MY FAVORITE recipe in the whole repertoire of cookery comes not from James Beard or Julia Child. The chef who invented it was Mark Twain, and it goes like this:
Recipe for New England pie: "To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows: Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour and construct a bulletproof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry it a couple of days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples. Aggravate with cloves, lemonpeel and slabs of citron. Add two portions of New Orleans sugar, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place until it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy."
To get the whole joke, you have to be acquainted with old-time, indigenuous, authentic New England cooking. If you never even heard of pie for breakfast, you are not the one to get the full point of Twain's parody.
New England, bless it, has given the world some of its most admirable edibles -- baked beans and seafood chowder, to name the first two which ought to come to every mind. But the dishes everybody knows about are the successes. There are other foods so bad that nobody but a native could get it down.
Do all ethnic cuisines have these skeletons in the closet, guarded from the rest of the world? I have heard that in Jewish cookery there is a thing called stuffed miltz of which most Jewish folk think the less said the better. Oughtn't I to follow this good example? Am I a traitor to my roots if I blab about the messes that used to be eaten on the coast of Maine, where I and about 15 generations of forebears grew up? The New England conscience is as sensitive as the old-time New England palate was not, so it is with grave hesitation that I open up to tell tales away from home.
Maybe it was the influence of the Puritans, who believed the senses should be mortified, which explains a lot of this. But it mortifies me (switching to the other, Jimmy Durante sense of the word) to admit that the New England palate responded to food and drink the way the tin ear does to music. Take drink -- and in particular, a drink known as switchel. You don't know this beverage treat? Mix yourself a jugful.
To make it, you pour a cupful or two of molasses into a gallon of well water, to which is added several teaspoonfuls of powdered ginger. If you have a lemon, squeeze it in, if you don't, use an equivalent amount of vinegar. What comes of this is a draft which would gag a goat, but it was much relished on shipboard when Maine seamen voyaged in the tropics or when farmers brought in the hay. Indeed, my grandfather held that, when you were heated by labor in the hayfield, it was dangerous to drink anything else.
That same grandfather, if he went to the reward that an upright man deserves, may right now, and forever, be feeding on the dessert dish he most enjoyed -- although, when I describe it, you may think it better suited for punishing sinners in another place. I would be surprised if any cookbook in existence gives the recipe. I got it by other means. Back when Alex Haley's "Roots" first raised our ancestral consciousness, I was pestering my mother to resurrect some of the forgotten New England dishes. To shut me up, she made the following, and it did the trick.
My grandfather, who doted on it, called it Porky Flynn, a distressing name, except that the dish deserved it. Roughly speaking, it was an apple pie, baked in an oblong pan and sweetened with molasses. For filling, it had not only apples but fried crisps of salt pork. Why salt pork in a dessert? The only reason I can guess is that salt pork was to the New England cook what the best butter is to a French chef. This is a fallacy, and my grandfather's favorite dessert is the proof.
Like everybody, I had two grandfathers. Now that it is winter, the other one comes often to my mind in the early morning. I see him in my memory's eye, preparing breakfast for himself when the weather has cold. He could lift a griddle from the iron cook stove, and over the bare coal fire, he could toast a salted fish, split, spreadeagled and dried so that he was able to hold it by the tail like a tennis racket. What he did with it thereafter I am trying vainly to remember. I fear he merely stripped the flesh from the leathery skin and ate it, as was, with his breakfast tea.
At the same time, he would soak in his tea one of the hard biscuits we called "common crackers," butter it and pass it to me as a side dish to my oatmeal. The crackers were round and half an inch thick. In those days of the early 1930s, they came from barrels in the country store where the salt fish, smelling to heaven, hung by their tails from the ceiling. When my grandfather presented me the cracker marinated in tea, he meant it, dear man, to be a treat, and maybe, at 6 or 7 years old, I thought it was. Before the cure, I used to have a New England palate myself.
When the last big snowfall came, it made me think, as snow always does, of the place I still call home. The day was one to stay out of the weather, and I searched for an indoor occupation. I thought it would pass the time profitably if I tried to recreate in the kitchen some unfamiliar delicacy of the New England cuisine, testing it out so that I might share it with others less fortunate in their culinary heritage.
How about boiled cider pie? There you have a traditional goody so far out of the common ken that nobody but New Englanders ever heard of it -- and very few of those. The only reference source I know which gives recipes for its several variations is "The American Cider Book," published five or six years ago by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and written by a Vermonter named Vrest Orton. I took it down from my shelf of culinary curiosa.
In its classic form, boiled cider pie had a filling of dried apples glued together with boiled cider, which is apple syrup. Being fresh out of dried apples, I fell back on a recipe which makes do without them. The version which I manufactured was boiled cider pie with cream, for which Vrest Orton's recipe is here passed along.
In working out the formula, the first step is to produce the cider syrup, which is done by boiling a pot of cider. (I used frozen apple juice) with a cupful of sugar until it thickens. The recipe, you will probably feel on reading it, looks all wrong. For example, why try to put a top crust on a liquid filling? It can be done, however, and the blueprint cited here does produce a pie. If your idea of a dessert is a poultice of compacted sugar, it can even be eaten. It is a curiosity, a wallow in nostalgia, a piece of pop art in the folklore vein. Finally, like Mark Twain's pie, it can come in handy if you are preparing breakfast for your enemy. BOILED CIDER PIE WITH CREAM 1 egg, beaten 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup boiled cider 3/4 cup cream (light or heavy)
Mix ingredients and bake in 2 crust in 8-inch pie plates.
Note: This recipe appeared in Orton's book without reference to time or cooking temperature. The author tested the recipe and freely admits it is terrible.