Hungry History

Pandowdy, Buckles, Slumps and Grunts: America’s Forgotten Apple Desserts

By Stephanie Butler

IngaNielsen/iStockphotos.com

IngaNielsen/iStockphotos.com

We’ve all enjoyed a nice slice of apple pie, a piping hot apple turnover or a dish of fresh apple crisp. But when was the last time you dug into an apple Brown Betty? How about a pandowdy, or a buckle? And when have you last baked an apple slump for your family’s dessert? While the names of these dishes aren’t as familiar to us these days, at one time they were the most popular desserts in America. Pioneer mothers made fruit buckles while emigrating on the Oregon Trail, and “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott even named her house “Apple Slump.” While the recipes might be forgotten, the flavors certainly aren’t, so America’s long lost apple desserts deserve a second look.

That tried and true combination of apple, pastry dough, sugar and spice has been around for much longer than you might think. The ancient Romans loved to pair sweet with spice, and apples were native to Europe. Although these desserts would have been sweetened with honey instead of processed sugar, Roman cooks made many sweet apple recipes that woulnd’t seem too out of place in our modern cookbooks. Centuries later, medieval cooks perfected the pie. And since you can make an apple pie with dried as well as fresh apples, even poor families without access to fresh produce could make apple pies for their tables.

America’s forgotten fruit desserts all have a common ancestor in the apple pie, but with a few variations. Pandowdies and Brown Bettys were originally created as a way to use up old bread. Slices of sweetened, spiced apples were layered with stale bread or bread crumbs mixed with butter, making a sort of rustic apple bread pudding. While the origin of the puzzling term “pandowdy” is unknown, most often the recipes for this dish contain molasses or brown sugar as the primary sweetener. In America’s early history, this made sense – processed, refined sugar was a precious and expensive commodity. Molasses was a byproduct of the refining process, and cost much less. The Martha Stewart of her day, cookbook author Eliza Leslie, wrote in her 1849 book “Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery” that the dish was called Brown Betty in the South and pandowdy in the North.

Perhaps if apple slump had a better name, we would still be eating it. For this dessert, the cook placed sweetened chopped apples in a pan and cooked them until they were almost applesauce. Then a biscuit dough was dropped over the top and the whole thing put into the oven until the dough cooked through. Our modern apple cobbler is pretty similar to apple slump. According to legend, slump got its name because of the way the apples and dough slumped down in the pan as they cooked together. Like pandowdy and Brown Betty, the name of this dessert depended on where it baked. Cooks in Massachusetts called it “slump”, while those further north knew it as the equally unappetizing name “grunt”.

Categories: Apples, Baking, Dessert