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A Fulfilling Story: New England Pie History

In the annals of pie history, New England holds a special place.

Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Mr. Timothy Levy Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker living in Ledyard, Connecticut. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Pumpkin pie might not have happened without New England, where rhubarb pie is revered in the springtime. In New England’s Little Canadas, Franco-Americans celebrate the Christmas holidays with spiced meat pies called tourtiere. Vermonters favor maple pie, and Boston is the birthplace of the Boston Cream Pie -- which really isn’t a pie, but then again neither is Maine’s official state treat, the Whoopie Pie.

Robert Cox, head of Special Collections at UMass-Amherst, delves into New England’s pie history in his book, New England Pie: History Under a Crust.  He has also written about New England chowder and cranberry culture.

Food, he said, is one of the most enduring cultural traits. Food preferences will linger for three or four generations as a central part of family ritual and family life. “It hangs on for generations,” Cox said. “It can be more revealing about our attitudes, our hopes and fears, than anything we ever write.”

As a historian, Cox hesitates to claim New Englanders eat more pie than people in other regions of the United States. But pie culture is definitely deeper in certain parts of the country and, he said, and, ‘pie is quite deep here.’

New England’s pie culture does differ from the rest of the United States because it has more of a balance between the savory – the chicken, the turkey or the clam pie – and the sweet – the apple, the pumpkin, the squash, the blueberry or the cream pies.

Cox found it hard to pin down regional pie-eating differences within New England. An apple pie on Cape Cod isn’t that different from an apple pie elsewhere, with the exception of Central Massachusetts. There, Cox said, apple pie is more likely to have raisins in it, something he considers an abomination. And Northern New Englanders are more apt to eat apple pie with cheese.

There are some ethnic variations – Franco-Americans have their tourtiere, Italian-Americans have their ricotta pie and Portuguese-Americans have their custard tarts. Clam pie is stronger on Cape Cod than elsewhere. Cox has only been able to find maple pie in Vermont.

French Pie History

A tourtiere ready for the oven

A tourtiere ready for the oven

Cox’s home town of Easthampton, Mass., has a strong Franco-American presence. There, French meat pies are sold in stores. They are traditionally made with ground meat, potato and spices like cloves and allspice.

In New England Pie, Cox recounts how he ate a French meat pie with his in-laws – and learned it was made with Bell’s Seasoning. The cook had gotten away from her mother’s recipe. Her daughters didn’t like cloves and allspice, so she substituted the Bell’s. She was mortally embarrassed when Cox found out.

French meat pies are special, a celebratory food eaten in the shortest days of winter, Cox said. They are made to show how much you care about your family, to show what kind of a cook you are. “She thought it was terrible,” he said. “But Bell’s is kind of traditional. Taking what’s available and meeting the needs of your family is traditional.”

Rhubarb Pie History

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Though the next pie is his favorite pie, Cox admits to a preference for rhubarb. It’s known in other parts of the country, but more of it is eaten in New England.

Rhubarb originally had a medicinal use as a purgative and laxative. Not until the American Revolution ended was it used in pies. Then in the early 19th century an unnamed genius renamed it ‘pie-plant,’ and rhubarb took off.

Cox is convinced New Englanders love rhubarb because it’s the first fresh produce in the market – a bright presence of the New England spring. “For two or three months, you would have had older fruits and vegetables and preserves,” he said. “Since the 1790s, it’s really been a New England pie.”

Revolutionary Roots of the Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie

Boston Cream Pie

The Boston Cream Pie was invented by a French chef brought to the Parker House in 1855. The hotel owner wanted his hotel to be the finest in the country, and needed a good restaurant to earn that reputation. The chef came up with a signature treat, a cake with cream in the middle and a ganache top with chocolate – the distinctive Boston Cream Pie that became a regional favorite.

“It’s very close to pies that weren’t pies floating around New England at the time,” said Cox. Those false pies were called Washington Pies, light cakes with a cream or fruit filling. Lafayette Pies were similar.

“There was an immense nostalgia for the simplicity of that generation,” Cox said. “Naming a dessert after Washington and Lafayette was a way of commemorating the independence and history of the country.”

The Boston Cream Pie was a high-class, high-status dessert that echoed the Washington and Lafayette pies.

In a note of historical irony, Vietnam’s own revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, worked in the Parker House bakery and probably made Boston Cream Pie. Another revolutionary, Malcolm X, worked as a waiter in the Parker House and probably served Boston Cream Pie.

Robert Cox will present “New England Pie: History Under a Crust,” at the New Haven Museum on Tuesday, December 8, 2015 at 5:30 p.m., followed by a book signing.

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