A Pie in the Sky

Nesselrode pie had something that appealed to the part of me that wanted to travel the road less traveled

Not long ago, I happened to wander into an auditorium in midtown Manhattan where a world-renowned pie maker was finishing up a lecture on the great pies she has known. I stopped to hear the conclusion of the lecture and during the Q&A, I unhesitatingly raised my hand.

"Are you familiar with Nesselrode pie?" I inquired of the pie queen. She and other members of the audience eyed me as they might a visitor from the Matrix.

"No," the esteemed pie maker said. "I've never heard of it. What is a Nesselrode?"

Odd that someone who calls herself a pie maven would have no knowledge of arguably the most delicious cream pie of the 19th and 20th centuries. Then again, maybe not so odd, because Nesselrode has been extinct (yes, desserts can be as extinct as dodo birds) for more than 40 years.

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A New York Times article in the late 1990s, titled "The Culinary Mystery of Nesselrode Pie," sought to unearth that mystery through interviews with some of New York's leading haute cuisine chefs. Not a one of them knew from Nesselrode, either.

The pie is believed to have been invented by one Monsieur Mouy, the head chef on the staff of Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, an 19th Century Russian diplomat. Count Nesselrode is most famous for negotiating the Treaty of Paris after the Crimean War—not exactly diplomatic chopped liver, but an afterthought when compared to the gustatory glory that bears his name.

Describing the true culinary delight that was Nesselrode pie is, in the immortal words of The Lovin' Spoonful, like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll. In its most basic form, Nesselrode is a crème anglaise (sometimes fortified by gelatin) that incorporates liquor (usually rum), chestnut puree (or marron glace) and candied fruits. There were multiple flavor modifications throughout the centuries that featured currants, raisins and various other ingredients.

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But it is not an easy pie to make. It takes considerable labor and skill, and its creation is generally best left to professionals.

In the 1920s, Nesselrode pie found its sweet way to the Big Apple where it was brought to the attention of a Mrs. Hortense Spier, whose specialty pie shop became the go-to Nesselrode source for choosy restaurants all over town.

I tasted my first Nesselrode pie as an elementary school kid in the mid-1950s at The Steak Joint, a legendary steakhouse in Greenwich Village whose owner was a close friend of my grandfather. I practically grew up there, chowing down the best sirloins and gawking at the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, all regular patrons.

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Nesselrode was my mother's favorite dessert—she mourned its passing until the day she could no longer feed herself—and I sampled my first slice at her insistence. Mom was always encouraging me to broaden my culinary horizons.

I took an immediate liking to it, unusual for an American kid who was otherwise pretty conventional in his food preferences: steaks, burgers, hot dogs, chocolate ice cream. Nesselrode pie must have had something that appealed to my New York palate and the part of me who wanted to travel the road less traveled. I suppose I had some notion even back then that life ought to be a banquet and that most of us were starving to death.

Nesselrode also appealed to that part of me that wanted to please my mother. While our tastes in most things grew apart as I grew older, we could always agree that the passing of Nesselrode was yet another symbol of the desertification of American culture.

In early adulthood, I continued to seek out Nesselrode wherever it was on the menu. But by the late '60s and early '70s, the only place I can remember finding it was a Jewish delicatessen called Ratner's, located a stone's throw from the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey Street. As good as it was, it wasn't up to the high standard of Mrs. Spier's pies.

The untimely passing of Nesselrode pie can be blamed on many factors aside from a degraded culture, including the high cost of marron glace and America's overall lack of fondness for chestnuts. But it isn't only Nesselrode that that has gone extinct. The Steak Joint and Ratner's are likewise long gone, as is the magical, mystical Hortense Spier Pies. Indeed, most of the great restaurants of my youth and most of the authentic Jewish delis in New York City have been consigned to oblivion.

Friends of mine, including a criminal defense attorney who doubles as the best rugelach baker in America, have graciously offered to take a shot at recreating Nesselrode pie to re-tickle my taste buds with the bittersweet flavor of nostalgia. And I just heard that a husband-and-wife bakery team on the Lower East Side is looking to take a run at bringing the Nesselrode business back from the dead.

But even if these good folks have the patience, the passion, and the awesome cooking chops to pull it off, I choose to let bygones be bygones. Some enjoyments of youth are simply better left to memory. Think mescaline or "Godfather III."

Despite what you hear nowadays, there are limits to making America great again.

Tags: food