November 22, 2022

The Tough Pie Crusts of Old New England

My family always eats the same meal every Thanksgiving, consisting of turkey, squash, potatoes, turnip, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Appetizers might vary, and Tony and I eat tofurkey, but the outline of the main meal remains the same. It's basically it's a lot of autumn vegetables boiled up and mashed. Delicious!

Thanksgiving has its roots in the old New England Puritan feast days, and it's surprising how closely my family's menu matches what people would have eaten three hundred years ago. I'm descended from relatively recent immigrants (I'm only second generation American on my father's side), but somehow this was the menu that my Quebecois grandmother learned to cook. 

Dessert traditionally consists of the same three pies: squash, mincemeat, and apple. Again, these are the pies that my grandmother always made. Why squash instead of pumpkin? I have no idea. Thank God that the One Pie company still makes canned squash. When they stop we might need to abandon the squash pie for pumpkin.

This year I'll be helping out by baking the squash and mincemeat pie. My mother always makes her pie crust with flour, oil and water. It makes a very delicate crust, but is hard to roll out. I make my crust with shortening, flour, and butter. It is not quite so flakey and delicate, but it is easier for me to handle. Now, do you want to hear about a really tough pie crust?

  
I can hear you asking, "What does all this have to do with New England folklore?"

Pie is very, very old form of food. There are recipes for pie-like dishes from ancient Rome and Egypt. In Medieval England, pies usually contained a mix of sweet and savory ingredients. Mix together some fish, some fowl, some game, some vegetables and some fruit and voila! A pie. Although the ingredients have changed over time, the basic concept has remained the same: food baked inside a pastry crust. 

The pie crusts of old were generally not the tender, flaky delights that we experience today. Whether it's butter, oil or shortening, fat is inexpensive to buy these days. In the past that was not the case, and many people made their pie crusts just from flour and water with no fat added. Fat adds tenderness to the pastry, so these fat-free crusts were quite tough.

You may think I exaggerate the toughness, but it was noted by several authors. In the 1500s this type of dough was called "strong dough." The English cookbook author Hannah Glasse included the following instructions in 1747's The Art of Cookery: "First make a good standing crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick..." If I'm not misinterpreting her, it sounds like the crust can stand up on it's own like Play-Doh. Yikes! 

The Swedish minister Israel Acrelius lived in Delaware during the middle of the 18th century, and experienced some tough pie crusts firsthand. He wrote in 1759 that the crust "of a house pie, in country places ... is not broken even if a wagon wheel goes over it." Acrelius was probably exaggerating a little, but you get the picture.

The pie crusts in Colonial New England were as tough as those in Delaware, if not tougher. Rye grows better in our climate than wheat, so rye flour was the most commonly used flour here. Have you ever baked with rye flour? It is much, much harder than wheat flour, so imagine making a fat-free rye flour pie crust. It was probably like edible ceramic.

A sturdy rye pie crust appears in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Oldtown Folks (1869), which is set in late 1700s Massachusetts. Two abandoned children find shelter for the night at the home of a friendly farmer. In the morning he sends them on their way with kindly words, and a pie:
Sol added to these words a minced pie, with a rye crust of peculiarly solid texture, adapted to resist any of the incidents of time and travel, which had been set out as part of his last night's supper. 
The crust was so hard that it could be carried without a pan. Now that's a strong crust.

The hard crust does explain one thing that has always puzzled me. Housewives in pre-Industrial New England made dozens and dozens of pies in the weeks leading up Thanksgiving, and a cook prided herself on the number and variety of pies she could produce. Although some of these pies were eaten at Thanksgiving, the majority were stored in the root cellar for the winter. I always wondered if people had dozens and dozens of pie pans in their houses, but apparently they didn't. They probably just turned the pie out of its baking pan and stuck it on the shelf. The crust was so hard it would hold its shape for months. I wonder how the flavor held up?

