“There were always oysters…and those to praise them”
How odd that my introduction to oyster soup should come via novels written by mainly landlocked authors in the America of nearly two centuries ago; the Laura Ingalls Wilders and Susan Coolidges who wrote of fathers walking through the door carrying flat cans of preserved oysters in their pockets, a treat for families tired of sustenance fare after a winter of blizzards, pressed up against the blunted end of the hunger gap when fields and orchards had yet to catch up with spring-awakened appetites.
Londoners revolted against being served oysters too often which were so cheap and plentiful even Dr Johnson fed oysters to his cat, Hodge, but back in the American Midwest where the newly-laid tracks for the iron horse allowed time and seasons to be overcome via haulage of delicacies such as the canned oyster or those shipped fresh in barrels of straw and ice, they were a treat. The first canneries were built near the oyster ports and over time oyster farming replaced the naturally occurring shellfish scraped up from the bottom of the gulf and eastern coastal waters. Native Americans might have been eating them for over 3000 years and New Yorkers had long grown accustomed to feasting upon the great oyster beds that originally fed the Lenape Indians and then the Dutch as they built Manhattan from the ground up, until the beds expired from familiarity and pollution, but inland they carried the cachet of the new. By 1860 canned, pickled and dried oysters had made their presence felt alongside their fresh brethren, a contrast to the platefuls of stodge needed to sustain people as they toiled in the fields, manual labour always threatening to outpace what could be loaded into their bodies in the form of calories.
Ma Ingalls sometimes cooked her oyster soup with salt pork, served with little saltines crumbled over a broth rich with fresh milk from their own cow. When the Long Winter had caused their cow to go dry, they thinned the broth down with water and made do. Their soup wasn’t a prelude to the goodness to come as Louis De Gouy believes it should be but was instead the main event; this may not have been through choice.
In parts of Kansas oyster stew possesses symbolic and ceremonial meaning and is served on New Years Day, a custom dating back to the arrival of that iron horse and the belief that the oysters would bless diners with fertility in the coming months although those hardworking Christian prairie dwellers might wish to draw a delicate veil over such matters of the flesh. So popular were the bivalves over a hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for ordinary Kansas families to possess their own set of oyster serving utensils even when their kitchens were otherwise sparse in their appointments.
M.F.K Fisher was concerned that we might confuse an oyster soup with a stew. ‘An oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup,’ she declared.The difference seems to be time and impulse, the soup being made as fast as the hand can follow the mind; thickened with flour, crumbs or eggs; and leaving room for what is to follow, namely the main course. A stew, according to Mary Frances, will suffice on its own and it is, as she says, a meal in itself and a more timely one to prepare at that.
The oyster soup in Wharton’s Age of Innocence might have been thickened with cream although it stops short of using the more refined term, bisque, to describe itself: ‘After a velvety oyster soup came shad and cucumbers, then a young broiled turkey with corn fritters, followed by a canvas-back with currant jelly and a celery mayonnaise,’ canvas back being turtle and shad a fine and seasonal fish enjoyed by people living close to the Potomac on the east coast. Its roe is particularly sought after. When Martin Scorsese filmed his version of the book, he engaged the services of food stylist Rick Ellis to bring Wharton’s dinner scenes to life. Ellis turned to Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving by Mrs Mary F. Henderson, published in 1878, to provide a recipe for the oyster soup served to the diners. This soup had a flour and butter roux and was augmented by cream and cayenne pepper and Henderson makes a similar distinction to Fisher; ‘An oyster soup is made with thickening; an oyster stew is made without it.’
Make Helen Bullocks recipe for oyster soup from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery or Accomplished Gentlewomen’s Companion and what you’ll taste is oyster soup in its nascence; the oysters being seasoned with salt and pepper and thickened with milk and a liaison of butter and flour. The recipe was published in 1938 but dates back to 1742 and would have used fresh oysters and their liquor, whereas once canning became popular, the quality of the product was determined by a lack of liquor, thus offering the purchaser more oysters weight for weight. It is a shame because I consider the liquor invaluable. Later recipes see all manner of inclusions such as Worcestershire sauce, mushroom and the fatback or salt pork of Ma Ingalls.
