Deacon Porter's Hat and Other Edibles

Take three quarts West India Molasses . . .
         Rule for 'Deacon Porter's Hat'

A college can change its curriculum, its officers, its buildings, and the appearance of most of its spots. But its three meals a day, with snacks, go on forever.

When the students live and dine under the auspices of the college, certain foods become traditional. In a college where girls of inventive linguistic talents come and go, some of these viands acquire strange names.

'Deacon Porter's Hat' is the Dean of Mount Holyoke's desserts. It got its name because its shape reminded the early students of the tall hat worn by our first Trustee in Charge of Building. Literally, the Hat is a steamed pudding usually flavored with West India molasses and spice and raisins. To please present-day appetities it can be a chocolate pudding. But whatever the ingredients are, it must be steamed in a tall round container so that it looks like the lofty superstructure for a gentlemen's old-fashioned high hat. Occasionally a cottage pudding is made in the same container. In that case, flavored with vanilla, it is called 'Deacon Porter's Summer Hat.'

The pudding must be brought to the table complete, with sauce, and sliced after it has come on, or it is not a Hat. If there are ten or twelve tables in the dining-room, then ten or twelve Hats will be required, one for each table. Deacon Porter's Hat follows the Quantum Theory. No fraction of a hat is a Hat.

Deacon Porter was adored, and all that was his, including his headgear, was an object of attention. Those who may be curious as to what his real hat may have looked like are referred to the advertisements in the Springfield Republican for the years 1836-37. The pictures display a number of styles, 'Gentlemen's Beaver, Nutria, Satin Beaver, and Common HATS. Palm Leaf do. Trimmed and untrimmed.'

All the crowns are high, some of them sloping back sharply from the forehead in the manner of the hats worn by young Pendennis and Mr. Snodgrass on top of stagecoaches in the pictures; and others are simply slender 'stovepipes' like those worn by Long Palmerston and Daniel Webster in their salad days. Almost certainly, judging from their advertisements and from the shape of the pudding, Deacon Porter's hat was not like the one worn by Mr. Pickwick, although Pickwick's hat came out at the proper date. The Pickwick topper was shaped too much like the modern opera hat, far too squatty for a proper steamed dessert.

No. Take a look at the 1837 advertisements, and then take a glance at the benevolent, wise expression of Deacon Porter as he looks out of his frame over the fireplace in Porter reception hall. Geographically he was one of the large public whereon the advertisers in the Springfield Republican had their eye. Fit him out in a tall but conservative model, such as the lovely Mrs. Porter would have liked to have him wear. Then, at supper of a winter evening, respond with a glow of intimate recognition when you are asked if you will have a slice of Deacon Porter's Hat, with or without hard sauce.

There were several named edibles in early days that we do not recognize now. 'Amethystine Wiggle,' for instance: that was popular in the sixties and seventies, we are told, but beyond a surmise that it must have been a jelly, the name is not explained. Perhaps when this chapter appears in print somebody will rise up to tell us where the Amethyst came in. Was it colored with mulberry juice? Those were the days when Massachusetts was swept with an enthusiasm for mulberry trees and silk-growing. Or was the Wiggle colored with blueberries? Or grapes?

Also we have lost the rule for 'Baby's Flannel Blanket.' One thinks of a frustrated omelet, with no documentary evidence to support the guess. Tapioca custard has always been 'Freshman Tears.' But whether 'Blue Chariot' was a hash or a variant on 'Resurrection Pudding' is in dispute. The actual 'Blue Chariot' was the heavy father of the modern tea wagon, built like a Roman chariot and painted blue. On it loads of kettles rode from spot to spot around Domestic Hall. The name of the vehicle was taken over and applied to any made-over delicacy that appeared to have been assembled from its cargo. The term has been dropped long since from our vocabulary, and the ancient tea cart has journeyed into the past on its blue and rumbling wheels. But the general concept is still with us. any concocted dish that is obviously derivative in origin is known nowadays as 'Review of the Week.'

And now, for the benefit of the practical or the antiquarian or the culinary minded, I should like to give one really old 'receet.' It is the rule for 'Apple Dumplins' - so spelled - that is in our Archives among Miss Mary Lyon's papers, in Mary Lyon's own handwriting, folded in among other 'Housekeeping Hints.' Before we give the rule, let us recall the famous dessert of apple dumplings reported in one of Emily Dickinson's letters from South Hadley, 'Nov. 2nd, 1847,' in which she told her brother Austin what they had that evening at the Seminary for the 'Bill of Fare.'

Roast Veal
Wheat and Brown Bread
Pepper and Salt
Apple Dumpling

From Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. Published by Little, Brown and Company.

