January 26, 2011
The Parker House: Boston Cream Pie, Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X
Boston's Omni Parker House hotel, founded in 1855, is America's longest continuously operating hotel. Needless to say it's full of strange lore.
Did you know that Boston cream pie was invented at the Parker House? It's true. To help put his new hotel on the map Harry Parker, the hotel's founder, hired a French chef named Sanzian for a salary of $5,000. This was extremely high for the mid-19th century but I guess Parker's investment was worth it. Sanzian impressed local gourmands with dishes like aspic of oysters, mongrel goose, and ham in champagne sauce.
The icing on the cake, though, was his creation of Boston cream pie. Bostonians had been eating pastries and cream for many years, and used chocolate as a beverage or in puddings. But when Sanzian combined the three into one dessert people couldn't believe their taste buds. He had achieved culinary immortality.
The legislature declared Boston cream pie the official dessert of Massachusetts in 1996 (it beat out Indian pudding), and in 2005 to celebrate their 150th anniversary the Parker House baked a Boston cream pie that was sixteen feet across. It contained more than two million calorie.
Since Boston cream pie is really a cake, why is it called a pie? According to this site, most Americans did not have cake pans in the 19th century, but they did have pie pans. I guess anything that was bigger than a cookie and baked in a pan was called a pie!
Guests of the Parker House in 1912 and 1913 may have eaten Boston cream pie made by Ho Chi Minh, the future Communist leader of North Vietnam who opposed the U.S. during the Vietnam war. Born in 1890, he had fled Vietnam (then called French Indochina) to avoid persecution for his political beliefs. He wound up in Boston working in the hotel's kitchen as a pastry chef. I guess he opposed the French colonialists in Vietnam, but had still absorbed their baking skills! This sounds like a tall tale, but is true. In 2005 officials from the Vietnamese government visited the hotel kitchen where Ho Chi Minh worked. I'm not sure if they arrived in time to eat any of that sixteen foot Boston cream pie.
One other famous revolutionary worked at the Parker House restaurant. Malcolm X (then known as Malcolm Little) worked there as a busboy during the 1940s. That's a lot of activism coming out of one kitchen. I think the moral here is to always tip your server well because you never know when they might start a revolution.
I got all this information from Susan Wilson's The Omni Parker House. A Brief History of America's Longest Continuously Operating Hotel.