It is to the homely comfort of Ma Ingalls and Laurie Colwin that I gravitate though, as opposed to the froideur of a grand society setting. Colwin is bang on the nail when she wrote about soup being the only thing you need to feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night.
“In all her life Laura had never tasted anything so good as that savory, fragrant, sea-tasting hot milk, with golden dots of melted cream and black specks of pepper on its top, and the little dark canned oysters at its bottom. She sipped slowly, slowly from her spoon, to keep that taste going over her tongue as long as she could.” By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Hunger is the best sauce, said Pa. Here’s my version of Ma’s simple oyster soup.
two 8oz cans of smoked oysters (in brine or oil)
2 rashers streaky bacon
4 oz Jacobs cracker crumbs
1 tbsp butter
16 fl oz full fat milk
8 fl oz single cream
pinch ground mace
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch black pepper
salt to taste
Put the bacon into a hot pan and fry until crispy. Remove from pan and drain on a paper towel, keeping the rashers warm. Drain the oyster liquor into a measuring jug (if you are using oysters canned in liquor and brine) and add enough water to make this up to 8 fl oz. If you are using oysters canned in oil, drain them well, ensuring as much of the oil as possible is removed and just use water or 8oz of seafood stock. Pour into a saucepan and add another 8 fl oz of water. Take the crushed crackers and stir them, along with the butter into the hot liquid. When it comes to the boil, add the oysters and slowly simmer for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, the cream, the mace, nutmeg and pepper and bring back to a slow boil. Reduce to simmer for 30 seconds then take off the heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, pour into bowls, crumble the bacon into shards and sprinkle these over the soup.
British school lunches in the seventies and eighties saw Spam frittered, rissoled and fried, then plopped onto plates where it left a damp shadow of grease in its wake. Liberally coated in salt and dipped into cheap ketchup, Spam provided a hit of salt and sweet that some of us found strangely addictive, and those who did could easily find a liberal supply of fritters from the many Spam-hating pupils keen to fool the vigilant dinner ladies who would make you sit until you cleared your plate. Introduced to the UK in the forties, this cheap and easy to store product was on the menu at least once a week in British school lunch-halls from the early sixties until the late eighties at least, and even graced the tables of upmarket restaurants where dishes with such exotic names as ‘ballotine de jambon valentinoise’ were created to disguise its humble nature.
Spam’s popularity has never died in in other parts of the world, especially so in Hawaii where the sales of Spam nudge into super-consumer levels with each person getting through around 5 cans per person per year on average. (Official figures indicate that 6 million cans of Spam are eaten each year in Hawaii.) Hormel, makers of Spam, celebrate their 126th birthday this year and business has never been better. Even more remarkably, all that Spam is still only produced in two American locations, Austin, Minnesota, and Fremont, Nebraska, and three other countries, Denmark, South Korea and the Philippines.
According to the Hormel website, the roots of Spam adoration can be found in the Second World War when the luncheon meat was served to GIs because it required no refrigeration in a hot tropical climate and had a long shelf life. When Congress passed the 1941 Lend-Lease Act in 1941, Hormel ramped up wartime production to supply over 15 million cans to Allied troops, producing over one hundred million pounds of Spam which Kruschev once described as having saved his army from starvation although President Eisenhower was less complimentary about it, describing how he contributed his fair share of “unkind words about it-uttered during the strain of battle, you understand. But as a former Commander-in-Chief, I believe I can still officially forgive you your only sin: sending us so much of it,” in a letter to Hormel in 1966. Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the future British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, referred to it as a ‘a war-time delicacy’, remembering one Boxing Day 1943, when she ‘had friends in and … we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.’ As the daughter of a grocer, her family would no doubt have received shipments of Spam to sell in their shop.
