So many families have recipes that get handed down through the generations. It might be a favorite pasta recipe or recipes for pies. For many, these are huge family traditions — and knowing a little something about your family’s generational recipes can tell you a surprising amount about your heritage.
What about your family? Have you got any cobbler recipes that your mother or grandmother used to make? If so, then you’ll be interested in learning more about the history of cobblers.
Where Did Cobblers Come From?
Cobblers are a homemade dish, not something that originated in a chef’s kitchen or a fine restaurant. They stem back to the first settlers on the American continent — who were by necessity very good at making do with the things available to them. Many of those earliest settlers were either Dutch or British, and they’d brought with them recipes for things like pies or traditional English steamed puddings.
Problem was, the American wilds didn’t have all the ingredients necessary to make those traditional dishes. Over here, foragers found fruits and berries — peaches, plums, cherries, blackberries, and things of that nature. That may even be where the name “cobbler” came from because it’s a dessert cobbled together from what is available.
Even after the United States officially became a nation, cobbler recipes continued to evolve. Pioneers made cobblers and as they traveled westward, the recipes changed. People started adding dollops of biscuit dough, using fruit preserved in syrup, baking powder to leaven the dough — whatever pioneers and settlers had on hand to make a sweet dessert.
What made cobblers practical for settlers was the fact that they could be made in a Dutch oven over an open fire. Not so with pies and other desserts, which need an oven and specialized dishes. Settlers and pioneers needed only to oil the Dutch oven, add whatever fruits they had, and top it with dough that they could make from ingredients available to them.
What Defines a Cobbler?
The tricky thing about cobblers is that they go by a variety of names — cobblers, pandowdies, grunts, crisps, and so on. And we’ll get into some of these variations in a minute. First off, let’s talk about the basic ingredients that need to be present for a cobbler to be a cobbler.
No matter the name, all cobbler recipes require:
The fruit and sugar go together, sometimes with added spices for extra flavor, and the flour and butter make the dough. There might be a few extra things tossed in there depending on your family’s recipe or what’s on hand, but in general, if it’s missing any of the above four ingredients, then it might not be a true cobbler.
Cobbler Variants Say a Lot About Where the Cobbler is From
It’s true! If you’ve got a family cobbler recipe that has been handed down for generations, there’s a good chance the cobbler’s type or filling can tell you a little something about where it came from. Peach cobblers, for instance, originated in the Deep South, where peach trees are common. In fact, peach cobblers are so popular in the South that in the 1950s, the Georgia Peach Council set aside a holiday for it. April 13 is National Peach Cobbler Day.
Blueberry, blackberry and elderberry cobblers can come from all over the United States, especially the regions in which these berries are most common. Apple cobblers are more of a northern tradition since apples are tough if not impossible to grow in southern climates. In California, apricot, pear, and Tartarian cherry cobblers were the most popular.
Now that you know where some of the different flavors come from, let’s get into some of the different cobbler variants!
- Crisps: These are a relatively recent descendent of the cobbler. The topping contains oats, which is the key difference between a crisp and a cobbler. They first appeared in cookbooks in 1924 when an apple crisp recipe featured in Everybody’s Cook Book: A Comprehensive Manual of Home Cookery.
- Crumbles: Similar to crisps, but crumbles are the British version of this dessert.
- Brown Betty: This is a cobbler variant that uses graham crackers, breadcrumbs, or chunks of bread to make the doughy topping. They first appeared in an 1864 edition of the Yale Literary Magazine. Historically, in the midwestern United States, brown Betty is another term for crisps, so if you have a crisp recipe by that name, that’s where it may have originated.
- Grunts, Slumps, and Pandowdies: These are all cobblers, but they differ from the usual cobbler in that cooks often make them on the stovetop. All of these recipes originate from New England and the Canadian Maritimes.
- Sonker: If you’ve got a sonker recipe, rest assured it came from North Carolina. It’s the same as a cobbler, only made in a deep dish rather than a shallow one.
- Birds’ Nest Pudding: This one is complicated for a cobbler. Recipes call for apples, brown sugar, eggs, milk, leavening, flour, maple flavoring, and cream. It’s an old recipe that was popular in northern states from the mid-1800s onward.
And what about savory cobblers? These are much less common — and they’re usually British in origin, although the French have a savory cobbler called a “croustade” that is a hollowed-out piece of bread filled with various hearty ingredients. In the UK, cobblers can be sweet, or they can be filled with lamb, mutton or beef, sometimes with a ring of biscuits around the edges rather than a crumbled topping.
So, there you have it! Cobblers come from all over. Depending on your family recipe, it could very well be that you can trace the cobbler’s origins based on the name or the ingredients.
If you do have a treasured cobbler recipe, make sure to share it with the rest of your family, especially the little ones. Kids love a good cobbler as much as adults, but more importantly, passing that recipe along to them keeps the tradition alive for future generations to enjoy.