Thursday, May 30, 2013

It wasn't all I expected it would be - baked goods in The Country of the Pointed Firs

I’m going straight to the pies:

Once acknowledge that an American pie is far to be preferred to its humble ancestor, the English tart, and it is joyful to be reassured at a Bowden reunion that invention has not yet failed.

This is near the end of The Country of the Pointed Firs, Chapter XIX.  The narrator, Sarah, is at her landlady’s family reunion, part of her acceptance into the community of Dunnet Landing.  The sentence is unnecessarily fussy, I admit – "once acknowledge," as if there is doubt, what nonsense, despite Pykk’s claim that “a pie is an object with gravy; a pie without gravy is the thing that appears in the world while the world is waiting for a pie with gravy to arrive; it's a stopgap.”  I believe this is the only misjudgment at Pykk.  The New England fruit pie is the greatest contribution of the United States to world cuisine that did not originate in the South, making it, overall, something like our 45th greatest contribution.

Never mind that.  Read this, this is shocking:  

Beside a delightful variety of material, the decorations went beyond all my former experience; dates and names were wrought in lines of pastry and frosting on the tops. There was even more elaborate reading matter on an excellent early-apple pie which we began to share and eat, precept upon precept. Mrs. Todd helped me generously to the whole word BOWDEN, and consumed REUNION herself, save an undecipherable fragment…

They frost their pies!  Even more amazing:  they read their pies!  And the pies are not even the most impressive pastries:

the most renowned essay in cookery on the tables was a model of the old Bowden house made of durable gingerbread, with all the windows and doors in the right places, and sprigs of genuine lilac set at the front.  It must have been baked in sections, in one of the last of the great brick ovens, and fastened together on the morning of the day.  There was a general sigh when this fell into ruin at the feast's end, and it was shared by a great part of the assembly, not without seriousness, and as if it were a pledge and token of loyalty.  I met the maker of the gingerbread house, which had called up lively remembrances of a childish story.  She had the gleaming eye of an enthusiast and a look of high ideals.

"I could just as well have made it all of frosted cake," she said, "but 'twouldn't have been the right shade; the old house, as you observe, was never painted, and I concluded that plain gingerbread would represent it best.  It wasn't all I expected it would be," she said sadly, as many an artist had said before her of his work.

Now, it is obvious that I am cheating, taking the day off, not really writing a thing, just copying huge gobs of text, but this is the finest passage in the novel and what could I do but single it out.  I mean, “not without seriousness”; “the gleaming eye of an enthusiast.”  The gingerbread house baker never appears before in the book nor is she seen again after her sublime lament, the new motto of Wuthering Expectations.  “It wasn't all I expected it would be.”  It never is.


  1. Sometimes it's nice to read huge gobs of text.

  2. As someone who administers exams and someone ho allows students to eat in class I have always been concerned that students would encode information in food in order to cheat....

    I agree concerning the sublime nature of American fruit pies. I have actually used sophisticated mathematical modeling and calculated that they are the 43rd greatest American contribution to world food culture.

  3. If a student comes in with a pie that has the answers written on it in frosting, give him an F for the exam but suggest he switch to culinary school, where he will do well.

    I wondered if I should give Maine and the United States credit for the Maine lobster, but since it was simply there and preparing one barely counts as cooking, I guess I have omitted it.

    I did feel twinges about the way the characters so casually enjoy their lobsters, as they do in coastal Maine today.

  4. Oh the glories of American fruit pie! Might I add pumpkin and pecan pies in there too?

  5. Pecan, pumpkin, yes. But, if my understanding of food history is correct, the real innovation, the contribution to world cuisine, of the New England pie is actually the crust.

  6. I'm goint to agree with you here regarding New England fruiet pies based on the blueberry pie I purchase along the side of the road while travelling through the Down East section of Maine.

    But I do want to put in a good word for Peach Cobbler of the sort found barbeque/Soul Food 'joints.' It's not pie, but it's darn good.

  7. Soul food, barbecue, and the cuisine of Louisiana and its neighbors - that is where we find Contributions #1-42.

  8. A dedicated cheater would bring an unpied apple and engrave the answers on the pips, like the Lord's Prayer on grains of rice. (Would be quite beautiful, these dark seeds with the very delicate white scratches.)

  9. The paradoxical cheater, who goes to enormous effort to not do the required work.

  10. That is shocking. A frosted pie? I never. And it is simply scandalous to rate a pie at 43rd place- you call your self an appreciationist. We're talking PIE here. Get serious.

  11. Hey, that's not me, that is just the diligent work of food historians. I think the first 15 most important dishes come from Louisiana.

    Come to think of it, if the ice cream cone is from the U.S., that would be #1, but I have some doubts about its American origin. It was popularized in the U.S. Well, we're talking about the spread of innovations, so popularization counts for something.

    Isn't it funny, the way the decorative frosting on the pie jumps out? I assume this is accurate, a real practice of late 1890s Maine, at the very least. But who know, maybe Jewett made the whole thing up, which would make the entire passage far more weirdly postmodern.

  12. These rankings smack of rank Francophilia to me, in fact, maybe that's where the frosting bit comes from- an attempt to pretty up a humble pie.

    Goodness, I have a sudden craving for pie all of a sudden...a good old fashioned ugly one.

  13. Francophilia - I believe you are right, although the Francophiles are the food historians, not me.

    Well, also me.

    I need to start thinking about this year's entry for the pie-making contest.

  14. Not everyone shares your enthusiasm for pies:

    In Massachusetts all the way
    From Boston down to Buzzards Bay
    They feed you till you want to die
    On rhubarb pie and pumpkin pie,
    And horrible huckleberry pie,
    And when you summon strength to cry,
    “What is there else that I can try?”
    They stare at you in mild surprise
    And serve you other kinds of pies.

    Indeed, enthusiasm for pies seems to be a defining quality for Americans in English literature before the First World War. There's also a section featuring Americans in Paris nostalgic for "real deep cherry pie" in Saki's The Unbearable Bassington.

  15. That is excellent. The Saki is magnificent. So true, all so true:

    “Way down in Ohio we used to have peach pie that was real good,” said Mrs. Lonkins, turning on a tap of reminiscence that presently flowed to a cascade. The subject of pies seemed to lend itself to indefinite expansion.

    “Do those people think of nothing but their food?” asked Elaine.

  16. Isn't it ironic how British society would, barely a Century after Saki, be imitating the silliest trends, not only of our American marginal cultures, but of Mexican pop culture. Just compare the distinctive piece of clothing of the Chavs: the scotch pattern cloth headgear with the scotch pattern cloth headgear of the CHAVO del ocho,

  17. What? Talking about pie, but not quoting George Ade?

    Experts tell us that Blueberry Pie, showing its bold Color between the slopes of Vanilla Ice Cream, is practically the Last Word with those who want something to hit the Spot.

    It is the Pièce de Résistance, the Dénouement, the Dramatic Climax, the Grand Transformation, Little Eva ascending to Paradise.

    Nothing comes after it except the Pepsin Tablet and the Hot-Water Bag.

  18. Maybe someday Wuthering Expectations will turn into a pie blog - indefinite expansion.

  19. And, of course, there's the famous definition of a Yankee:

    To foreigners, a Yankee is an American.
    To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner.
    To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner.
    To Easterners, a Yankee comes from New England.
    To New Englanders, a Yankee comes from Vermont.
    And in Vermont, a Yankee is a man who eats apple pie for breakfast.

  20. Yup, amusing to read this extended pie discussion in a story that was created by two women in one of the best-known Boston marriages of the 19th century. But maybe that's Jewett's point...