This delectable fresh strawberry pie features an abundance of just-picked berries from the farmers’ market, coated in a luscious strawberry glaze. Its origins are rooted in the intriguing backstory of a renowned entertainer and a flamboyant department store. Let’s dive into the captivating tale behind this delightful dessert.
The Fascinating History
Liberace, the legendary pianist known as Vladziu Valentino Liberace, held the title of the world’s highest-paid entertainer. He had an insatiable love for this pie and would order it by the dozen from its birthplace, the now-closed Hess Bros. Department store in Allentown, PA. Max Hess Jr., the man who sold the pie to Liberace, was a showman in his own right, matching the pianist’s flamboyance.
Max Jr. was often hailed as the P.T. Barnum of the department store world. From the 1930s to the ’60s, he mesmerized customers with his charismatic sales techniques. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, the founders of the department store chain in 1897, Max Jr. elevated the shopping experience with extravagant flower and fashion shows. Jill Youngken, assistant director and chief curator at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in PA, recalls that “every week a different celebrity” would grace the store’s premises.
A Slice of Extravagance
During Max’s tenure from 1932 to 1968, the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gina Lollobrigida, Rock Hudson, and Johnny Carson made appearances at the store. Even if customers couldn’t afford the showcased dresses paraded by the elegant models, they could still revel in the spectacle and indulge in the famous Mile-High Strawberry Pie. The pie, a signature creation of Hess’s restaurant called The Patio, boasted layers of fresh, ripe strawberries enveloped in a delectable strawberry glaze, topped generously with billows of whipped cream.
Max’s commitment to serving the pie year-round led him to fly in strawberries all the way from New Zealand, at considerable expense. The restaurant itself didn’t turn a profit due to these luxurious endeavors. However, Max, in his 1950s book on Hess’s, revealed that he didn’t mind because the pie acted as a magnet, drawing people into the store.
A Homemade Classic
Since the closure of the last Hess’s department store in the ’90s, numerous homemade versions of the pie recipe have emerged. Some include questionable additions like red food dye or Jell-O. Our recipe steer clears of these elements, striving to recreate the original store version faithfully. By incorporating a small amount of pectin into the cornstarch thickener, we achieve a glaze that is neither sticky nor gelatinous. The original Hess’s pie featured several cups of whipped cream on top. You can opt for this generous topping, or follow our lead by adorning it with a dollop of cream to allow the strawberries to shine. For those who desire more whipped cream, it can be added at the table.
Selecting the Perfect Berries
While the pie is best enjoyed with freshly picked strawberries from your own garden or the farmers’ market, you can still delight in it outside of the growing season by selecting small, fresh, and organic berries from your local grocer.
Todd Nichols from Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, IL cultivates an impressive array of 14 to 15 strawberry varieties. These range from Early Glow, the first to ripen, to Sparkle, smaller berries that are challenging to grow and pick but possess an intensely flavorful profile. Similarly, Corban Koster of Geneva Lakes Produce, with farms in Illinois and Wisconsin, offers a diverse selection of strawberries at Chicago-area farmers’ markets. Both farmers emphasize that size does not equate to superior quality when it comes to strawberries. “Irrigating strawberries, which some growers do, may result in larger berries, but it also dilutes their flavor,” explains Koster. Nichols agrees, stating that berries grown without irrigation may be smaller but boast far superior taste.
For more enticing recipes incorporating fresh strawberries, explore our collection, including Banana Stuffed French Toast, Strawberry Shortcake, Strawberry Refrigerator Cake, and Red White and Blue Trifle.