Very well. Here, from the manuscript in the Archives is the contemporary rule for the dessert that Emily Dickinson encountered under Miss Lyon's auspices in 1847. Note that the early 'dumplins' were baked, not steamed.


Pare and core large apples keeping them whole, or replacing the pieces
Cover each apple with paste rolled rather thin
Bake and eat with liquid sauce
Paste made like piecrust
1/2 pound of lard
1/2 pound butter - pound flour

Now that, O ye epicures, is passing rich pie-crust. Make it and see. Fanny Farmer, who is always a wealthy woman with her butter, uses far less than that in proportion to a pound of flour, except when she is going to make 'Puff Paste.' One notes with pleasure also the allowance made by Miss Lyon for the frailties of apples and of human beings when engaged together in the tricky process of apple-coring. Core the apples, says the rule, 'keeping them whole, or replacing the pieces.' It is the voice of experience that rings in that line, no less. Perfection is the aim. But, failing that, by all means replace the pieces.

Mount Holyoke's table has always been noted for its excellent pastry, breads, biscuits, popovers, shortcakes, gingerbreads, and rolls. We used to count time, not by heart-throbs, but by the days in the week when Mr. Lyman, the College baker, used to make a particular variety of long delicious breakfast roll. And with appetizing gusto, on June 22, 1876, a visiting reporter from the Boston Journal related in his paper that 'strolling at an early hour this morning through Domestic Hall' in South Hadley he found 'mountains of biscuit, huge bowls of luscious strawberries, steaming urns of coffee' which were 'speedily and deftly arranged and placed before the waited ones with a graceful dignity that lent an additional charm. . . .'

One other thing besides dignity 'lent an additional charm' to the strawberries of the seventies. By hulling strawberries you could make up what was known as your 'minus time.' In the early years of co-operative housekeeping at the Seminary, each student devoted a certain number of minutes a day to some task that kept the institution running. The exact number of minutes depended somewhat on the difficulty of the task: more work, fewer minutes. Accurate accounts were kept of the time put in. If you worked overtime on any day, you checked it up in your bookkeeping to the credit of 'plus time.' If you worked less than you were supposed to, you wrote it down honorably to 'minus time.' Profits and losses canceled out as the year went on, but if in the spring you still had some minus time on your record, you took it out on the strawberries.

According to the purchasing records of 1877, it required '70 to 80 quarts strawberries a day' to supply the family, which then numbered three hundred. (Nowadays strawberries are counted not by the quart but by the shipment of twenty crates.) In the old days the strawberries came in from the outlying gardens in oval baskets much like the grape-baskets we know today. All through the strawberry season, to the tune of seventy and eighty quarts per diem, one hulled one's 'minus time' away.

As to the kind of duties, there is one delicious page or two in Miss Mary Lyon's most dashing penmanship that will give a rapid sketch of some of the things that the original students were wont to do - and by so doing kept their board and tuition down to the sum of sixty dollars a year. Whenever Miss Lyon was in a hurry or writing for her own memorandum, she dashed off her words with a swing of her quill that must have made the feather whistle through the air. Even in print, if you read with discernment, you can catch the briskness of her plans.

    Graham - Early fires and bells
    Ransom - Early fires
    Butler - Under crust for pies
            Two pans corn bread
    Pond - Make 2 pans white bread
    Thurston - Care of pies & cake, part at night & part in morning
            Make upper crust for pies, divide under crust, and roll
    Oliphant - Help Miss Thurston in preparing for custard pies & filling apple pies & custard pies 1/2 hour
            Pudding days, carry on to the tables
    Bates Holbrook Chase Wright
            Baking - Baking if needed study some in a room near finish after dinner
    S. Todd - After dinner do what is left by C. Wright of the following - baking, filling ovens, scouring table, putting east side in order

And so on. 'Putting east side in order' sounds like the program of a municipal reform. There were other girls who had work much less skilled on the same memorandum. One, for instance, had the duty 'cut cake for supper.' Another, 'Put white bread on plates and pump water 5 1/2.' (Miss Lyon's '5 1/2' meant half-past five o'clock.) Another girl was to 'wash kettles after breakfast.' Another was to 'fry griddles and help them.' Emily Dickinson's assignment was to carry the 'knives from the first tier of tables and morning and noon' and at night to wash and wipe the 'same quantity of knives.' Your particular trick finished, you were through for the day. A marvelous dovetailing of performance was managed, and as an example of successful co-operative housekeeping the whole affair was an economic and sociological adventure.

In all this preparation and 'care of food' you did not do your little task alone. You either belonged to or were the leader of a 'Circle.' There was a Pie Circle. To a member of this circle a gentleman named A. Dewy once wrote a letter that we have in the Archives. This letter from Mr. Dewy was written to his wife's sister, who was still at the 'Sem' - and he calls her 'the very monitress of pye-making.' He describes to her the prowess of her sister Hadassah, his wife, who, when first married 'found it difficult to analyze even a pumpkin. But happily for her, she had so laid the foundation of knowledge as to seize upon any appropriate little hint advantageously, and now, to her praise be it said, she can readily reduce a good pumpkin, if not a squash even, to the finest pastry imaginable.'

A student who came untrained in 'pye-making' was not taught. She was assigned to something else. She could have belonged to the Silver Circle, or to the Knife Circle, or to the Blue Crockery Circle (they washed the willow-pattern china), or to the White Crockery Circle (they washed the cooking ware which was still called 'white crockery' long after other kinds of baking utensils replaced the old white 'nappy-dishes'). And if one aspired to diminish one's number of minutes required, one could enlist for the care of the 'Black Artillery' - those heavy old-fashioned kettles and skillets that the Frenchwoman called her 'batterie de cuisine.' The 'Miscellaneous Circle' picked up odd jobs after the rest. The Dinner Circle was the most aristocratic of all, except possibly the Bread Circle, because so highly skilled as to require able craftswomen and because these past-masters were given a great measure of freedom about their expert work. Each one had her specialty; a girl who used to make the sauce for the pudding was once told by her mother in vacation that she might make the pudding sauce for the family. 'Oh,' said she, 'I haven't any idea how to do it for five people! I only know how to make it for three hundred!'

Miss Lyon always insisted that this feature of her institution was not intended to 'teach' domestic science. It cultivated democracy, kept the annual fee for each student down to a nominal figure, provided brisk and 'motivated' exercise. But if anybody thinks that Miss Lyon would feel that Mount Holyoke had turned traitor to her ideals in abandoning the system, which would now be far too unwieldy, let him read Mary Lyon's own letter to Catherine Beecher on the topic. Those who have read Lyman Beecher Stowe's 'Saints, Sinners, and Beechers' will readily understand that Miss Catherine Beecher, daughter to Lyman and sister to Henry Ward Beecher, had no hesitation about criticizing other people's projects for their own good. Miss Lyon's reply is friendly but crisp in defense of her domestic arrangements: 'Here I would have you distinctly understand that we do not adopt this standard becase we consider ourselves under any obligation to man so to do. Neither do we consider it necessary that any other institutions should adopt the same standard, or that this institution should certainly abide by it evermore, though at present it is essential to our success.'

One of Miss Lyon's great qualities was her complete abstinence from trying to become a tyrant over future years. Resourcefully she hit on her own feasible plan - but with no insistence that Mount Holyoke should 'certainly abide by it evermore.' She states definitely in her catalogue that each student will be assigned an appropriate task,

enabling her to perform her part in a proper manner without solicitude. . . . In ordinary cases, to each one is assigned that in which she has been well trained at home. No one will expect to receive instruction in any thing with which she is entirely unacquainted. It is no part of the design . . . to teach young ladies domestic work. This branch of education is exceedingly important, but a literary institution is not the place to gain it.

And then, after clearly enunciating her position on general pinciples, she turns with even more vigorous detail to jotting down items about 'Baked Indian Pudding,' temperance cake, apple pudding, and 'Sabbath hard gingerbread.'

So now! Having done my devoirs, I hope, by certain of our more humble and sustaining viands, let me discourse for a moment with some excusable romantic fervor on two of the peculiar luxuries of the place in my day - first, the College Cracker, and second the local mushroom done a la Henrietta Edgecomb Hooker and correctly served.

First, my bow to the life-saving College Cracker. Always the hungry between-meal starveling student could find a cracker in the College cracker bin at any time of day or night. I remember what a reckless thing that seemed to me for a college to venture to provide. If we could help ourselves to all the College Crackers we wanted, how should even an infinite universe of cracker bins possibly hold out? The secret was this: there comes a saturation point to everything. Always there was plenty of demand for the College Crackers among the freshmen so that the turnover was brisk and the crackers as 'oven-fresh' as if just shot from guns. But never did the college student subsist eternally on these crackers for between-meal snacks. They were not, for instance, considered gala or company food. They were always very plain milk crackers with nothing but their essential 'crackerness' and crispness to recommend them. Nowadays college crackers are an evening phenomenon reinforced with pitchers of milk in the dining-rooms every night at ten. Ours were the frugal substitute for the cooky pail of childhood, and with their plain-faced disks, or their early design of a cow punched on them, they remain in memory as a prized but not habit-forming emergency repast.

