Food History

Water Pie Was a Depression-Era Treat—Why Are People Into It Now?

"We can't deny the parallels our current COVID-19 pandemic shares with the Great Depression."

August 20, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

The last gasp of summer is high time for pie making. Fruits that have spent months softening in the sun are at their best when paired with a flaky, buttery crust. But what if I were to tell you that recently, a certain pie caught my eye that needs no fruit at all? In fact, this pie requires so few ingredients that its main component is water.

Water pie, a Depression-Era recipe, has been making rounds on the internet. It’s not a nickname: The filling in water pie is in fact primarily water. There are, of course, other ingredients that help differentiate the pie from a cold glass of Evian. There’s flour, butter and sugar—but really, not much else.

Water pie first caught my attention on TikTok, where B. Dylan Hollis (@bdylanhollis), a “mid-century connoisseur,” who tries his hand at a variety of vintage recipes, surfaced the creation for one of his videos. “Can you bake a pie with four ingredients?” he says, amassing the tiny ingredient list. “Yes! But I’d rather eat my mattress.”

Hollis proceeds to mix and roll out a pie dough, lay it into a tin and par-bake. Once out of the oven, he fills the crust directly with water, sugar, some flour, and pats of butter. He mixes it very little (perhaps not at all) then pops it back into the oven. Upon tasting the finished product, he screws up his face in disgust and proclaims it tastes like “soggy lint.”

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Top Comment:
“inch deep dish pie crust, unbaked 1 1/2 cups water 4 tablespoons all purpose flour 1 cup sugar 2 teaspoons vanilla 5 tablespoons butter, cut into 5 pieces Preheat oven to 400 and set empty pie crust on a baking sheet. Pour 1 + 1/2 cups water into the pie crust. In a small bowl, stir together flour and sugar. Sprinkle evenly over water in crust. Don't stir. Drizzle vanilla over water in pie crust. Place pats of butter on top of this. Bake at 400 for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and cover sides of crust if needed to prevent burning. Continue cooking for an additional 30 minutes. Pie will be watery when you pull it out of the oven but will gel as it cools. Allow to cool completely and then cover and place in the fridge until chilled before cutting. Note: I use 2/3 cup Swerve in place of the sugar as my husband is diabetic. ”
— Melissa
Comment

I reached out to Hollis, who says he “came across the recipe printed in a community cookbook titled 90th Anniversary Cookbook - Women of United Methodist Church, Gordon Nebraska.” As a collector of vintage recipes, he was drawn to a section of the cookbook that featured recipes from the Great Depression. What we know as a water pie, was referred to in the book as Hard Times Pie 1929. “Immediately, what stuck out to me was the complete lack of spices or flavoring,” he says. “The filling simply called for water, flour, and sugar. Many online iterations one finds of the Water Pie include vanilla extract, however this printed recipe obviously took its title of ‘Hard Times’ earnestly.”

As he so aptly demonstrates in his TikTok, the water pie left something to be desired (“the taste was that of gelatinous, sodden dough”). BuzzFeed’s Erin Phraner, however, had something of a different experience with her own water pie. Also a retro recipe enthusiast, Phraner had kept the idea of making a water pie in her back pocket for some time. It wasn’t until the peak of the pandemic and the first lockdown that she thought to finally break out one of the wackiest recipes in her arsenal.

The video was a hit. “I didn’t expect it to go as viral as it did. It was silly and magical and actually really delicious (especially to someone like me who has a mega sweet tooth),” she said. “I think I’ve seen a lot of people write about it from the Depression-Era standpoint but that wasn’t it for me at all. It was more about doing something silly and out-of-the-box to just shake off the heaviness of the year.”

There must be some correlation between the current moment and water pie’s resurgence. I thought back to Clara Cannucciari, who built a YouTube empire off of her videos in which she cooked her way through the recipes that kept her family alive during one of America’s darkest chapters. An appreciation for the homegrown and the simplistic flourished during lockdown, was water pie one such example? Hollis seems to think so:

“We can't deny the parallels our current COVID-19 pandemic shares with the Great Depression. Many of us are still stuck inside, money is short, and the hindrances to eating out in public has forced us to return to our kitchens and reflect on it as a place to create and sustain us more than ever before. Baking historical recipes is one of the most interesting and engaging ways to experience the past, and through that: understand our place in the present time.”

Would you make a water pie? Do you have any favorite Depression-Era recipes? Tell us about them in the comments!
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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.

25 Comments

Barbara C. August 28, 2021
Eggless cake recipes were also favourites.
 
Barbara C. August 28, 2021
Prune Pudding was a depression recipe.
Ingredients
1 cup dried prunes, tightly packed
2/3 cup sugar
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Juice of 1 lemon
Directions
Place prunes in a bowl and cover with 2 cups of just boiled water; allow to soak for 1 hour.

