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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Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

Susan Sontag: Pizza Margherita

There’s something about summer that brings out our inner procrastinator: Temperature goes up; productivity goes down. Everyone bemoans the challenge of cooking in the heat, which is why with every July comes a parade of shortcut recipes for no-bake desserts, miscellaneous salad variations, and anything you can conceivably “toss on a grill.” But my general lethargy is not limited to the kitchen. Writing, reading, remaining conscious—it’s all just too hard to find the energy.

To urge myself into usefulness, I’ve been taking a tip from Susan Sontag: making lists. Sontag was a prodigious list-maker—though not necessarily with productivity in mind. Many of her lists are less things to do, and more how to be. They range from the mundane to the profound to the overwhelmingly meta; a list titled “things I like” includes “architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts” and, lastly, “making lists.”

In all these lists, patterns start to emerge: the comings and goings, friends and lovers, haunts and restaurants that make up a life. And for Sontag, one of the most regular of these habits was pizza-eating. In her notebooks, pizza becomes a familiar rhythm, a culinary mantra. “A + David and I go to Frank’s Pizza,” she writes in 1960. One week later: “Dinner at Frank’s (Pizza).” Every so often, she misses a beat: In Cambridge, Sontag notes: “Walked to Central Sq. and gorged myself on passable pizza at Simeone’s ($1.58).” Before long, she’s back to Frank’s.

For Sontag, who rarely cooked (her guests recall meals of canned mushroom soup, slightly warmed), going out for pizza was a preferred form of procrastination, a break from the list-making and essay-writing. Sigrid Nunez, who shared an apartment with Sontag for a year, recalls the writer emerging from her study with a fatigued air: “I can’t do this today. I’m just not in the mood. Why don’t we go out for pizza?” For me, food-as-distraction takes the form of “procrasti-baking.” Case in point: the brownies I made while writing this post.

But, just as often, food serves as the antidote to our idleness, providing the inspiration that impels us to act. It took a slice of pizza for Sontag to realize that her yearlong relationship (with playwright Maria Irene Fornes) was at an end. “It came to me last night (dinner, pizza, Frank’s) that I have lost her. Like a bulletin coming into view in Times Square.” A good meal has a funny way of making even those most difficult decisions a little clearer—and breaking up over pizza has an added benefit: When you’re mourning your loss the next morning, you can console yourself with glorious leftovers, straight from the fridge.

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Pizza Margherita recipePizza Margherita recipe

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