Monday, June 18, 2012
Excerpts from It's an Old New England Custom, 1946
To Have Pie for Breakfast
That fine old institution, the New England breakfast, is not what it was in the days when a man with an appetite could sit down to a table customarily laden with more good food than is now served at all meals of the day combined. Gone are the great juicy steaks, the red-hot chops, the vast platters of smoking ham and eggs, the hashed brown potatoes, and the steaming stacks of buckwheat cakes brought on in relays and eaten with maple syrup from your own back yard. All of the more substantial viands have been banished from the morning board, and with them into exile has gone that most exotic, and traditional of all new England breakfast table dishes-pie!
Pie formerly graced Mr. Everson's breakfast table at Concord in the days when New England was in bloom, as it also did that of Dr. Holmes, the amiable autocrat. poet, and professor of the breakfast table. Did he not say, "I will thank you to pass the pie, if you please?" Most New Englanders were too busy eating to do much talking at breakfast, but the consumption of a large wedge-shaped piece of pie did no more than put a temporary stop to the pleasant flow of Dr. Holmes's talk. At the Longfellow home in Cambridge,whenever a flake of pie crust fell into the beard of the author of "Excelsior," the poet's attention was called to its presence there by some member of the family remarking in the most casual and innocent way, "There's a gazelle in the garden." The remark was one which the Longfellows picked up from the wife of that splendidly bearded man, James T. Fields, the Boston publisher, whose literary breakfasts were noted for their distinguished company and blueberry cake.
In the Revolutionary period, when our forefathers got in some of their best work at the breakfast table, New England produced the biggest generals and other military officers in point of avoirdupois. This is shown by the following memorandum which was found int eh pocket book of an officer of the Massachusetts line.
August 19, 1783.
Weighed at the scales at West Point
General Washington..............................209 lbs.
Colonel Michael Jackson.........................252
Colonel Henry Jackson...........................238
Lieut.-colonel Ebenezer Huntington..............232
Lieut.-Colonel D, Cobb..........................186
Lieut.-Colonel D. Humphrey's....................291
what an eleven was here, and every man, with the exception of General Washington, was a New Englander! The combined weights of these officers, including the commander in chief, adds up to the impressive figure of 2,379 pounds. Subtracting General Washington's 209 pounds, leaves 2,170 pounds, or an average for the ten New Englanders of 217 pounds per man. The mighty General Knox, who weighted in at 280 pounds and was therefore the heaviest of these heavyweights, fought in all the principal battles of the Revolution and was our first Secretary of War. He loved good food but had the misfortune to die at an untimely age of a chicken bone in his throat. Difficult to explain is the diminutive General Huntington, weighting only 132 , who appears like a minnow among the whales. Evidently he was one of those unfortunate persons born without a tooth for pie, a man with no appetite for breakfast except in its most attenuated modern form.
Old tavern bills are often interesting as social documents because of the light they throw on the customs, habits, and manners of the people of bygone times. Take, for instance, the following bill which was paid by the Second Congregational Church of Hartford in 1784. A new minister was settled on the church that year, and the bill represents the cost to the parish of the ordination.l It was a solemn occasion, but it was not without its cheerful side, as is evident from the items in the bill.
It is plain from this bill that three of the ministers came to town the day before, probably arriving in the evening, since there was no charge for supper, though they may have arrived earlier and been privately entertained that evening. In any case, before retiring at the inn, each had a nightcap, two of them drinking a mug of toddy apiece, the third a bottle of wine, and between them they smoked five cigars costing one shilling tuppence each.
The South Society in Hartford, to Israel Seymour, Dr.
May 4th to keeping ministers, Pounds Shillings Pence
2 mugs toddy 0 2 4
5 segars 0 5 10
1 pint of wine 0 3 0
3 lodgings 0 0 9
May 5th to keeping ministers, etc.
3 breakfasts 0 3 6
3 bitters 0 0 9
15 boles punch 1 10 0
24 dinners 1 16 0
11 bottles wine 3 6 0
5 mugs flip 0 5 10
3 boles punch 0 6 0
3 boles toddy 0 3 6
Received by me, Israel Seymour
The cigars seem rather an extravagance at that price, particularly when it is remembered that native cigars made by the wives of Connecticut Valley farmers sold them for only a penny each and were usually free to guests at inns. But as these local cigars were admittedly pretty rank, the godly gentlemen cannot perhaps be lamed for ordering the best the house afforded in the way of the imported article from Havana. Ordinations, moreover, were times of abundant hospitality, with everything on the parish, at least so far as the visiting clergy were concerned. The beds were cheap at threepence each, and the charge for the three bitters taken before breakfast and for the meal itself was not excessive. That the breakfast was a substantial one many be deduced from the fact that is cost only a few pence less than the dinner. From the other items it is reasonable to conclude that the reverent companions became quite tipsy, but there was nothing unusual in this. It was one of the quaint customs of the time.