Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Molasses Pumpkin Pie

New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.

“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.

“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.

But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”

Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.

Molasses Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

More than leaving home or getting that first job, the defining moment of my adulthood was the realization that I could eat whatever I wanted, no longer restrained by the contents of my family’s pantry or my (nonexistent) allowance. “Growing up” meant learning to make your own menu, in a city of unlimited culinary options. And if you decided dinner will be a bag of discounted Snickers bars bought in a post-Halloween binge … that’s when you learned sometimes adults make bad decisions too.

This freedom, though, is temporary; it ends when you open your kitchen to others—a partner, a spouse, a family—and suddenly your meals are influenced by their presence. Someone else starts writing your menu. In the case of L. Frank Baum, that person was his wife, Maud.

Ten years after the stunning success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum made the down payment on a grand Hollywood estate, which he and Maud dubbed Ozcot. Visiting the Baum household was like entering the Emerald City itself: the elegance, the parties, the three-oven range. Baum was known to order 100 pounds of cheese for a single soiree. Maud’s niece Matilda later remarked that those evenings “represented to me something that I knew nothing about, I was thrilled with the things they did, their food … everything.”

But while Baum chaired the party-planning committee, Maud ran the family kitchen with the efficiency of a train conductor. According to L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, the Baums ate three square meals a day, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. (fruit, eggs, potatoes, “four to five cups of strong coffee with sugar and heavy cream”) and ending with a hearty dinner (“typically a thick cream soup, roast meat with gravy, potatoes and vegetables, and a rich dessert”).

Such regular mealtimes can sound like paradise to anyone who’s ever stared at the fridge, too tired to whip something up after work. But with it came a mandate: Don’t question Maud’s kitchen authority. Baum learned the hard way when he bought a box of jelly doughnuts for breakfast one morning. As punishment for meddling in the menu planning, Maud served the leftover doughnuts every morning for the next week, until they were so stale that Baum tried to bury them in the yard rather than face them again.

Thinking about Baum hiding the offending doughnuts in his napkin, it’s easy to see him as a grown-up child, living in a world where dinner is always served on time, where appetites are never spoiled. It’s a world that is startlingly like Oz, where (in Ozma of Oz) even the King has to be cautioned “not to eat too much cake late at night, or he would be ill.”

Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce Recipe

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