From Kentucky to Canada, a Legendary Pie

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stu spivack/flickr

To try Jen's chocolate nut pie, a ubiquitous race-day sweet, click here for a recipe.

Today, the 136th Kentucky Derby takes place in Louisville, and whether or not you're a gambling man (or woman), the annual event is the perfect excuse to try Derby Pie: one of the sweetest, richest pies ever to come out of Kentucky.

Let me get one thing out of the way: I'm not the most qualified person to write about Derby food. I'm not into horse racing, D.C. is the farthest south I've ever lived, and I'm more likely to pick a mojito over a Mint Julep—the official Derby drink—any day. As if that wasn't enough, the only "derby" I've ever attended was the annual Chicken Derby that took place in my rural Canadian hometown of 2,000 people—not exactly a dramatic cultural event.

So how did this Northern-bred girl find out about nutty, gooey Derby Pie, which is nearly as dear in Kentucky as bluegrass and barbeque? As with all the best culinary discoveries, it happened in a roundabout way. Back in the fall of 2000—fresh off my second year of university—I decided to take a year off to volunteer abroad. At the time, I was waiting tables to put myself through school, and every September, our country restaurant hosted a Fall Fair on its large grounds. When the usual pie seller backed out of her post, my boss asked me if I'd like to sell pies at the fair as a fundraiser for my trip. The price of my series of flights to Europe, Africa, and back flashed before my eyes, and I accepted her offer.

On the first evening of the fair, a Thursday, I sat under an umbrella trying to guard my meringues from rain. I sold a few slices, and at the end of the night, I wrapped up the rest, hoping for better luck the next day. Friday brought sunshine and better traffic, but too many of my grandma's picture-perfect bumbleberries were still unclaimed. The next day I sold out. After a long shift in the restaurant, I raced home to make 18 last-minute pies for Sunday, and my mom bestowed upon me every trick known to pie-makers. We sliced apples and peaches, and defrosted bags of blueberries, hundreds of memories of August poured into a crust. When the fresh ingredients ran out, she pulled out another trick: gathering pecans and chocolate chips from the pantry, we set to work on five strange, fruitless pies. When I asked her what to write on the sign for this new pecan pie meets chocolate chip cookie, she said simply, "Derby Pie."

When I heard people talking about the Kentucky Derby this week, the pie that seemed to materialize out of nothing jumped back to mind. Was this late-night quick fix indeed connected to one of the most prestigious horse racing events in the world? I called my mom, and asked her where she got the recipe. It was from her friend who lives in the Canadian Maritimes. No interesting back story, as far as she knew. No long-lost Kentucky family member or Southern stint my mom had never told me about. Just one recipe, scribbled down in one of her messy recipe notebooks.

Introducing chocolate to pecan pie wasn't my mom's friend's innovation. That honor was George Kern's, and it happened in 1950 at his parents' Melrose Inn, in Prospect, KY. The Kerns apparently worked diligently to come up with a signature dessert, and when they did, they patented the name "Derby-Pie"—a name they picked out of a hat—in 1968. When the original owners' grandson Alan Rupp took over the business, he took the exclusive combination of nuts and chocolate more seriously than any of his predecessors. Over a span of five years, both a cookbook and the Bon Appetit magazine lost lawsuits when they referred to "derby pie" as a generic term, like apple, or pumpkin varieties. Rupp must have loosened the reigns at least a little since his litigious stint in the 1980s, because now, imitation derby pies are all over Internet recipe sites. Kern's Kitchen, the manufacturer of what the state calls its "official dessert," doesn't seem to be in too much trouble though. According to a recent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Churchill Downs will serve between 20,000 and 25,000 slices of the pie today. And I bet they're more than the two bucks a slice I charged at my fundraiser—without whipped cream or a good cause.

If this pie doesn't suit your craving for Kentucky cuisine, you could always try whipping up some burgoo or bourbon balls. But my money's on the pie.

Recipe: Jen's Chocolate Nut Pie