November 15, 2015

Old New England Pie Crust: Tough Recipes for Tough People

My mother has always made the same Thanksgiving menu, consisting of turkey, squash, potatoes, turnip, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Appetizers might vary, but the main meal always remains the same. It's the same menu that her mother made as well.

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

Dessert always 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 my mother by baking the squash pie. She 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, which is easier for me to handle.

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

Pies as a form of food are very, very old. 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 as 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 out of flour and water. Fat adds tenderness to the pastry, so these fat-free crusts were quite tough.

The pie crusts in Colonial New England were really, really tough. Rye grows better in our climate than wheat, so rye flour was the most commonly used flour. Rye flour is much harder than wheat flour, so imagine making a fat-free rye flour pie crust. It was probably like edible ceramic.

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.

The Swedish minister Israel Acrelius 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 writing about Delaware, and probably exaggerating a little, but you get the picture.

Strong pie crusts also figure into 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:

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.

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.

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!


Susan said...

I think the standing pie crusts derive from British pork (and other) pies. The crust is a real bulwark.

And thank you for your Thanksgiving menu. It's much like my family's. We do specify Eastham turnip, but everything is boiled to a mush and served forth. I think it dates back to the 19th century, if not earlier.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Muise said...

Hi Susan! That's interesting about the Eastham turnip. My family is partial to rutabagas. And yes, everything is boiled and mashed!

Susan said...

Rutabagas may have been the "option" before my family made contact with the Cape and the Eastham turnip growing there. Maybe it made its way to Boston in season? It's a large, white, mild turnip that doesn't last long. My mother would have nothing to do with rutabagas, so it was quite a surprise (pleasant) to discover them myself. It took me quite a while to realize and appreciate how antique our menu was, and I do spin some changes on it, but I don't really want to bring it into the 20th century. Yes, I know we've moved into the 21st century.

Anonymous said...

Lard was pretty ubiquitous as an old-school pie crust ingredient. Makes a very tasty crust as well.

Susan said...

More about pie crust in the past--