Referred to as special army meat which is possibly a source of its name, some say Spam derives from the words spiced ham whilst other people believe its name is an acronym for shoulders of pork and ham. Hormel aren’t confirming or denying, understanding that the mystery is part of the publicity. “The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus,” says the official Spam website.
Like many other army supplies, surplus cans made their way from the mess into the kitchens of locals such was the need for a black market to relieve the mundane nature of wartime diets and by the end of the war, Hawaiians had developed a lively appetite for it, creating meals such as Spam with fried rice, Spam musubi, (a sushi-style slice served with rice and seaweed), Spam fried rice and Spam with eggs. Margaret L, who lives on the Big Island grew up eating it:
“My love for Spam derives from my family, both Mom and Dad, who had hard times during the Depression and were both involved in World War II — my Dad in the Navy (and at Pearl Harbor on December 7) and my mom as a cadet nurse (a special unit). So SPAM and Vienna Sausages were frequent choices at our house growing up.
And as Margaret explains, the continuing popularity of Spam isn’t just to do with nostalgia and habit but about a foods ability to adapt to changes in the way we eat and what we can afford:
“Now that I am in my 60s, I seem to return to it as a comfort food reminding me of the past in some part of my memory bank, but also finding it very tasty and economical in today’s economy! When I first returned to it, I truly didn’t think I would like it as much as I do, and, as I said above, I haven’t even gotten around to adding pineapple yet.”
“As a child we would make Spam sandwiches straight from the can on white bread with mayonnaise,” says Ann Kondo Corum, who grew up in Hawaii in the 50s and has written several Spam-inspired cookbooks where recipes for corned beef manapua with Spam, Depression dinner party mix, and eggplant and Spam tempura rub shoulders with more prosaic sandwiches. She talks of local grocery stores having to restrict shoppers to five cans per person when new stock comes in otherwise supplies would soon run dry. [Hormel itself says it manufactures about 395 cans a minute and has sold EIGHT BILLION CANS since its invention]. A recent CBS documentary about Hawaii’s love for the canned meat showed an entire supermarket shelf stocked with fourteen different flavours. There are rows and rows of tins in rainbow colours: pink tins of Spam with cheese; Spam with garlic; Spam with turkey breast meat and with Portuguese sausage; smoked with hickory; spiced with jalopeno, or containing whole macadamia nuts. It is mind-boggling and gloriously quirky to me, but not so much for those Hawaiians who have grown up eating the meat on a regular basis. And since I’ve written this feature, I’ve no doubt there’s even more flavours on the shelves.
When that first can rolled off the conveyor belt back in 1937 Hormel’s competitors were selling canned meat made from the lips, snouts and ears of the pig but Hormel refused to use these parts and nowadays the U.S. Department of Agriculture no longer permits any non-meat fillers in lunch-meat and does not allow it to be made from pig snouts, lips, or ears. About 90% of Spam is pork from pigs shoulders and the remaining 10% comes from pig butt and thigh, which we would also know as ham. Today, pork shoulder is a very popular cut but when Spam first hit the shelves, this part of the pig was under-utilised.The original recipe remained unchanged until 2009, when Hormel began to add potato starch to mop up the layer of gelatin that naturally extrudes from bone and connective tissue when meat is cooked. Customers reported being put off by the look of the Spam with this gellified layer and so an aesthetic rather than gustatory choice resulted in this tweak to the original recipe. All things considered, if you eat hot dogs whose ingredient list is considerably lengthier (and spookier!), Spam should be rather less of a leap.
Despite this, and the fact that pork shoulder is used plus water, salt and nitrites to preserve that pink colour, Spam retains an unwarranted reputation as a can of ‘meaty floor sweepings’ as one anonymous food writer told me and there still remain Hawaiians who aren’t that enamoured of it, says Courtney Turner who blogs about life on Maui from a jungle bungalow:“I rarely eat it unless it’s in musubi and I don’t eat it that often but there is a Spam cookbook from Hawaii,” she says.
“People on the mainland look down on it as white trash food because they’ve never had it,” agrees Corum. “If you’ve only had it baked with pineapple on top of it, that’s understandable.
“But cooked other ways, like in stir-fry, it’s really good,” Corum adds. “It’s the same negative feeling some people have toward organ meats like tongue. But if you go to France those things are a delicacy.”
Spam is seen as a trash product by many Americans and Brits who might have a few cans pushed to the back of their pantries along with marrow fat peas, miscellaneous canned soups and something untranslatable they bought on holiday because they liked the label. You might eat it when you have run out of everything else, the zombies have attacked or global war has destroyed the infrastructure and you’d expect to see rows of it stacked in the garages belonging to preppers. But in Hawaii, Spam is not seen in the same light and, although there is no longer the same need for an easily affordable substitute for ‘real’ meat, it remains part of their culinary heritage and consumption cuts across the social and cultural strata. As food writer and historian Rachel Laudan writes, in her book The Food of Paradise, ‘to take on Spam is to pick at all the ethnic and economic seams of Hawaii’ of which more later.
These little cans released millions of people from the monotony of dried, salted meats, the only other option where fresh meat spoiled all too easily and whilst it might once have been a godsend during times of privation nowadays, local people choose to eat it. In fact, Hawaiians know what the rest of us are slowly realising: Spam is a perfect ingredient for proprietors of food trucks, those ex-bankers who got out and sunk their savings into a silvered dream machine selling dirty burgers and poshed-up musubi.
Obama is no food snob, ordering Spam musubi during his last Hawaiian sojourn before becoming president and the product can be found on islander McDonald and Burger King menus, (ask for Hawaiian steak) or visit Tikiiniki, owned by former rocker Todd Rundgren and his wife Michelle where the Iniki hamburgers are made from beef and Spam ground together. According to Rundgren, the writing of his famous hit ‘Hello, it’s me’ was fuelled by copious platefuls of Spam about which he said, in an interview, “is better than a hotdog because it doesn’t have any snouts or anuses in it.” A taste for Spam musubi is apparently one of the things which separates the ‘real’ Hawaiians from the tourists and this mash-up of Asian and islander culture comes neatly wrapped up in nori and ready to eat on the go. Recently, Hormel even introduced a teriyaki-flavored Spam product to encourage consumers to eat more Musubi and if you want your baby to resemble the food on its parents plate, why not dress it up in a musubi baby costume? There’s a yearly festival in Waikiki known as Spam Jam Hawaii, too.
You can trace Spam’s journey from the army mess and store cupboards into the kitchens of Japanese, Filipino, and Korean immigrants to Hawaii too who, among many others, became enamoured of it- indeed if you visited the Philippines in the last six months, you may well have eaten Spam at a local restaurant, SpamJam. The tiny island of Guam (where there is a huge US naval base, built after the liberation of the island from the Japanese) boasts an astonishing rate of consumption of more than sixteen cans per person per year; more than any other nation per capita, and has hosted the annual Spam games. After the Second World War, the Chamorros of Guam had no homes to return to, malnutrition was rife and refugee camps had to be built where food rations, including spam and corned beef, were passed out by American forces. Spam has become part of the local cuisine and dishes such as Spam kelaguen where it is chopped then mixed with lemon juice, diced onions, and local hot pepper have evolved. Colonised three times over the last 400 years, Guam and Spam exist in a relationship marked with mixed feelings as American forces continues to ‘militarily occupy’ what their leaders refer to as an unincorporated territory of the USA and in this context, some Chamorro people see Spam as a symbol of cultural oppression and one of the causes of rising heart disease and diabetes caused by high-fat, high-salt and sugar diets.
The popularity of SPAM with Koreans is an interesting circular process with roots in the Korean War: American soldiers introduced the meat to well-connected Koreans where it became a popular status food after a lengthy period of Japanese rule and a severe proxy war had left Korea with severe shortages. Displaced Koreans living in villages decimated by war also supplemented meagre food supplies with handouts of food from US Army bases. Upon immigration into Hawaii, those same Koreans continued to eat and cook with Spam whilst their relatives back in Korea consume it at such a rate,they are now the second largest market.Spam is so popular in South Korea, it is sold in special gift packs which have become a common hostess gift; I’ve spent several sojourns in South Korea and can recall market stalls selling Spam-branded t shirts and school bags, alongside those gift packs.
When offshore fishing was temporarily halted in the Hawaiian islands during the Second World War and restrictions places upon movement between the islands, the islanders were ever more dependent upon the charms of this canned meat. Some historians claim that Spam’s popularity has more to do with the restrictions placed upon Japanese-Hawaiian deep-sea fishing operations by the American government in the years leading up to the Second World War. The Hawaiian islands were home to so many people of Japanese descent that it was unfeasible to intern them all in camps as happened in the contiguous, states: internment had the potential to be ruinous to the island economy but the Japanese still had to feed themselves and their families, deprived as they were of the fish and seafood that had until recently augmented their diets.
As often happens during times of privation, members of the forces take advantage of local food shortages to make a buck or three and local people experimented with what food they did have, using SPAM to replace the pork or fish which also became hard to come by during the war. Spam soon appeared cubed and sliced in noodles, in sushi and stir-fry. Ever versatile, Spam was substituted for the beef in Korean bulgogi, a dietary love brought back by American soldiers stationed in South Korea and these tastes survive today. In LA, chef Roy Choi makes his version of “army stew” (budae jjigae) at POT, his restaurant inside the Line Hotel where a bubbling pot of anchovy broth, pork stock, noodles and Spam keeps the clientele happy. Other versions of Korean Army Stew include slashed hot dogs, ground meat and sweet potato noodles which grow fat and slippery in the gochujang and kimchi- infused broth. Also known as Johnson Tang soup it is an eclectic mix of army rations and centuries-old Korean foodstuffs and the city of Uijeongbu retains its fame for good budae jjigae because of its high concentration of U.S. military personnel.
Spam’s texture lends itself well to the carving knife making it useful for sushi making and it absorbs and holds onto other stronger flavours. Chefs from Hawaii, such as Jovi Magdual, are fascinated by the challenge of blending different foods- Island, Asian and American- into a brand new and eclectic cuisine. “It’s not gimmick food, we’re adding different flavours from different cultures. Pineapple is tropical in a tropical climate and, if ham, then why not SPAM?” he says and other chefs in Hawaii are coming up with new spam concoctions all the time. At Da Kitchen even dessert has become an excuse for serving more spam in the form of pineapple spam upside-down cake.
Hawaiian-raised chef-owner Ravi Kapur of Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco has been hailed as one of the new breed of chefs who use Spam in interesting ways, refusing to turn their backs on what was, and is, an important part of island culinary history. Kapur makes his own SPAM, grinding a mix of high-quality pork shoulder, ham and seasonings, and then steaming it in a rectangular pan to ensure the finished item has that characteristic Hormel shape. Added to rice alongside shrimp, furikake, uni and abalone mushrooms, the result is a high-low fried rice. For customers in the know, the restaurant also serves Spam over rice with spicy mayo, furikake and pickled cucumbers, off-menu.
Across the Atlantic in London, Chef Jeremy Pang who runs School of Wok, opened Cha Chaan Teng in Holborn last year and serves up coconut-encrusted spam with fried egg and wanton in a noodle broth and a crispy spam & fried quail egg crusty roll accompanied by sriracha and pickles, which he says are “a deliberately inauthentic and playful interpretation of the hugely popular Hong Kong cha chaan teng diners that took the region by storm in the 1950s.” (Read a more expansive interview with Jeremy Pang, here)
Chef Mark “Gooch” Noguchi was born and raised in Mānoa Valley and is co-founder of The Pili Group, LUNCHBOX, and the former Mission Social Hall & Cafe. He agreed to chat with me about Spam and whether it still has cultural relevance for him and his customers. Whilst he says that it is only prepared for sale at Lunchbox, a cafe for Hawaiian Airlines employees, and not sold at his other businesses, he admits customers there are ‘stoked’ when they discover that Spam is on the cafe menu. And like most chefs, his own professional creed of cooking local, responsibly-made food means that while he feels there is an important need to “make smart choices about what we consume”, he admits that “when you get out of a kitchen at 1am your choices are limiting. Many of us congregate at a favourite watering hole, and SPAM… is plentiful. Usually in a musubi or fried rice or fried noodle form.”
Chef Noguchi has used Spam professionally though. “At my first restaurant, He`eia Kea Pier, we made our musubi by simmering Spam in a teriyake tare until it caramelized and coated the Spam. Then we would make our musubi with it, and that’s still my favourite,” he says.
“Shirokiya at Ala Moana makes an awesom Spam musubi and MW Restaurant has an off-menu item they save for their VIP’s. It’s a house-made Spam (basically a country-style pork terrine.) Out of all the people trying to make Spam, they come the closest. Spam gets its unique flavor and texture because of the specific way they package it in the can and then pressure steam/cook it.”
“So although Spam may have a bad rap as a processed, high sodium food, I think it’s important to understand how food came to Hawaii,” Chef Noguchi explains, firmly rejecting food snobbery. “Spam became ubiquitous in our home because of World War Two, it’s part of our culture. Hawai`i’s demographic’s have changed, and so has our palates; however I still believe in celebrating our foods of the past (including Spam,) and understanding why it’s a part of our heritage.”
The myriad of ways in which Spam is consumed provides us with a fascinating and fruitful example of culinary derring-do as cooks and chefs take their national histories, marked by culinary privation caused by colonialism, migration and war, and blend them with a new and creative use of ingredients. The chefs I spoke to who use it seem to come from a sincere place; their use of Spam borne from nostalgia, personal history and a desire to forge new gustatory connections, rather than a place of daring or punk attitude. They aren’t using Spam to shock and awe, or garner click-bait headlines via the ‘othering’ of an ingredient which we should remember, may have helped save those lives rendered precarious, during and after the Second World War. However, if you’ve bought a tin, tried it and still don’t like the taste or texture, you can always follow the frugal example of American soldiers during the Second World War who inked slices of Spam to use as playing cards. They were able to play poker with them for several months before the ‘cards’ expired. That may or may not dismay you.
“We found a roadside motel in Algoma. The innkeeper had a funny accent I could not place….The next morning, she came to find us as we loaded up the car. “You are going to try some Belgian pie, aren’t you?” she asked. (From American Pie by Pascale Le Draoulec, Harper-Collins)
Traversing the United States in search of pie, writer Pascale Le Draoulec was struck by the vastness of a country where entire sub-cultures can set up home and continue the traditions brought with them from the Old Country, yet remain relatively unknown outside of their immediate region. When she arrived in Algoma in Wisconsin after an evening spent at a fish boil on the banks of Lake Michigan, Le Draoulec encountered one of Door County’s most popular-and mysterious to outsiders- food traditions, the Belgian pie. Described as truly unique, when I posted a query for more information about the pie and its Belgian-descended bakers on a private Facebook group where food writers and industry insiders gather to chew the fat, only five of them had heard of it. They were intrigued. “Go find out more,” they said.
Travel back in time to the early nineteenth-century and the story of Belgian pie in the USA begins with a small group of Belgians who originally migrated to the USA from Belgium and made their home in what is known as Door County in the state of Wisconsin. Thousands of miles away from their motherland, they re-built their community and to this day continue to bake pies filled with fruit or cooked rice inside small outdoor ovens, celebrating a yearly harvest whose failure all those years ago in Belgium caused their ancestors to make a long Atlantic crossing in search of a better future.
