Culinary Archaeology III: The Lemon Meringue Pie of Yvonne Pène du Bois

By Peter Duveen

MUSEUM OF BROOKLYN ART AND CULTURE, March 20, 2009--One of the interesting American artists of the first half of the 20th Century who one hears about from time to time is Brooklyn-born Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958). His best known works were painted in the 1920s, and portray a cynical view of the high society of the time. Du Bois, besides being an artist in his own right, was a writer and art critic, and was instrumental in publicizing the Armory Show of 1913, the first major exposure in America to what has come to be known as "modern art." Du Bois wrote a monograph on his painter friend William Glackens, and was well known in the circles in which Glackens traveled. He was, in fact, a student of painter Robert Henri, who with Glackens and other artists known as "The Eight," banded together to resist the conservative styles of their day.

Guy Pene Dubois
Pène Du Bois: detail of photo from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Not too far from where I live, in Saratoga Springs, New York, there is a beautiful mural in the main post office, executed by du Bois during the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s and 1940s when the government contracted artists to paint over anything and everything that would give them a job. Interestingly, du Bois also painted a mural for the post office in Rye, New York, where I lived for a short time. While the public may view these two works during post office hours, there are from time to time more formal exhibitions of his work. One that I was able to catch was mounted by the Graham Gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in 2004.

duBois mural
                                                                                                                                                        Peter Duveen Photo
The Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Post Office sports a mural by Guy 
Pène du Bois. The theme is horse racing, in keeping
with one of the major attractions of this resort town.

Du Bois must have been captivated by the beauty of William Glackens's daughter-in-law, Anne (Nancy) Henshaw Middlebrook Glackens, because he painted her portrait, which is now part of the collection of the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.

The Glackenses and the du Boises were friends, and the families would from time to time gather at Labrador Farm in New Hampshire, the country seat of William and Edith Glackens, and later, of their son and daughter-in-law, Ira and Nancy.

Guy had a beautiful and talented daughter, Yvonne (1913-1997), who followed in her father's footsteps and became an artist. As the Glackenses were collecting recipes from friends, they must have asked her to make a contribution, which she did, leaving in the Labrador Farm Cookbook a handwritten account of a recipe for lemon meringue pie, which is the one we shall explore today.

Yvonne Pene duBois
                                                   Photo courtesy Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture
Pène duBois, Conway, New Hampshire, 1939.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Crust = 7 graham crackers - crushed
2 tablespoons of butter
cover the bottom of a pie pan with this mixture
smoothing it over with the back of a spoon

filling = The yokes of four eggs
2 cans of condensed milk
4 lemons

Grate the rind of two lemons and put it to one side -
then beat the eggs, condensed milk and lemon juice together until smooth and pour into the pie plate. Sprinkle the rind on the top.

Meringue = beat the four egg whites until stiff
add one half cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla
Beat this mixture until smooth and cover the top of the pie -
bake it in a 375 degree oven for about ten minutes - or until meringue is brown

Serve cold.
Pène du Bois

I'll admit that I did not carry out Yvonne's instructions slavishly. For example, I could not  imagine that the pie filling would be cooked in ten minutes! Examining other recipes of a similar nature, I found that the recommended time in the oven was 30 minutes, at least for the Key Lime pie recipe on the container of condensed milk.

filling and crust
Filling and crust in prep.

I used
only one can of condensed milk (14 oz. size) for the recipe, and only two large lemons, rather than the four called for. I left the grated lemon rind for another time. Making these alterations, I found that there was plenty of filling for one pie.

For the meringue, I used a wire wisk to beat the egg whites, and found that it did a satisfactory job.

Whipped meringue

As far as the graham cracker crust is concerned, I believe I added just a bit more butter. I then mixed the ingredients for the filling, and poured them into the pie shell, and baked the whole for about thirty minutes. I then whipped the meringue mixture up to a thick silky texture, and when the pie was cooked, I took it out of the oven, and scooped the meringue onto the top of the pie. I then placed the pie back in the oven until I could see that the meringue had browned at the top. The pie was then removed from the oven and allowed to cool.

Cooked Meringue
Pie with browned meringue topping.

I noticed a curious phenomenon as the pie cooled. Tiny spherical clear brownish droplets formed on the surface of the baked meringue. I'm sure that is not meant to happen, and if anybody could shed light on how to avoid their appearance, it would be much appreciated.

Once cooled, the pie itself cut well, but the graham cracker crust adhered quite strongly to the pie plate, so that it was only with difficulty that a slice could be removed. The pie has a strong lemony taste, indicating that perhaps a little less lemon juice would have been enough. But it was still delicious. The texture of the custard was creamy and firm.

Meringue Pie
The completed pie.
Guy Pène Du Bois: detail of photo from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I would recommend this recipe, with, of course, the changes I made above, or any that may seem desirable. My wife liked the pie, and as she is the final test of success, I feel the recipe more than held its own. Our thanks to Yvonne 
Pène du Bois, and to the Glackenses for compiling the Labrador Farm Cook Book.

An excellently written article on Guy Pène du Bois may be found at