers to as a Jeff Davis pie), it’s pretty much a buttermilk pie or a chess pie. Certainly no pecans at all.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!