Since I first talked about vinegar pie in public, during “Food with Fred” on WJHL-TV the other day, people have been coming up to me and saying those two words, usually with their voice rising to the level of a verbal question mark.
Yes, vinegar pie is one of those dishes that tastes better than it sounds. But it’s difficult to find. There is one place, though, where it’s the centerpiece of the business. The Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant, in northeastern Grainger County, Tennessee, has been serving vinegar pie for well over half a century.
Vinegar pie is depicted on the sign out front. T-shirts tout it. In fact, owner Krystal Scott calls it the trademark of the business. When she and her husband Wayne bought the restaurant in 1997, they wisely kept the strange pie on the menu.
You can get breakfast any time at the restaurant, as well as soup beans and cornbread with fried potatoes and onions, and all-you-can-eat fish on Friday evenings, but it’s the vinegar pie that diners remember most.
“People take them to their family reunions, to their parties,” Krystal tells us. “Vinegar pie pretty much takes care of the restaurant, and people drive hundreds of miles to get it.”
Krystal and Wayne moved to East Tennessee from Vermilion, Ohio, where she ran a daycare that she still owns. Wayne is originally from the Pennington Gap, Virginia, area, and you can find him playing banjo and fiddle during the Friday night fish fry.
Running the restaurant and managing the cabins nearby involves the entire family. “Everybody has a job,” Krystal adds, including her grandchildren, who are learning to make vinegar pie. Her daughter, Heather Driskell, is a culinary school graduate.
In the recipe, apple cider vinegar takes the place of lemon juice. Krystal says that during the Great Depression, lemons were expensive. And in rural, isolated areas, they were scarce. So cooks did what hard times have always forced them to do. They improvised. A vinegar bottle was almost always in the larder. A few tablespoons cost next to nothing.
Vinegar pie belongs to a classification sometimes referred to as “desperation pies.” Another is a mock apple pie, consisting of a filling of mashed and seasoned soda crackers and no apples whatsoever.
The late Anthony Bourdain found vinegar pies on his travels through West Virginia. He preferred to call them “innovation pies,” because of the ingenuity that created them.
Vinegar pie likely reaches further back in American history than the Great Depression. My guess is that it extends at least as far back as the American Civil War in the 1860s. One writer suggests that vinegar pie may have even been served during the Colonial period.
The restaurant does sell a cookbook with the recipe in it, but, Krystal says, “I have yet to ever find anyone who has bought a cookbook and went home and was able to make one that’s like our pie.”
Krystal tells us that the quantity may be the reason. Clinch Mountain makes four pies at a time and sometimes eight in a day. She advises filling a double boiler all the way to the top with water so that the pie mixture will thicken and achieve the proper consistency.
“A lot of times, people don’t cook it long enough,” she adds. A former cook once told her that if you think it’s done, bake it for 15 more minutes.
The view from the restaurant’s parking lot, in the Thorn Hill community, is one of the prettiest in East Tennessee. Sometimes Krystal’s grandchildren and their friends will sleep under the stars on the trampoline in the summer.
“And the sunrise never looks the same,” Krystal says. “It’s one of the most photographed spots in East Tennessee, about 23 miles from the Kentucky line. We overlook Cherokee Lake, which is 30,300 acres of water. People love the view. They write in our books all the time about being closer to God and feeling like they’re in Heaven.”
The Clinch Mountain Lookout Restaurant
190 Lookout Mountain Road
Thorn Hill, Tennessee
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”