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.

January 20, 2011

Full Wolf Moon

I woke up this morning and saw a beautiful full moon setting. According to the Farmer's Almanac, it's the Full Wolf Moon.

Each month's full moon is traditionally given a name that reflects something that's happening in the natural world. At this time of year, wolves would be particularly hungry and active, howling through the woods looking for something to eat.

Although a coyote was found in Beacon Hill, I don't think the wolves have come back to Boston yet. At least I didn't see any near my house this morning.

I do see a lot of snow but surprisingly it's next month's moon that is the Full Snow Moon. Of course it gets that name because February is traditionally the snowiest month of the year. That's right! Our snowy January may just be an appetizer for what's coming next month. It's time to stock up on rock salt (and maybe wolf repellent just in case).

January 08, 2011

The Cotton Hollow Giant

Here's another great story from a 19th century newspaper. This one is from the June 29, 1898 issue of Connecticut's Naugatuck Daily News.

Late one night, four men from Danbury were walking home from visiting friends. A man named Jerry Wilson was in the lead.

As they passed through a wooded area known as Cotton Hollow a giant sprang up from the underbrush. He was at least twice as tall as any of the Danbury men!

He shouted out to Wilson,"How far is it to the next town?"

Terrified, Wilson managed to stammer out, "About three miles!" The giant ran off into the dark woods, and the frightened men hurried back to their own homes.

The next day they returned to Cotton Hollow and found footprints in the soft soil. They were at least 18 inches long and 5 1/2 inches wide. People who lived in Cotton Hollow told Wilson and his friends they had seen the giant in the neighborhood several times before, and estimated he was nine feet tall and weighed around 500 pounds.

That's the end of the newspaper article.

The people over on Bigfoot Encounters, where I found this story, wonder whether the giant was naked or clothed, and whether or not he had shoes on. They also ask if he was covered in hair. In other words, was this giant really Bigfoot as we know and love him today?

I'm not a Bigfoot expert, but I don't think he usually speaks, and I've never read about Bigfoot asking for directions. The fact he asked Jerry Wilson the distance to the closest town seems to indicate he was not your average Sasquatch.

Sleeping Giant ridge in Hamden.

Interestingly, a town near Naugatuck also has a legend about a giant. A large stone ridge in Hamden, Connecticut is known as the Sleeping Giant. Supposedly it is the Indian deity Hobomock sleeping under a spell put on him by a rival deity. The ridge is part of a state park, so you can hike on the petrified body of a major Algonquian manitou. It sounds risky to me!

Cotton Hollow today.

Also interesting is that Cotton Hollow in Naugatuck is now conservation land that has an abandoned mill complex on it. You can find some beautiful photos of Cotton Hollow here, which is where I got the one above. Sadly, there are no photos of the giant!


Oops! I want to post a correction. Naugatuck resident Julie has told me the mill photo is actually from a Cotton Hollow in Glastonbury, not Naugatuck. Sorry about that! It's a great photo though.

Suspended Animation in Vermont

Once the December holidays are over winter in New England can be tough to get through. Wouldn't it be nice just to sleep through the cold dark months like bears do?

According to an article in the December 21, 1887 edition of Vermont's Argus and Patriot newspaper, some farmers in Calais, Vermont could. They knew the secrets of suspended animation, and used their technique on the old and infirm during those winters when food was in short supply.

To begin the process, the farmers would feed their elderly relatives a special chemical brew (ingredients unknown) which induced a comatose state. After leaving the comatose elders outside overnight in freezing weather, the farmers would build a large wooden box.

When this was completed they placed about two feet of straw in the bottom; then they laid three of the frozen bodies on the straw. Then the faces and upper part of the bodies were covered with a cloth, then more straw was put in the box, and the other three bodies placed on top... Boards were then firmly nailed on the top to protect the bodies from being injured by carnivorous animals that make their home on these mountains.

The box was left outside to be buried in snow. In early May, the farmers would open the box and thaw their relatives out with hot water and hemlock, just in time to help plant the corn.

Sadly, the story doesn't seem to be true. In his book Green Mountains, Dark Tales Joseph Citro explains that Allen Morse, a Calais farmer and teller of tall tales, told this story to his daughter one day to entertain her. She worked at the Argus and Patriot, and arranged to have the story printed as a gift on his 52nd birthday. Its title? "A Strange Tale"!

However, Citro says he isn't 100% certain "A Strange Tale" was a hoax. He claims the University of Vermont still fields questions from scientists asking about the technique. I don't know how they answer.

I guess in closing I'll just say that no matter how tempting this sounds you shouldn't try it at home!

January 02, 2011

The Loup-Garou!

English Puritans and their descendants were the main cultural force in New England for centuries, but there have always been other ethnic groups here with their own folklore. Here's a great wintry story about the loup-garou, the French Canadian werewolf. It's from from Rowland Robinson's 1894 book Danvis Folks, which included folk stories the author heard in Vermont.


Loup-garou image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Many years ago on a dark snowy night a man left his warm house and hitched the horse to his sleigh. His wife was ill, and maybe close to death, so he was going to get the local Catholic priest.

As he rode down the forest road, all he heard was the hiss of the sleigh's runners and the thudding of the horse's hooves. The snow was good for sleighing and soon he was near the church.

Suddenly, the horse slowed down and the sleigh barely moved forward. The man whipped the horse, but to no avail. It was as if the sleigh was suddenly burdened with a two ton load.

Looking back, the man saw a large black wolf with its front paws on the rear of the sleigh. Its hind legs stood in the snow, and was stopping the sleigh from moving forward. The wolf's yellow eyes burned bright in the darkness.

Fear gripped the man's heart. No ordinary wolf was strong enough to stop a sleigh. This was something far worse! It was a loup-garou, a man who had sold himself to the Devil who could turn into a wolf. Sometimes the loup-garous just ate corpses, but sometimes they liked their dinner to be fresher.

The creature jumped fully onto the sleigh, and the sleigh shot forward as the horse pulled harder than ever. The loup-garou stalked to the front of the sleigh and put its front paws on the driver's shoulders. The weight was so heavy the man thought he would be crushed.

In a panic he searched his pockets for his knife. If he could cut the loup-garou its devilish magic would be dispelled and it would turn back into a human. But in the dark night, distracted by the monster's hot breath on his face, he couldn't find it.

By this point the sleigh reached the churchyard and the priest opened the front door. Seeing what was happening, he said a brief prayer. Instantly the monstrous wolf turned back into a man, who fled into the forest.

Luckily the priest had a good supply of whiskey to calm the man's nerves. Even luckier, his wife recovered from her illness and didn't die.


Rowland Robinson apparently wrote fourteen fictional books which incorporated real folkore from New England. Unfortunately, he wrote most of his dialogue in dialect so it's hard for a modern reader to understand. For example, here's a direct quote from the loup-garou story, which is told by a Vermonter of French-Canadian descent. Robinson is trying to capture the storyteller's Quebecois accent:

"De hoss was scare an' run lak hol' hurricanes, 'cause de loup garou gat hees behin' foots off de graound an' can' pull back som more."

My guess at a translation: "The horse was scared and ran like old (?) hurricanes because the loup garou got his behind feet off the ground and can't pull back some more."

If you don't mind a lot of crazy dialect writing, you can find the entire text of Danvis Folks on Google Books for free.