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!