In his 1877 book Being A Boy, Massachusetts-born writer Charles Dudley Warner talks about how a boy could steal pie from the root cellar by hiding it under his coat: 
And yet this boy would have buttoned under his jacket an entire round pumpkin-pie. And the pie was so well made and so dry that it was not injured in the least, and it never hurt the boy's clothes a bit more than if it had been inside of him instead of outside; and this boy would retire to a secluded place and eat it with another boy, being never suspected because he was not in the cellar long enough to eat a pie, and he never appeared to have one about him.
So Warner is writing about a pie so solid and so dry that someone could stuff it in their shirt without it leaking. Wow! 

Traditional New England menus are great, but let's praise innovation where we can. I don't think anyone wants to go back to eating rock solid pie crust, no matter how portable it is.

*****

If you want to learn more about traditional New England pies, I recommend James Baker's Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday and Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald's America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking. I got most of my information from those two books, which are great! This post is an updated version of one I wrote on this topic way back in 2015. 

November 12, 2022

Mother Carr, the Witch of Weare: Turn Your Clothes Inside Out

A few weekends ago I went to the library and randomly looked through the histories of some New Hampshire towns, hoping to find interesting stories about witchcraft and ghosts. Many 19th century town histories include those local legends, and I was happy to find several stories I had not read before. 

Some of those stories were about Mother Carr. She lived in Weare, New Hampshire in the early 1800s, and many people suspected her of being a witch. There are several accounts of her allegedly bewitching her neighbors, including this one.

Antique postcard of Weare, NH from Wikipedia

One summer day some of Mother Carr's neighbors went berry-picking in the woods. It was a very successful trip. They returned carrying buckets that overflowed with ripe juicy berries. When Mother Carr saw all the delicious berries she asked if she could have some, but her neighbors refused. She stomped off angrily, telling them they would regret their stinginess. (Cue the ominous music...)

A few weeks later, the same group of neighbors went into the woods to pick berries again. And once again, they filled their buckets with plump, juicy berries. But as they began to make their way back to Weare they became lost. They wandered around for hours, unable to find the path that led home. No matter how hard they tried they couldn't find their way out of the woods, even though they had been there many times before. 

Suddenly, one of the berry-pickers remembered Mother Carr's angry words, and realized she had cursed them. They would never find their way home as long as they were under her spell! Someone suggested that if they turned their clothes inside out the spell would be broken. It sounded foolish, but everyone was afraid of being stuck in the woods overnight, so they turned their coats, shirts, pants and skirts inside out. To their amazement, it worked. Although they were tired and bedraggled, they were able to find their way out of the woods.

Antique postcard of Weare, NH from Wikipedia

That is the end of the story. It might sound alien to a modern reader, but turning your clothes inside out is a very old form of folk magic. However, it was most often used to prevent fairies from leading you astray, not witches. As the 17th century English poet Richard Corbet wrote in his poem "Iter Boreale":

As in a conjurers circle, William found

A menes for our deliverance: Turne your cloakes,

Quoth hee, for Puck is busy in these oakes:

If ever yee at Bosworth will be found,

Then turne your cloakes, for this is Fayry-ground.

Special thanks to Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog for posting this piece of poetry! I am not 100% sure of the metaphysics behind this folklore, but I think turning your clothes inside out is supposed to confuse the fairies, which makes them stop hexing you. 

But why would people in New Hampshire do this when they were lost in the woods? When the English Puritans came to New England they didn't bring much fairy folklore with them, but they did bring a lot of witch lore. Instead of blaming misfortunes on fairies they blamed them on unpopular neighbors (like Mother Carr) they thought were witches. Practices that were once used to protect against fairies were used to protect against witchcraft. 

I found this story in William Little's 1888 book The History of Weare, New Hampshire, 1735 - 1888. These old history books are amazing. You never know what you'll find!

October 23, 2022

The Spookiest States: Vermont and Maine Lead the Pack

People often ask me if New England is weirder or scarier than other parts of the country. I’ve been asked this by podcasters, other writers, and even personal friends. It would be easy for me to respond with a joke about scary Massachusetts drivers, our weird infatuation with Dunkin Donuts, or the frightening price of housing. But I generally avoid going for the easy laugh and try to answer the question sincerely.

Certainly, it seems that New England has a reputation in popular culture as a strange place. I usually mention that the world’s three most famous horror writers all came from New England. Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) was born in Boston, and although he left as a child he returned when he was 16 to work and enlisted in the army. He didn’t remain in Boston long, and although he thought the Bostonian literary establishment was uptight he still published his first book with the byline “a Bostonian.” 

The second writer is H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), who was born in Providence and spent most of his life there. Lovecraft incorporated lots of New England history and legends into his fiction. He definitely understood the weird appeal of the region’s moldering Puritan cemeteries, old coastal towns, and dark woods. Lastly, there is the legendary Stephen King (b. 1947), who was born in Maine and still lives there. Many of his novels, including classics like Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary, are set in Maine.

I like to think there's something unique about New England which inspired these three influential writers. Certainly, New England has some strange history due to the Puritan colonists who came in the 1600s. They brought over their beliefs in witches, ghosts and the Devil, but not the more charming folklore like fairies. That definitely shaped our region's culture. And like most of the United States, our region has its history of violence, racism and genocide. Perhaps all these things, combined with a sometimes strange and dramatic landscape and our long dark winters, helped inspire Poe, Lovecraft, and King. (The author Faye Ringel explores these themes in her book 1995 book New England’s Gothic Literature.)

But does this really mean New England is weirder or scarier than other parts of the country? And how would you even go about measuring these things regionally? I wouldn't know how to even start, but someone has tried. Cycling Frog, a THC and CBD company in Seattle, compiled a ranked list of the scariest states in the country. Vermont ranked number one, Maine came in second, and Connecticut placed fifth. Not too bad for such a small part of the United States!

The other New England states are apparently not as spooky. New Hampshire was 14, Rhode Island 19, and Massachusetts was way down the list at 35. I feel ashamed as a Massachusetts native that we ranked so low. Massholes, we need to try harder to be spooky.

Upon reading this list two questions came to my mind. How did they rank the states, and why did a CBD/THC company do this? Sadly, I can only answer the first one. Cycling Frog looked at how many of the following each state had:

1. Serial killers (from murderpedia.org)

2. Haunted locations (from frightfind.com)

3. UFO sightings (from National UFO Reporting Center)

4. Ghosts (from ghostsofamerica.com)

5. Top 100 horror films set there (from IMDb.com)

To measure equitably across states, they wanted to show how many of each phenomena the states have per 100,000 people. For example, Texas had the most number of serial killers with 890 (!), but it has a very large population. This means that Delaware, which has a much smaller population, actually has the highest number of serial killers per person, with 41 serial killers per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Cycling Frog, this makes Delaware the most murderous state. (Note: Massholes, we do NOT need to try harder at being serial killers.)

Vermont was ranked the scariest because it had the highest number of UFO sightings and haunted places per person, and also had a high number of ghost sightings as well. That's pretty impressive, which is why they think Vermont is the scariest state. But is it? When I think of Vermont, I tend to think of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, rolling green hills, and peaceful hippies. Maybe all that peace and love is just a cover for the true horrors of Vermont. 

Let's face it, I don't think this survey is statistically valid, but it is fun to think about as we approach Halloween. Apparently if you live in Vermont, Maine or Connecticut you're ensured a spooky Halloween. The rest of us may just have to console ourselves by eating extra candy corn and Twix. 

October 03, 2022

Dreams in the Witch House: Lore, Familiars, and the Devil's Book

This week I've been reading "The Dreams in the Witch House," H.P. Lovecraft's classic 1932 tale of witches, creepy little monsters, and non-Euclidean calculus. This is one of those Lovecraft stories I come back to repeatedly, and re-reading it this time I was struck by how Lovecraft incorporates real New England folklore and history into it. Much of the story is focused on how one becomes a witch, something that was central to the 17th century Puritan witch trials. There is also a particularly creepy familiar spirit in it. 

