Sometimes inspiration arrives on your doorstep in the form of a postcard. On Monday afternoon, a glossy photo of a pecan pie poked its head out from beneath a stack of window envelopes and the latest L.L. Bean catalogue. Gold letters against a green backdrop announced a recipe for Old South Pecan Pie. The ingredients tempted diabetic fate; white sugar, brown sugar, Karo pancake syrup and real maple syrup. Intrigued by this bright spot of correspondence in an otherwise ordinary day, I turned the card over. Cursive black letters scrawled across the 4” x 6” white space, penned by my pie pal, Deanna. A gifted food journalist, Deanna had just returned from a southern road trip. Postmarked from Atlanta, the card arrived in the Garden State in timely fashion for this weekend’s Run For the Roses. I temporarily shifted my pie radar from rhubarb and strawberries to pecans and chocolate.
The text at the top of the postcard provided detailed instructions in a miniscule font. Squinting like Mr. Magoo, I realized the card offered not only a recipe for Old South Pecan Pie, but what they called a Yummy Variation, as well. Adding 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the mix would yield a chocolate pecan pie, commonly referred to as “derby pie.”
Dating back to 1950 and the Melrose Inn of Prospect, Kentucky, derby pie is rich in both calories and controversy. Created by Walter and Leaudra Kern, the Inn’s signature dessert called for walnuts suspended in a cloyingly sweet corn syrup custard, sans bourbon. Over the years, the pie has morphed into its present state of dessert overkill, a boozy pie spiked with Kentucky bourbon and enhanced with chocolate. Pecans are just as common in the filling as walnuts, and bourbon whipped cream as fitting as wide brimmed hats vying for attention at Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs.
Family history claims that in the beginning, Grandma Kern baked a mere three pies at a time, cooling them on a windowsill. Unable to decide on a name for the pie, family members placed suggestions into a hat. “Derby Pie” was plucked from the hat and ultimately trademarked by the Kern family shortly after they closed the Melrose Inn in 1960. The pie business continued under the name Kern’s Kitchen.
Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville, Kentucky holds a federally registered trademark for the pie, protecting both the recipe and the way it is made. The Kern family means business; a curtain closes off the mixing area in the production facility where a production manager prepares the filling in private.
In kitchens all across the country, imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery. Not so in the case of derby pie. Restaurants have received ‘cease and desist letters’ from the Kern family, citing trademark infringement. While names can be trademarked, recipes cannot. Restaurants can sell a dessert composed of traditional derby pie ingredients, but they cannot call it ‘derby pie’ without the risk of a potential lawsuit.
In 1987, Bon Appetit magazine was taken to court following their feature on “derby pie.” The magazine won the initial case citing that the pie was a generic term, but an appeals court later upheld the Kern’s trademark. Rather than going to trial, the magazine settled the lawsuit. Kern’s continues to staunchly defend their trademark and what they believe is an integral part of their family history.
Kentucky Derby Pie will be featured on many menus this weekend, some boldly using the Kern family name. Others will call it Chocolate Bourbon Nut Pie, Run For the Roses Pie, Kentucky Pie or May Day Pie.
If one were to follow the recipe on Deanna’s postcard for Old South Pecan Pie, the last name seems most apt, as in, “May Day! May Day! I’m Goin’ Down! There’s too much sugar in this pie!” Instead, I’m baking a Chocolate Bourbon Nut Pie, adapting two recipes, choosing pecans over walnuts and ditching the corn syrup in favor of brown sugar and a little bit of browned butter.
The Kentucky Derby will have little impact on the bakery this weekend, save for a few orders of chocolate pecan pies enhanced with a splash of Jack Daniels. Daring to call them “derby pies,” I promise to ‘cease and desist’ should a Kern family representative appear at the bakery. With Mother’s Day looming on the horizon, my attention will be turned away from chocolate and pecans and back to rhubarb and strawberries. Four cases of rhubarb in the walk-in call to me. It’s a good thing that bottle of Jack Daniels hasn’t been drained dry. The weekend is young.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm