We have lots of spring birthdays in my family. At one backyard birthday BBQ last weekend, the discussion turned to the rhubarb patch. We were eating rhubarb cake, but we were talking about rhubarb pie, and then about summer and about berry pies of all kinds.
Uncle Stephen, knowing my interest in regional culture, recited for my benefit the old Vermont pie joke, the one that ends:
To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander.
To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter.
And in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.
Like most jokes, that one’s based on a kernel of truth. UVM history professor Dona Brown has written about how the tourists who came to spend the summer on Vermont farms during the late nineteenth century were upset about the pies and doughnuts that farm wives served for breakfast. Didn’t Vermont farm families eat fresh fruit and cream and vegetables? The visitors thought so, and so farm families adjusted their menus to accommodate their guests.
When back-to-the-land advocates Helen and Scott Nearing moved to Vermont during the 1930s, they found their own vegetarian, largely raw diet at odds with the local foodways. According to the Nearings, their Vermont neighbors ate pie, doughnuts, and cake “for two if not three meals a day” while they didn’t bake a single pie the entire twenty years they lived in Vermont .
Recently Vermont Historical Society librarian Paul Carnahan directed me to a 1929 memoir published under the penname Sam Aleckson. Aleckson spent his childhood as a slave in South Carolina but moved later in life to Windsor , Vermont , where he worked for a local man. His first morning on the job, Aleckson was given a dinner pail filled with bread, cake, and pie. He soon realized the astonishingly high rate of Vermont ’s per capita pie consumption. Aleckson liked pie well enough, but he didn’t love pie, and he certainly didn’t crave multiple daily servings of it.
Aleckson’s diet was more to his liking once his wife and children joined him in Vermont and they prepared their own meals. But then one day a neighbor who’d just finished baking stopped by to see Mrs. Aleckson. The passage reads like this:
“ ‘What kind of pie did you have for dinner?’ "[the neighbor] asked.
" ‘Well er, oh, we didn't have any pie today.’ "
" ‘Good land, Mrs. Aleckson! No pie? What do you give those children to eat?’ ”
Later, when Aleckson came home, he asked his wife what was wrong.
Her answer: “ ‘Pie.’ ”
Sure, Aleckson may have embellished this story of his adjustment to life in what he called the “pie belt,” but the final scene is so good, I have to go with it.
One night, Aleckson writes: “There was a loud rap on the door. Upon opening it I saw a large delegation of neighbors…It was a surprise party, and they brought us material enough to make pies every day for two months!!!!”