Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

When we moved to San Francisco this spring, I had a few specific apartment-hunting criteria: good location, outdoor access, gas stove. My boyfriend had only one: a dishwasher. We never had one before, partly because finding a dishwasher is the holy grail of Manhattan apartments, but also because I also insisted they were unnecessary. Doing dishes by hand had a lot of benefits: We never ran out of wine glasses, for one (What? They get used up fast!). More importantly, it meant I never had to face the dreaded chore of my childhood: emptying the dishwasher.

Everyone has that one chore they can’t abide; for Edna St. Vincent Millay, it was berry-picking. Divorced and in debt, Cora Millay shuttled her three daughters between homes of friends and family. To earn their keep, she assigned each of the girls jobs around the house, and posted a weekly schedule of everyone’s tasks on the wall. Though there was no dishwasher to empty, Edna’s list was also kitchen-centric: “cook daily, bake several times weekly, wash clothing for herself and her sisters.”

“Cooking” often involved berry-picking, especially while the girls were staying on their Uncle Fred’s farm in Maine. The acres of blueberry fields were both an ideal place to play and a place to forage. Edna was tasked with picking buckets of them for dinner, often just berries and milk. “The blueberries came in the most perfect condition, not one crushed,” Millay recalled much later, when she had achieved literary success—and bought a 635-acre blueberry farm of her own.

Millay’s farm, Steepletop, must have reminded her of Uncle Fred’s, but now that she was in charge, those chore schedules were history. Her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, took care of nearly all the domestic duties—Edna “neither cooked nor shopped nor did housework … When Millay became tired after entertaining a houseful of guests at Steepletop, Boissevain simply picked her up and carried her to bed as if she were a child.” Sounds way more appealing than cleaning up after guests, even with a dishwasher.

But every now and then, Millay would head out to her vegetable garden, or pick a bucket of berries in the fields of the estate. She included some of the Maine specialties she once cooked among her favorite foods: “broiled or boiled Maine lobsters with melted fresh country butter, haddock chowder … and deep dish blueberry pie.” Looking back, childhood, even with the chores, didn’t seem that bad. Writing to a lover, Millay said, “I want to show you the tiny pool we built … & the hut in the blueberry pasture where I wrote The King’s Henchman, I want to sit on the edge of the bed while you have your breakfast—I want to laugh with you, dress up in curtains, by incredibly silly, be incredibly happy, be like children.”

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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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Alice Munro: Rosemary Bread Pudding

Alice Munro - Rosemary Bread Pudding

Last week, when Alice Munro found out she had won the Nobel Prize in literature, she was in bed. The prize committee had tried to reach her earlier by phone but ended up just leaving a voicemail, so it was Munro’s daughter who, hearing the announcement, ran to wake up her mom. That somehow seems fitting for Munro, whose stories revolve around intimate moments of domesticity. If Hemingway is a moveable feast, Munro is breakfast in bed.

Her writing is not only steeped in the household world; it also was created there. Munro’s desk is her dining room table, where she’s penned most of her work over the past few decades. As her interviewer at The Paris Review notes, “The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter.” When she cooks in the neighboring kitchen, her work is never far away. Is it any wonder the two are connected in her stories, as in life?

Besides writing, cooking was the other constant in Munro’s own domestic drama. In her mostly autobiographical collection The View from Castle Rockshe recalls packing her father’s lunch in the morning, a regular chore: “three thick sandwiches of fried meat and ketchup. The meat was cottage roll ends or baloney, the cheapest meat you could buy.” Later, when she was married, Munro’s stories would continue to take a back seat to food prep. She told the Review, “I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework.”

Although Munro still cooks (one of her interviewers watched her prepare a meal, which made ample use of the Canadian countryside’s fresh herbs), she now often chooses to leave the kitchen to others. She regularly asks reporters to meet at her favorite restaurant in the nearby town of Gogerich, Ontario—Bailey’s Fine Dining—where she has a usual table (corner) and a usual drink (white wine, sauvignon blanc preferred, multiple pours encouraged).

Until just a few days before the award announcement, Haruki Murakami, known for his hulking postmodern novels, was said to be the front-runner for the Nobel. It’s hard to imagine a writer further than Munro. Her subjects are often described as “quiet” or “domestic” and (given that they’re short stories) “small.”

Munro herself sometimes doubted their impact; she told the New Yorker last year, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.” But the major recognition of her work helps us all remember what a “small” story can do—how an intimate revelation at the dining room table can hold as much truth as an epic; how a perfect fried baloney sandwich can sometimes hit the spot more than any six-course meal.

Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Jane Austen: Brown Butter Bread Pudding Tarts

Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake

Even when you love to cook, there are those times when it would be nice to have just a little help: when you promised to make something for the office potluck but forgot to go shopping; when that dinner party you’re hosting sneaks up on you; when your in-laws you dearly want to impress are in town and all you have in the pantry are the three jars of peanut butter you bought before Hurricane Sandy.

Wouldn’t it be easier to live in Jane Austen’s world, where you could hand off such tasks to a very capable cook? Remember poor Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who, when asking which of the Bennets had prepared the meal, “was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity… that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.”

Like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen wouldn’t be caught dead with a roasting pan—but she did know her way around one. After all, she wrote her novels in the middle of the drawing room, constantly interrupted by household demands. “I carry about the keys of the wine and closet, and twice since I began this letter have had orders to give in the kitchen,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra. Maybe that’s why her novels are full of meals: she couldn’t write a few sentences without being asked to approve a dinner menu.

Austen was in charge of sourcing ingredients, preferring to grow fresh produce on the property. “What kind of kitchen garden is there?” she writes anxiously when her family is contemplating a move to Chawton. “I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden.” She also oversaw what was to be planted, and where. “The Border under the Terrace Wall is clearing away to receive Currants & Gooseberry bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries,” she reports.

Then there was the entertaining: a long parade of tea parties and dinner chats, so elegant in books but exhausting in the offing. After one particularly tiring evening, Austen wrote to her sister, “When you receive this, our guests will be all gone or going; and I shall be left … to ease the mind of the torments of rice pudding and apple dumplings, and probably regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.” Of course, she could always blame the cook if things didn’t work out. But that’s the upside to doing all the cooking yourself: When it’s good, you get to take all the credit.

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Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake Recipe

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The Cocktail Hour: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe - Eggnog

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, April is not the cruelest month. That honor belongs to January. After a month of presents, family merriment, chocolate advent calendars and that great pine tree smell, we’re supposed to calmly accept the bleak grayness of winter for three more months?

This is where brandy comes in handy.

Getting a bit tipsy has long been a preferred cure for dreary days. For Edgar Allan Poe, a student at the University of Virginia in the 1820s, drinking apple toddies and eggnog was the extracurricular activity of choice (definitely better than marching band). According to his biographer James Albert Harrison, “a sensitive youth, … surrounded by the social circle that thought convivial drinking and card-playing ‘at Homes’ indispensable to remaining at all in polite society, would easily fall in with the habits of his ‘set,’ and perhaps cultivate them with passion or excess.” In other words, Poe was a lush, but it wasn’t his fault. He just went to a party school.

Poe’s taste for brandy, in particular, became legendary after he left Virginia and entered West Point in 1830. His roommate there, Thomas W. Gibson, recalled that Poe was “seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. … He had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”

The reputation followed Poe for the rest of his life, and it was long assumed that his taste for drink was what killed him. Modern doctors believe he actually died of rabies; according to Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Baltimore, Poe “may have had problems with alcohol as a younger man … but by the time he died at 40 he almost always avoided it.” Still, until just two years ago, a masked man would stop by Poe’s grave on the writer’s birthday, leaving a bottle of cognac on his tombstone for a toast in the afterlife.

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Brandy, EAP's favorite

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C.S. Lewis: Cinnamon Bourbon Rice Pudding

With Sartre and his halva addiction, Agatha Christie and her devotion to cream, and Wallace Stevens’ cookie obsession, writers seem to thrive on a sugar high. Halloween must be a very productive time of year, creatively speaking: too gloomy to go outdoors, and lots of candy at hand to fuel the creative spark. It makes you wonder how many Great American Novels could only have been written with a steady supply of cake, cookies, and caffeine.

But just as I was beginning to think that sweets were the secret to success, C.S. Lewis broke the mold. He is not only ambivalent toward candy – he actually refuses to eat it. To someone whose favorite part of Halloween is stocking up on half-price Reese’s the morning after (don’t judge), this is the most harrowing discovery of the season.

Lewis comes up with various excuses for avoiding sugary treats: “I’m getting terribly fat and have had to diet” or “I can’t afford to buy a new wardrobe every few months!” He once wrote to a friend, who apologized for sending him stationery rather than sweets, “I must confess that I eat notepaper and envelopes, so your very kind gift may be described as being that of the edible variety.” Which is all to say what Lewis would ultimately admit: “I have not a sweet tooth.”

But his distaste for the insubstantial went further than food. Lewis also disdained literature that went down a little too easily. He cautioned a friend against detective novels, saying, “A little sense of labour is necessary to all perfect pleasures I think: just as (to my palate at least) there is no really delicious taste without a touch of astringency … The apple must not be too sweet.” Who would have thought the immortal creator of Narnia could wind up being the trick-or-treater your mother would love: He’ll leave the M&Ms, and ask for a Granny Smith instead.

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