Raleigh House Buttermilk Pie

When school was out the summer camps near Kerrville and Ingram would open. Not that I was ever sent to camp, but I was familiar with the camps because two of my older sisters often worked as counselors at Camp Waldemar for girls in the ‘50s. Consequently, we often drove over towards Hunt to eat at the Raleigh House. (This was before Fredericksburg acquired its array of outstanding restaurants.) It became a very special treat!

It was opened and closed by Martha Robinson Johnson. For thirty-four years she catered to parents driving up to the Hill Country to take or gather their kids for the area’s summer camps. It is rather nifty when one can run a business for only three months out of the year, but when her husband passed away, she came to visit friends in Kerrville and fell in love with the area. That was in 1955. She decided to open a restaurant. For the first time in the Texas Hill Country, one could order choice grade Black Angus steak, fluffy baked potatoes, generous green salads, and homemade orange rolls. Desserts included her famous buttermilk pie.

For the next thirty-four years Martha returned every summer to open her restaurant that she named “Raleigh House.” The first waitress to ask for a job there was Eleanora Jenschke from Fredericksburg – she worked there for 26 years. The Raleigh House became our favorite place to eat. That is, when we remembered it was summer and opened. Texas Monthly called it an institution and the last of the “country inns” that catered to travelers. Martha never stopped learning. She traveled herself learning more about the art of cooking. She also attended the Cordon Bleu and the LaVarenne cooking schools in Paris. In 1990 Martha closed it, returned to Houston, and authored two cookbooks of recipes from her Raleigh House offerings just as Eleanora had suggested she do. Martha died in Kerrville in 2003 at the age of 98.

One might think that nothing could be more American than a Buttermilk Pie, but it originally hailed from the United Kingdom and supposedly was brought to the southern colonies by English settlers. Today it is a traditional Southern pie, and one of those simpler kinds of desserts that some argue should be brought back. The beauty of this pie was in its simplicity – it was of the genre of pies that were often known as “desperation pies” because they rely on just a few basic ingredients—the only ingredients many cash-strapped farm families of the Great Depression had on hand.

I learned that Buttermilk Pie is apparently a Texas Thanksgiving tradition according to Pinterest folks in the UK, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Austria, Chile, Sweden, and Denmark—just to list a few. I had not known that and could not find where in Texas it is thought to be so. Perhaps foreigners who rely solely on what they find on Pinterest should do more research. They supposedly reasoned that it was because Texans liked buttermilk—and had especially during the Great Depression. If anyone can understand that reasoning, please let me know.

Nevertheless, Buttermilk Pie is an old-fashioned Southern dessert that does not quite get the attention it deserves. It tastes like crème brûlée. Some might confuse buttermilk pie with similar variations like chess pie and custard pie, but buttermilk pie has its own distinct personality. And, if you were growing up in the ’50s, you might understand. That decade, despite the Korean conflict, labor strikes, and the growing threat of an atomic war, were those kinder, simpler, years we so love to remember. Consequently, the key to this pie is to keep it simple.

Honestly, I can’t remember if I actually ever ate Buttermilk Pie at the Raleigh House, but I remember my mom’s. However, I could not find her recipe. She never kept a very neat file. If you have any copy of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook you will find one with slight variations offered by Mrs. Harry A. Hartmann, a lady I remember well. She was a bridge player, and her husband was a loyal employee at Beckmann’s Furniture for decades.

Incidentally, real buttermilk is no longer available for sale as buttermilk. Todays’ version is a lot different from what we used to have because of the live bacteria involved. I am sure some specialty dairies still supply it, but what we have at HEB today has gone through the pasteurization process. Don’t let that stop you though from picking some buttermilk up at the store and trying this wonderful treat, you won’t be sorry you did!

1 stick unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
3 tbsp flour
1 cup buttermilk
Dash of nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla
1 unbaked pie shell

Mix well the butter and sugar
Add eggs and flour
Mix well, then add buttermilk, nutmeg, and vanilla.
Pour into an unbaked pie shell
Bake for 45 minutes at 350ºF
Cool before serving

By: Mark Wieser

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