Today we in the U.S. celebrate National Lemon Meringue Pie Day! Lemon meringue happens to be one of my favorite pies. It’s the perfect pie for a hot summer day.
I may have mentioned before that when I was young, I wasn’t a big fan of fruit – or pies, for that matter. And I was allergic to eggs so this pie would have been a no-no for me. But having outgrown my taste and allergy, as an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate the tangy goodness of this iconic American pie. My favorite place to get lemon meringue pie is from the Village Inn in Virginia Beach. Their pie has a piped meringue atop a luscious lemon filling on a perfectly flaky crust. They have locations almost nationwide so check them out. All their pies are to die for.
The use of lemons in desserts has a long history. Lemon custards, puddings, and pies have been part of feasts since medieval times. However, they were not quite the same as the pie we recognize today. That’s because meringue was not perfected until the 17th century. Prior to this time, in the Elizabethan period, there was a dessert called “snow” which was made with beaten egg whites and cream. Since one cannot beat egg whites into stiff peaks if there is fat in it, “snow” is not the same as today’s meringue. My research has shown that the true origin of meringue has not been truly determined as there are conflicting claims. In one account, it was invented by a Swiss pastry chef named Gasparini (which sounds suspiciously Italian), another said it was invented in the Swiss village of Meiringen (hence the name meringue), and yet another said that the earliest recorded recipe was attributed to Alexander Frehse, a Swiss baker. Maybe it was invented by a French guy in Switzerland while masquerading as an Italian?
The Oxford English Dictionary states that meringue is a French word of unknown origin. It first appeared in print in François Massialot’s cookbook of 1692. These are the only statements I found references for. But anyway – this investigation into meringue is because it’s one of the best parts of the pie. Especially if it is a “Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie”, which is has a thick mound of meringue. Pictured below is Martha Stewart’s version.
Lemon meringue pies are often associated with the South. It’s a natural association since citrus grows primarily in the South and lemons are a favorite staple of Southern cooks. But unbeknownst to many, the actual lemon meringue pie was invented by a Philadelphia woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, who owned a pastry shop and ran American’s first cooking school. Her recipe for lemon pudding called for 10 egg yolks baked in a tart shell. She must have been wondering what to do with the extra egg whites and the ingenious idea of whipping up meringue and putting it on top of her lemon pudding and voila! The pie started appearing in cookbooks nationwide just before the Civil War and was in fact a favorite of Abraham Lincoln.