Door Country lies on a peninsula of land some 50 miles long and twenty miles wide, surrounded by the dark waters of Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. The county name originates from the Potawatomi tribe whose members perished trying to cross the lake-passage in canoes, causing them to dub the waters the “Door of Death.” Translated into French, it’s also known as “Ports des Morts” and in English, “Death’s Door.”
The Belgian communities of Namur, Brussels, Rosiere and Little Sturgeon in Door County and 11 other villages located in Kewaunee and Brown counties have retained much of what first made them special, more than a century and a half ago. Indeed, William Laatch, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay maintains that, after the Amish communities and Native-American reservations, the settlement of Belgians in north-east Wisconsin is the most enduring ethnic island in the United States. It is unsurprising that Belgian prune pie has also remained geographically distinct.
Back in 19th century Europe, a harsh winter led to crop loss and a rural crisis and not only did their ruler, King Leopolde not restrict migration, he supported it, although in the 19th century, only 29,000 Belgians left the country for the USA. In the years before the First World War, another 50,000 Belgians arrived in the USA. (Travel to the little Belgian town of Grez-Doiceau and on its town hall, there can be found a plaque which commemorates the first ten Walloon families who left the town to found a Belgian Community in Wisconsin, in 1853.)
The Grez-Doiceau group boarded the Quinnebaug, an old, American three-masted ship and set sail on May 17th. The crossing was beset by storms, taking fifty days, a week longer than normal and in the last days of the voyage passengers were starving and two children died.
Once arrived in their first American settlement, the Aux Premiers Belges had to adjust to the harsher climate and a sense of isolation in this vast land. Native Americans were the only human contact they had living as they were on land that was once the ancestral home of the Menominee, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi, among many. The Native-Americans taught the Belgians how to trap wild animals and smoke their meat; to tap trees and make maple syrup and to ice-fish in the winter on Lake Michigan and, as time passed, they began adapt their Belgian foodways to this strange new place.
The Emigrants (1896) by the Belgian artist Eugène Laermans
Today, many Belgian descendents still live the 35 square mile area settled by their ancestors and, in many cases, their farms have been in the same family for over a century. The prune pie remains a regional speciality of Door County whose population retains strong ties with Antwerp in Belgium where the prune pie has its roots although in other parts of Belgium, this pie is not baked at all, according to Regula Ysewijn, a Belgian national and author of the recently published Pride and Pudding. Prune tarts have always been her favourite, Antwerp being her home city where they are traditionally served on Ash Wednesday albeit not in the same form as their American-Belgian cousin. Regula also suggested that Belgians from Antwerp immigrated to the United States via the Red Star Line whose ships sailed from Antwerp directly and the line was supported via grants from the Belgian government. This might explain why the prune pie has a particularly strong presence in Door Country.
The Kewaunee and Brown counties are where older Belgian houses can be found and many of them have been built with outdoor summer cooking areas where the fierce heat can dissipate. These ovens are not the more commonly-found summer kitchens and are actually accessed via the latter. The baking was done via radiant heat and therefore the oven dimensions had to be precise although the ovens are generally not free-standing as was the custom in Belgium where the same ovens tended to be used communally. The wilds of Wisconsin where communities and individual houses are often many many miles apart renders the communal oven less practicable than it did in compact little Belgium.
Many of these bake-off ovens could cope with forty pies although most of them have since fallen into disrepair or have been demolished. Those left are made of masonry and fieldstone, with walls two feet thick and equipped with chimneys and oven interiors constructed from red-brick. These whitewashed structures were often trimmed in green and provided much-needed shade during the dog days of summer.
There’s some debate locally as to whether prunes, rice or raisins are the traditional filling and these pies can be challenging to make. With a circular base of raised sweet dough made with mashed potatoes and a layered filling of cooked, sweetened rice or a pureé of prunes or raisins (according to which the makes considers traditional), their preparation is multi-stage as local bakers combine their talents to make the hundreds of pies required to feed everyone.
