The Golden Age of Pie Suppers: Lost Mountain Culture

PHOTO: Pie Supper in 1933, Tennessee Valley Authority
PHOTO: Pie Supper, Tennessee Valley Authority

A century before GoFundMe and dating apps, there were far more festive and tasteful ways to raise money for a special project and find a potential mate in the process.

In an era when mountainfolk would often spend numerous days isolated on farms in remote mountain hollows far removed from neighbors, areas took great effort to ensure a sense of community developed and at the centerpiece for many people was an all but forgotten relic to many today — the community pie supper.

With its roots being traced back to the Ozark mountains, pie suppers were social gatherings where pies were auctioned to raise money, often for a local school or fire department.

Nothing is more synonymous with America’s Age of Innocence as the community pie supper whose golden age was the late-1800s to early-1900s.  It would be impossible to even estimate the number of romances that developed thanks to these gatherings which served to provide a respectable and supervised manner for children of the American Southland to court.

Traditionally, women and girls would provide homemade pies to be auctioned, sometimes in highly decorated boxes often containing ruffles or bows. Along with the pie itself, the highest bidder won the privilege of sharing the pie with its maker, whose identity was concealed or known only to a handful of people. This added an element of suspense to the bidding, and pie suppers had strong courtship elements, as boys vied to win the pies of the girls they favored.

For a girl to tell a boy which pie she has made was a great privilege and carried with it an expectation that the boy would bid on her pie and a chance to eat it with her.

In addition to the auctioning off of pies, the suppers also included a “beauty cake” popularity contest. A cake would be made and several local girls would be nominated to receive the cake and the girls’ suitors would then lobby for votes, which were typically priced at a penny each.

Beauty cake contests were sometimes followed by the “Love Sick Couple” contest.  Votes for the Love Sick Couple contest generally cost a penny as well and the winners – or losers – had to eat a dill pickle together in front of everyone.

Despite their name, pie suppers were not merely limited to those who had a sweet tooth or young unmarried boys and girls.  As time drew on, pie suppers evolved to become full-fledged community events that featured music, dancing, social interaction and children’s games.

In an age when the people of the nation were looking with optimism into the future, while still plagued by the dreadful scars of civil war, pie suppers provided an outlet for community in a time when our country stood in great need and helped to lay the foundation for America’s public schools of a century ago.

Though their roots could be traced to the Ozarks in the days immediately following the Civil War, by the Second World War, advertisements for pie suppers littered American newspapers just about every summer evening and the money raised from these events helped to fund everything from new schools and firetrucks to the American Red Cross and the American war effort.

Sadly, like so many other “sweet” things, the American pie supper is quickly becoming nothing more than a relic of history.  Though it may be forgotten by most, here’s to you who remember these golden days and to the many great works that were made possible by them.

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