I mentioned mushrooms. Not long ago I heard Mr. Louis Untermeyer read one of his poems about food. When he came to the line about mushrooms, he paused to malign the mushroom. The passage in the poem is this:

'Mushrooms whose taste is texture,'

and Mr. Untermeyer not only read this blasphemy aloud, but paused at the end of the line to elaborate it. He said you know how mushrooms are. He practically did a gertrude stein about them saying no taste except the slippery texture going down no taste no taste their taste is texture, IS texture Mr. Untermeyer said. And as he was talking, I wished he could have sat but once at the table in Hooker House, and tasted the mushrooms prepared by Miss Jane Woodland under Doctor Hooker's lively regime. Since this is no longer possible, let me tell the mushroom story that happened in Miss Hooker's botany class. I have the facts from a graduate of 1903, Florence Cowell Rock.

One day Miss Hooker told her class that she advised them to eat lightly at lunch before their next laboratory appointment, because on that afternoon she was going to ask them to do 'a great deal of testing.' The girls wondered what sort of tests they would be expected to run, and why a light luncheon was in order. But knowing Miss Hooker as they did know Miss Hooker, they made their luncheon light. When the bell rang for laboratory the next afternoon, in flapped Miss Hooker fresh from the deep woods, somewhat disheveled but in her best dramatic form. Two big baskets of newly gathered mushrooms dangled from her arms, and she beckoned the students to the test - a feast. Pounds of butter, boxes of saltines, little skillets, and bunsen burners were part of the laboratory setup that afternoon. Panful after panful of heavenly mushrooms were sauteed and 'tested.' And their taste was not the taste of texture. It was the taste of mushrooms.

Doctor Hooker divulged her way of preparing mushrooms to me, and I shall now divulge it in my turn. The ones you get at the average hotel are simply rushed through the works in their skins or taken from cans, without benefit of butter or fiddling or fussing or fasting or prayer. In order properly to cook a mushroom, you must be willing to fiddle and fuss. And first you have to peel it. (I know there is another school of thought on this, but you go ahead and peel it.) Take the stem off. Peel the stem. Peel the roof of the mushroom - the peel should come off in sheets like elfin rolls of parchment. This skin is perfectly wholesome if left on, but the delicate vellum of the skin is moisture-proof, butter-proof, flavor-proof, and as you eat the skin-covered cooked mushroom you might as well be swallowing one of these little rubber stoppers that they use in Chemistry Lab. Therefore, peel your mushrooms. Slice up the stems into tiny disks - they catch the heat and brown daintily, making little accents for the caps. If you want the very maximum of flavor, especially in the shaggy mane variety, split the parasols into sections along the radius of their spokes. If your mushroom is a puffball, pare off the skin with a sharp knife and slice into cross-section pieces about the thickness of a delicately sliced hard-boiled egg. Now take the skillet and melt therein great store of butter, but not so deep that the mushrooms will be drowned. Have the butter sizzling, butter-colored still, but hot. Now put in your mushrooms, stems and all, and think of nothing else until I tell you that you may think of something else. Stand ready with your favorite implement for turning things as they brown. The implement does not matter - your confidence in it does. Keep the mushrooms quiet enough so that they will cook, yet sufficiently agitated so that no part of them will frizzle up and burn. They should darken slightly. They should soften. No stiff and rubbery 'texture' should remain. Keep the mushrooms going until their wonderful flavor has permeated all the butter, and the butter in turn has permeated them (which is assuredly cannot do so readily if they have their tight little skins on) - and until the butter is practically absorbed. Dust on a little salt and quickly pour them on slices of fresh toast, or on saltines. All right. At this point you may think of something else - if you can.

If you can. But in the middle of true culinary glamour, why think of anything else? A quick way to make an event memorable in a college of young persons is to give the young persons something good to eat - as Mount Holyoke has been doing, off and on, these hundred years. Birthday cakes in the dining-room; campfire cookery under the auspices of Byron Smith; fireplace suppers at the Outing Club; steak broiled at the hearth of Miss Mary Williams's hospitable home; plates of chocolate wintergreens at Miss Bertha Gault's tower room at the old wisteria house, with the little airtight 'Signal' stove; chicken-pie suppers out at Granby or Old Hadley, with the crust 'either sweetened or unsweetened' under a harvest moon; maple-sugar wax on pans of snow in spring after somebody had been up Mount Toby on the 'sugar roads'; these things are of good report and pleasant to remember, whether our thoughts go back most pleasantly to strawberry shortcake, or to six dozen fowls or thirty-six turkeys roasting in the College ovens in a row - or to the famous gingerbread, or the humble College Cracker - or to a well-sauced second helping of Deacon Porter's Hat.