Traditionally consisting of a basic piecrust with a cake-like molasses-flavored filling and a crumbled flour, sugar, and butter topping, this humble pie has a winding history. Though closely associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch community, shoofly pie’s popularity has extended well beyond the farm since its first appearance in the late 1800s. According to William Woys Weaver, director of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism, the pie was first introduced as a coffee cake in 1876 at the U.S. Centennial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Between 1876 and the early 1880s, the cake migrated to a pie shell,” he says. “It was easier to eat as a hand-held slice of pie, so it appealed to farmhouse cooks.”
Since this original version called for pantry staples like butter, flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, coffee, and plenty of molasses, shoofly pie was inherently inexpensive to make, which made it popular among home bakers. Though it is now often eaten as dessert, this hearty treat was once—and in some areas of Pennsylvania still is—a breakfast staple, dipped in a mug of coffee and usually eaten by hand. “I’d eat a piece of Shoofly Pie just as soon as I’d eat a pastry or piece of coffee cake in the morning,” says John E. Smucker III, owner of Bird-in-Hand Bakery and Café in the small village of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.
But why would a pie be called shoofly? According to some, the name of this popular molasses-flavored treat comes from the days of old when bakers would have to “shoo” flies away from their pies cooling on the windowsill. Similarly, others speculate that the name is a reference to the old song from the 1800s that sang, “Shoo-fly, don’t bother me.” William, though, asserts that neither of those stories is correct, though the latter does come close. “The pie takes its name from Shoofly the Boxing Mule, who was part of a popular traveling circus act in the Dutch Country,” he says. “The mule took his name from the popular song.” In true celebrity fashion, the famous mule’s name was branded onto a number of products, such as Shoofly Flour, Shoofly Horse Powder, Shoofly Molasses, and, of course, Shoofly Pie.