Transfer soaked prunes and liquid to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; lower heat to a simmer for 8 minutes. Carefully transfer hot liquid and prunes to a food processor or blender. Add another cup hot water to the mixture. Pule 5 to 8 times until prunes are broken down and small chunks remain.

In a separate bowl, whisk together cornstarch, lemon juice, and 1/3 cup of the pureed prunes; set aside. Return the remaining pureed prunes to the saucepan. Add sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and star anise to the saucepan. Stir over medium-high until boiling. Reduce to simmer and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture to pot and stir until simmering. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes until thickened, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Remove star anise and discard; allow to cool completely before chilling or serving.
 
jenn August 27, 2021
We call it crumb pie!
 
Libbygrr August 27, 2021
My grandmother (single mother of 4 during the depression) made a similar pie - I think she used milk instead of water? She called it "finger pie" because she mixed the filling in the crust with her fingers. She made 2 pies every morning for her family - something my Mom and her sisters-in-law got very tired of hearing about!
 
erunuevo August 27, 2021
I don't understand how this works and there's no salt
 
erunuevo August 27, 2021
Better said....without salt. I must be tired. ;)
 
Melissa August 28, 2021
Your butter is salted. If you use unsalted butter, you could add.
 
Barbm August 25, 2021
The version I have is called “PoorMan’sPie” which my family loves.
 
JoyGim August 27, 2021
Share yours! I’m fascinated. Milk makes more sense and with just cinnamon sugar butter flour salt that’s something I might love depending on texture which can’t quite envision?
 
Bayrdman August 24, 2021
Much deliciousness
 
Melissa August 23, 2021
1 9 inch deep dish pie crust, unbaked
1 1/2 cups water
4 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 tablespoons butter, cut into 5 pieces

Preheat oven to 400 and set empty pie crust on a baking sheet.
Pour 1 + 1/2 cups water into the pie crust.
In a small bowl, stir together flour and sugar. Sprinkle evenly over water in crust. Don't stir.
Drizzle vanilla over water in pie crust. Place pats of butter on top of this.
Bake at 400 for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and cover sides of crust if needed to prevent burning. Continue cooking for an additional 30 minutes.
Pie will be watery when you pull it out of the oven but will gel as it cools. Allow to cool completely and then cover and place in the fridge until chilled before cutting.

Note: I use 2/3 cup Swerve in place of the sugar as my husband is diabetic.

 
Sarah B. August 22, 2021
The shoutout to Nonna Clara made my day. I watched those videos obsessively when I was homesick and broke in college. A full stomach and Italian grandma vibes got me through those 4 years!
 
casummers August 22, 2021
It would be delightful if you actually shared the recipe. Some of us like to read it.
 
CA August 22, 2021
Did I miss it? Where’s the recipe?
 
Gja August 22, 2021
My grandmother used to make vinegar pie
 
JoyGim August 27, 2021
Ouch
 
Barbara C. August 28, 2021
Vinegar Pie is good!
 
TERRY August 22, 2021
i wish you would post the nutritional value with each recipe.
 
Pie August 29, 2021
I wish they would post the recipe!
 
boulangere August 21, 2021
By one who doesn’t even live in the U.S.? And a little too young to know anything about the subject outside of Google?
 
Rebecca F. August 23, 2021
Hi boulangere. Valerio is a skilled reporter who interviewed vetted sources to learn more about the topic, which is how publications report news stories like this. We work with writers who are based around the world, and are proud of it!
 
Caligirl August 20, 2021
We never had this, but my mom was a depression child and had a scar on her arm from making hard candy on the stove. Sunday dinner for her was cornbread (unsweetened) and milk, which her mom shared with any hobos that saw the mark on their fence and come asking for food. Being in Los Angeles, her mom had a depression era taco recipe where canned peas were mixed with hamburger, and my mom continued the tradition. It sounds weird but they were delicious!!!
 
Talicia S. August 23, 2021
My dad would eat cornbread and milk every time we made a batch of cornbread. The kids would have cornbread with butter and syrup for dessert. I finally got it in my head and my dessert would be cornbread, milk, and syrup.
 
Melissa August 20, 2021
My grandmother used to make water pie as a special treat. Oh, she used to make all kinds of fancy baked goods, but water pie was our favorite!

Decadent and delicious…sweet and oh so easy to make.

Had forgotten all about it until last summer when I made it for my husband…he loved it!

It is now a favorite that I made every couple of months.

Please don’t be afraid to try…it is simple and crazy good!
 
JoyGim August 27, 2021
Is it gelatinous?