When West Virginia Hands You Lemons

By Candace Nelson - 10:00 AM

Lemon Pie-6

My most recent column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Anytime the Mountain State is recognized for its culinary creativity, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s due time that Appalachian cuisine gets the acknowledgment it deserves.

But imagine my surprise when the West Virginia recipe that recently made headlines was not sourced with heirloom tomatoes or pawpaws. Shucky beans or potatoes. Pepperoni rolls or apple butter.

No, it’s made with lemons.

Southern Living profiled a recipe for “Shaker Lemon Pie” from “Mountain Measures,” a 1974 cookbook produced by the Junior League of Charleston.

The recipe includes using whole lemons (rind and all!) to create an old-fashioned pie that makes use of every bit of the citrus fruit. The recipe has roots in the Shaker community in areas of the South, Midwest and New England. According to Southern Living, these folks believed lemons were necessary for a healthy diet, but they were difficult and expensive to come by. So when they had access to the fruit, they made the most of it.

The recipe calls for just four ingredients: lemons, sugar, eggs and a pie crust. And it only takes about 15 minutes of active time. Simply let the lemons soak overnight in sugar, add eggs to the lemon mixture and pour into the crust. Bake, and voila: a tangy sweet citrus dessert.

Citrus desserts are common in these types of cookbooks, which was one of the major fundraising endeavors for the southern social group. Junior Leagues across the area published cookbooks that documented the foods of the community at the time, and thus created a time capsule of place-based food for a community. And this year is the Junior League of Charleston’s 95th anniversary — that’s a significant amount of time capturing the area’s food culture.

After the Southern Living piece came out, I purchased the cookbook — and its subsequent edition, “A Second Serving” — and flipped through family recipes that were homey, unfussy and, quite frankly, sounded delicious.

There’s something special about a recipe that has been handed down through generations and has been tweaked to accommodate modern ingredients or personal preference. There’s history there. There’s love there. And there’s authenticity.

And while at first I didn’t see how lemons had a place in Appalachian communities, it became clear that the same foundation on which recipes like “Shaker Lemon Pie” are built are similar to those of West Virginia.

The recipe reflects the resourcefulness of this group of people, just like West Virginians. Using every bit of available ingredients and making them work in new and inventive ways is integral to the Mountaineer spirit. That, too, is special.

So if you find life handing you lemons, make a pie — peel and all!

Shaker Lemon Pie

This recipe, reprinted with permission from The Junior League of Charleston, has been featured in so many publications and for good reason. But the contributor, Mrs. Ronald A. McKenney offers the following advice: “For true lemon lovers only – quite tart and lemony.”

2 lemons sliced paper thin – rind and all – omit only seeds and the very ends

2 cups sugar

4 eggs, beaten

pastry for 2 crust pie

Mix lemons and sugar. Let stand at least 2 hours until sugar and lemons become juicy.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Blend eggs and lemon mixture thoroughly. Line 9-inch plate with pastry.

Pour lemon mixture into the shell. Cover with top crust and crimp edges. Cut decorative steam vents (easier and more effective if done before placing on pie.)

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees for 30 minutes until knife comes out clean from the center.

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