Here's a basic plot summary, but you can also read the story yourself here. Walter Gilman is a college student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, where he is studying mathematics and folklore. Gilman is convinced there is a connection between advanced mathematics and the old New England witch stories, and his research leads him to rent a room in a squalid boarding house that was built in 1600s known as the Witch House.

Gilman's room was once the abode of Keziah Mason, who was arrested for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. Under questioning, Mason told Judge John Hathorne that certain lines and angles could be used to move "through the walls of space to other spaces beyond," and then later disappeared from her locked jail cell. Strange geometric curves and angles were found drawn on the cell's walls with "some red, sticky fluid." Centuries later, Keziah Mason is said to haunt the Witch House where she once lived, appearing there at night with Brown Jenkin, a human-faced rat that serves as her familiar spirit. 
Gilman thinks Mason knew the secret of traveling through other dimensions. Soon in his sleep he dreams that he can too, inspired by his study of mathematics and the strange angles of the walls and ceiling in his room. In his dreams, he flies through "limitless abysses of inexplicably coloured twilight and bafflingly disordered sound; abysses whose material and gravitational properties, and whose relation to his own entity, he could not even begin to explain." He dreams that he visits other planets, including a world whose heavy gravity almost crushes him, and one where he sees a vast city and strange non-humanoid beings. In his journeys he also sees Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin, who seem to be following him around the universe in his dreams. 

Spoiler alert: Walter Gilman is not dreaming. He really is traveling through the universe and other dimensions, and Mason and Brown Jenkin really are following him. Since he has intuitively and unconsciously mastered the art of extra-dimensional travel, they recognize him as a fellow witch, and want him to be fully initiated into the dark mysteries of witchcraft: 
He must meet the Black Man, and go with them all to the throne of Azathoth at the centre of ultimate Chaos. That was what she said. He must sign in his own blood the book of Azathoth and take a new secret name now that his independent delvings had gone so far. What kept him from going with her and Brown Jenkin and the other to the throne of Chaos where the thin flutes pipe mindlessly was the fact that he had seen the name “Azathoth” in the Necronomicon, and knew it stood for a primal evil too horrible for description.
Oh, and they want him to sacrifice a human infant as well. I won't give away the ending, but it's one of the gorier and gruesome endings to a Lovecraft story. 

H.P. Lovecraft loved New England and its history, and incorporates lots of local references into "The Dreams in the Witch House." John Hathorne (mentioned above) was a real Salem witch trials judge and an ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne; the infamous Cotton Mather is mentioned as well. Walter Gilman's hometown is Haverhill, Massachusetts, the same as me! One of his mathematics instructors at Miskatonic University is Professor Upham, a name possibly inspired by Charles Upham, the historian who wrote Salem Witchcraft (1867), one of the first important studies of the Salem trials. And there actually are several buildings in Massachusetts called the Witch House, including the most famous one in Salem

Original 1933 illustration from Weird Tales

The crux of the story is whether Gilman will become fully initiated into witchcraft. Will he sign his name into the Black Man's book using his own blood? Lovecraft pulled this concept directly from records of the New England witchcraft trials. The Black Man was a Puritan term for the Devil, and he and his book were mentioned in many witchcraft trials. The book was a Satanic parody of the Bible and of the covenants that Puritans signed when they joined churches. According to the Puritans, signing your name in the Black Man's book made you a witch. Lovecraft made up the part about sacrificing an infant, though. That does not appear in any New England witch trials, although certainly witches were accused of harming babies and children. The Puritans also believed that the Devil would baptize his witches after they signed the book, which doesn't appear in Lovecraft's story. It's probably just too tame for a horror story. 

Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason's familiar spirit, is very similar to the familiars found in New England witch trials. The Puritan's claimed that the Devil gave witches small demons, called familiar spirits, to do their bidding. In return, the witches just had to feed them with their blood. The trials of the Salem witch trials mention familiar spirits who appeared in a variety of forms, including birds, cats, and wolves. Like Brown Jenkin, some appeared as monstrous hybrids. For example, Bridget Bishop was accused of having a familiar that looked like a monkey with rooster feet and a human face, and Sarah Osborne's familiar was supposedly a small humanoid covered in hair. Lovecraft's Brown Jenkin would fit right in with these two.

One interesting thing I noticed on re-reading "The Dreams in the Witch House" is that Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin are trying to help and protect Walter Gilman during his trips through space and time, even though he doesn't realize it. For example, when he finds himself on a planet with heavy gravity they show him how to travel back to Earth. It's only when he refuses to sign the book that they become hostile towards him. He's not acting the way a witch should!

"The Dreams in the Witch House" has been filmed at least three times, once in 2005 as part of the Masters of Horror anthology TV series, and also as a low-budget movie earlier this year, at last according to Amazon Prime. A version of "The Dreams in the Witch House" will also air later this month as an episode of Guillermo del Toro's new anthology Netflix show Cabinet of Curiosities. I hope they include all the weird New England witch references in it!

*****

If you want to read more about New England witches, please check out my book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. It's available wherever books are sold online and is perfect October reading!



September 21, 2022

Rufus Goodrich's Funeral: A Devilish Deal Gone Bad

As I watched the enormous number of mourners at Queen Elizabeth's recent funeral, I found myself wondering how many people will attend mine. I hoped that I would get a big turnout. 

It's kind of a morbid thought but I think it's a common one. And as I had this thought, I was reminded of a weird and grim little tale about a man named Rufus Goodrich. It appears in Catharine Melinda North's 1916 book History of Berlin Connecticut and it will make you think twice about wishing for a big funeral. 

*****

Many years ago, people used to gather at the cider mill in Berlin, Connecticut to enjoy hard cider and good gossip. One day a man named Rufus Goodrich, who lived in nearby Rocky Hill, came into the mill and ordered some cider. He had a big smile on his face and seemed almost giddy with excitement. 

Someone said, "Why so happy Rufus?"

Rufus took a sip from his cider and explained he had just sold his soul to the Devil. Everyone in the cider mill fell silent. 

Rufus went on to say that the Devil promised him he would be famous if he just signed away his soul. Rufus had asked the Devil exactly how famous he would be. 

The Devil replied, "Well, let's just say there will be thousands at your funeral. Thousands." This sounded pretty good to Rufus, so he sold his soul to the Devil. 

Once he finished telling his story, Rufus slammed down his now-empty cider mug and stood up. "See you folks later. I'm off to become famous," he said and strutted out the door. 

No one saw Rufus around Berlin or Rocky Hill for a few days after that. People thought maybe he had gone to Boston or New York to become famous. But they soon learned the terrible truth when a local farmer complained that huge swarms of flies kept buzzing in and out of his barn. And a horrible smell was coming from the back of the barn too...
A group of local men gathered their courage and made their way to the back of the barn. They had to cover their noses and mouths to keep out the flies and the stench. When they reached the back of the barn they found the body of Rufus Goodrich. It was covered with flies. 

The men thought of the Devil's promise when they saw Rufus's corpse. There were thousands of flies crawling on him. Thousands. 

*****

I love these gruesome little New England folk stories. A lot of them are quite grim, but this is one of the grimmest. I haven't seen it anywhere except in North's book, and I wonder where she heard the story. I haven't been able to locate any records of a "Rufus Goodrich" but the Goodriches were a well-known Rocky Hill family, so perhaps it is based on an actual person. It might be quite old too. Earl Chapin May, in his book Century of Silver, 1847 - 1947, claims the story dates back to the 18th century.

To sum up: be careful what you wish for.