Water Pie Is The Great Depression Dessert You Can Prep In Seconds

Modern American cooks may or may not be familiar with a few Great Depression recipes. In the wake of a record-setting stock market crash and extreme economic struggles during the 1930s, an entire generation had come up with meals that didn't use limited, expensive ingredients that were once affordable to many. It was during this time frame that Americans relied on foods like meatloaf, SPAM, canned tomato soup cake, dandelion salad, and water pie. The latter dessert with a truly perplexing name was born out of a shortage of milk and eggs.

Whether for nostalgic reasons, pure curiosity, or the fact that water pie isn't as bland as its name implies, some bakers still make this Depression dessert today. Water pie may be the simplest pie you can put together. Each of the five filling ingredients (including that oh-so-exciting water) go right into an unbaked pie shell before being popped into the oven. The filling ends up with a thick and somewhat gelatinous consistency, similar to a chess pie or even the filling of a pecan pie without the nuts. Even skeptics must admit that this old-fashioned pie is intriguing.

What goes into water pie

The main ingredient in water pie is indeed plain old water, but some flavorings lend it a helping hand. To make a basic water pie, you simply pour water into a pie crust and sprinkle in a mixture of flour and sugar, followed by a drizzle of vanilla extract. You don't even need to mix these together before baking. Drop some pats of butter on top, which will float to the surface of the liquid filling, and put the pie into the oven. 

Water pie is sweet, but not excessively so, and the thin layer of butter on top adds an essential richness. While it may not knock your socks off like a delicious apple or cherry pie, you can see why people who lived through the Great Depression were so fond of it. Not only was it easy and cheap to make, but water pie proved that American households could still enjoy sweet treats during the Depression, with the help of imagination and determination. 

Some water pie recipes include apple cider vinegar, which gives the pie another layer of flavor that's reminiscent of apple pie filling, without the apples. You can also play with extracts besides vanilla to give the pie a different taste altogether. Coconut, almond, and orange extracts would all work well. 

Other thrifty vintage pies

Water pie may be the simplest pie born out of the Depression era, but plenty of other pies are also associated with this time period, and also required minimal money and effort. Some of these include buttermilk, vinegar, shoo fly, mock apple, sugar cream, and mock pecan pie. 

However, many of these pies weren't creations of the 1930s, but of the late 18th century. Their creative spin came from ingredient limitations not influenced by economic disaster — rather than Depression pies, they were called "desperation pies." For example, if a craving for lemon pie hit when lemons were not in season, "desperate" bakers made vinegar pie, which substitutes vinegar for lemon juice. Or, perhaps the fall pecan harvest was slim and bakers made do with mock pecan pie, made with oats instead of nuts.

Over several decades, pies such as these would sporadically re-enter the spotlight in times of trouble, poverty, and need, like the Great Depression and wartime. With modern food manufacturing, refrigeration, and the ability to find out-of-season ingredients in most chain grocery stores, today's bakers can make almost any kind of pie they want at any given time. However, some of us still choose to whip up desserts like water pie in order to taste a slice of history.