Cobbler comes from the cobble-the-verb, which means “to repair roughly or clumsily” and “to patch”, appearing in writing for the first time in 1496. Cobbling becomes linked to the mending of shoes specifically by the middle of the next century.
As time passes, cobbling and cobbler are linked to various other things (such as stones and beverages and pies).
In 1819, cobbler was the name for a cocktail made of wine, sugar, lemon, and crushed ice, a drink to be, as the Oxford English Dictionary describes, “imbibed through a straw or other tube”. (Have I mentioned how much I love the OED?)
The sangria-esque cobbler is most likely an American abbreviation of the British term cobbler’s punch, a concoction so named after its reputed ability to “patch up” its drinkers.
The use of cobbler for a deep-dish pie with a thick crust and fruit filling is also American, first used this way in print in 1859. A cobbler-type pie (one with no bottom crust and a biscuit-like top) is very possibly the result of early English settlers having plenty of fruit for a pie filling, but not very much wheat flour for crust-making.
When the Linguistic Atlas interviewers asked people about ‘cobblers’, they collected dozens of terms for this deep-dish dessert, frequently made with apples or peaches.
Several of the terms collected had something to do with custard or pudding. That may seem odd, but makes sense if you consider the fact that the earliest New World dessert fare was probably more like a traditional British pudding or custard than it was a contemporary American pie.
The word custard is probably a “perverted form of crustade”. Crustade is from the French croustade (a rich pie enclosed in a crust) and in English was originally used for a kind of “open pie containing pieces of meat or fruit” that was thickened with milk and eggs and seasoned or sweetened with spices. These days, custards are generally sweet, made of milk and eggs and can be of either a firm or more liquid-y consistency. Throw some diced apples or peaches in there an you have something akin to an early cobbler.
A lot of the Atlas interviewees talked about an apple pandowdy (also known as an apple dowdy).
Pandowdy is of unknown origin (in fact, the phrase apple dowdy predates pandowdy in print), though, it could be that it is related to the English provincial expression pandoudle, a term used for a custard in the Somerset area.
According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, a dowdy is a deep pie that, after being partially baked, is taken out of the oven and ‘dowdied’, which means that you take a knife and chop up the crust a little and the mix the bits in with the filling. Add a little more liquid, put it back in the oven and you have a pandowdy.
Because this procedure causes the crust to fall in places, this preparation can also be used to create an apple slump, apple grunt, or apple buckle.
All of these terms – dowdy, slump, grunt, and buckle – are from New England. Slump and buckle refer to the hilly nature of the dowdied crust and, legend has it, grunt refers to the noise the dish makes while cooking. Yeah, I know. I couldn’t find an alternate explanation.
Della Lute’s 1936 semi-autobiographical work, The Country Kitchen, describes the dowdy as “not a dumpling, a pudding or a pie – deep-dish or otherwise. It is just a dowdy – sort of common, homely . . . but it has character”.
The Atlas speakers also gave apple bird’s nest (or just bird’s nest or crow’s nest or even bird’s nest pudding) as another name for cobbler. DARE describes a bird’s nest as a pudding made with apples, having a biscuit dough crust and a sauce for serving. I don’t think we can ignore the similarities between a dish like this and 1) a British ‘pud’ or 2) bread pudding. Especially when you add the notion of a sauce.
DARE explains that the bird’s nest is called apfle kuchen (or apple kuchen) in areas influenced by early German settlers. We see additional German influence on cobbler-esque-terms, such as the apee cake among the Pennsylvania Deutsch which is called Dutch cake by the rest of Pennsylvania. (We just aren’t ever going to get that ‘Dutch~Deutsch is really German’ thing straight.)
Sticking with German for a minute, let’s consider the streusel topping of the crisp or crumble, two names for a cobbler topped with an oatmeal and brown sugar mixture instead of biscuit or cake-like dough, which makes the apple crisp (or crumble) the American version of the German Apfel Streuselkuchen.
Another cobbler-term with strong regional associations is the sonker (or sanker or zonker), a term found in the southern Appalachian mountains and carried over into the Ozarks. DARE gives its etymology as uncertain, perhaps from the verb sanko, which means “to loaf, to be idle, to stroll” (you can “sanko along” or “sanko around”, as long as you’re taking your time).
I have one last family of cobbler names to share with you. And they are ‘name’ names. Apple betty and apple brown betty are probably the two most famous names in cobbler-terminology, both of these turning up in “Yankee” cookbooks in the early to mid-1900s. The recipes for these cobblers have a topping made of breadcrumbs (as in stale French bread breadcrumbs) along with the usual sugar, (maybe) cinnamon, and butter.
The common understanding of a betty seems to be as a baked pudding containing apples and topped with a breadcrumb mixture. This would make the apple betty the English version of the French apple charlette, which becomes in America the apple charlotte. The charlotte (also called a charlotte brown) is “a dish of apple marmalade covered in crumbs of toasted bread”, and appears quite early in American English print, in a 1796 New York Magazine.
Along with apple betty and apple charlotte, the Atlas responses contain apple elizabeth (perhaps a more formal version of the betty?), apple john, apple jonathan, apple jack, and apple joe. All of these ‘name’ names (except for apple jack) could be heard in New England or at least in the Northern Atlantic states.
Apple jack, which is an British English dialect term for an apple turnover, was found in the south, and was especially common in North Carolina. Apple jack is like it’s cousin cobbler in that it is a term also used as a name for an alcoholic beverage (in this case a colonial drink also referred to as black jack, a homemade apple brandy). Of course, there is now a plethora of contemporary “apple jack” beverages, containing everything from Jack Daniels and apple juice to apple brandy and grenadine.
Let’s hope that the apple jack dessert was the inspiration for the Kellogg’s cereal of the same name, and not the apple-based libation.
There were other neat cobbler-names from the Atlas interviews, such as apple governor, bird’s jonathan, family pie, chunk pie, dish pan dowdy, farmer’s pie, floating islands, and cut and come pie. The popularity of this kind of deep-dish (apple) dessert has resulted in a large number of names. Some are regional, some are inter-cultural, and some are just plain fun.
You may call it an excuse to make a cobbler, but I call it research.