The dramatic story of a Kentucky pie that launched countless lawsuits
In our series Saving Southern Recipes, Associate Editor Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.
There’s nothing like smacking a giant copyright icon on a box of pie to make people want to copy it. Much like McDonald’s Big Mac sauce or the ingredients in Coca-Cola, the recipe for the “true” — or at least most strictly branded — Derby-Pie® is shrouded in secrecy. It is also guarded by what I’m assuming are the most litigious pie bakers in the country, if not the world.
It’s kind of a shame, too, because this pie is, besides the mint julep, one of the the most closely associated recipes with the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky itself. Full of chocolate and nuts, and perhaps a splash of bourbon, it’s a slightly fancier and heartier version of pecan pie, and one that’s made differently by just about every baker and every kitchen. But no one, except for the Kern’s Kitchen pie company, can call it by its true name.
George Kern, along with his parents, first baked this chocolate-nut pie confection in 1950 at the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Kentucky. As legend goes, the family came up with the pie’s name by drawing various options out of a hat. In 1968, according to the Kern’s website, the pie had become so popular that the family registered its name, hyphen and all, with the U.S. patent office. It has been vigorously defending the name ever since.
Kern’s Kitchen famously sued “Bon Appetit” magazine in the 1980s for publishing a recipe for Derby Pie (no hyphen); the magazine claimed that the pie had been in common vernacular long enough that there shouldn’t be a copyright on the name. Initially “Bon Appetit” won the suit, but Kern’s took it back in an appeal. Other lawsuits have been brought against restaurants and websites — even websites as small-fry as homegrown food blogs.
So my recipe below is for something I’m calling “chocolate and nut Kentucky pie.” I may eventually change my mind and call it instead “the most exciting two minutes in sports pie” or a “Kentucky horse race pie” — you get the picture. It is, in true Kern family tradition, made with walnuts, not pecans, and I’ve called the bourbon addition optional. Indeed, the trademarked version of this pie is actually booze-free; according to the Kern’s website, matriarch Leaudra Kern would occasionally sneak a tipple into her whipped cream topping, but it doesn’t go in to the pie itself.
I cobbled the recipe together from a few different ones floating around, and it’s actually more like a chocolate chip cookie surrounded by pie crust than a pecan pie. I baked it all in my buttery pie crust, but you could certainly use our cream cheese pie dough recipe, or a pre-made crust.
When I make it again, I’ll likely fiddle with the baking temperature; as written, the bottom never really gets fully cooked. (For my pecan pie, I always start the oven super hot and immediately turn it down when I put in the pie — this blast of heat insures a crisp bottom crust every time.) Our chief merchant suggests spreading a layer of caramel across the crust before adding the filling, and I completely support that idea. Whatever you do, though, just get creative with its name.
Chocolate and Nut Kentucky Pie
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling time
1 cup walnuts
1 recipe for a single unbaked pie crust or one pre-made pie crust, thawed if frozen
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. While the oven is heating, spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Let cool and coarsely chop.
Using a rolling pin, roll out the pie dough on a well-floured counter and transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and trim off any excess. Crimp the edges as desired. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.
In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, granulated sugar and eggs. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Whisk in the butter, bourbon (if desired), vanilla and salt until smooth. Stir in the chocolate chips and the toasted walnuts.
Pour the batter into the chilled pie crust and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown and just set, about 1 hour. Let cool to room temperature before serving with ice cream, if desired.
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