Topped with a sweetened cottage cheese-type mixture when made with fruit, the pie both tastes like, and resembles, a filled Danish or kolache. (The latter is often made with mashed potato too.)
I spoke to Sue Marchant from the bakery where they make the pies year round, ramping up production around Belgian Day (the second week in July) to 1000 pies and over 1200 during Kermiss. “We started making Belgian Pies about 50 years ago at the store. My husbands great- grandmother came from Meeuwen in Flanders Belgium during the 1800’s and she was taught how to make the pies and which recipe to use, ” Sue said. “I learned from her and since then have been making them although I’m not actually of Belgian descent.” Their store receives many visitors from Belgium including the guests from foreign exchange programmes; over 21 different students have stayed with the Marchant family. When I asked Sue about how their pies are received she told me that they liked it despite its differences: “We have visited Belgium and their pie is different, much larger in size and no cheese on the top and the fruit is not sweetened, so they are quite tart,” Sue added.
Meeuwen is a town in the province of Limburg where there also exists a custom of making fruit pies, says Regula Ysewijn. Referred to as Limburgse Vlaai ( Vlaai= tart or pie) these are open-topped pies, sometimes with a lattice pastry top and traditionally filled with cooked fruits such as cherries (called kriekenvlaai), apple or apricot and, more significantly, with rice or prune puree-the cooked rice and custard porridge is called a rijstevlaai . These pies are popular all over Flanders but are specific to the town of Limburg where they are served at funerals, kermis and other important family occasions but the dough is different. It does not use potato and has only a small amount of butter, is yeasted and must go through two risings whereas the Antwerp version uses a short pastry. There’s no curd cheese topping either. To be a genuine Limburgse vlaii, the whole pie must be baked and not just the pastry shell.
In his book, The History of the Belgian Settlements, Math S. Tlachac writes of the Kermiss preparations which overtook the community:
“Then came the baking, which in the early days could only be done in outdoor ovens. As many as three dozen Belgian pies could be baked at one time. The Belgian pie! What would the Kermiss be without the famous delicacy, the crust of which was made of dough, spread over with prunes or apples and topped with homemade cottage cheese. So tasty it was that one bite invited another.”
A hundred or so years later, The Post Crescent Newspaper from Wisconsin wrote about the October 1969 Kermiss celebrations and it is clear that pie-baking remained a herculean task. There is an understandable reluctance to part with secret family recipes as a result although one local baker was less secretive when interviewed by the newspaper:
“Mrs. Jean Guth baked 120 pies to be served in her husband’s tavern for the Ker- miss in Brussels the first week in September. Mrs. Mamie Chaudi’ous and her daughter made them by the dozens. And the women are still mixing and rolling the dough in their kitchens in these Belgian settlements. Though cooks are rather cagey about their special recipes, Mrs. Guth was gracious enough to part with hers….”
Gina Wautier is her daughter and now runs Belgian pie-making classes in Door County. She can remember what happened after her mother shared her recipe with the local newspaper: “When mom was interviewed by news reporters in 1960 she caused quite a stir among the local women for sharing her recipe and allowing it to be published.” Mrs Guth was descended from some of the first settlers in the county and the recipes she used were handed down from her own mother and grandmother, then used to perfect the thousands of pies she served to hungry travellers at the Brussels (Wisconsin) tavern she ran alongside her husband, Ray. There were thirteen other taverns in the immediate area but none baked and sold as many pies as Mrs Guth did.
Pie-baking days in the Guth household were rigorously organised and it is obvious why: “It was not uncommon for her to make 200 pies that would be given away and/or sold in my dad’s tavern at Kermiss time, ” Gina says. “For days our home was covered with pies set out to cool; on the beds, extra tables, ironing boards, and on wooden planks. Cold storage was not an issue as the bar’s beer cooler was a great asset for the old peach crates converted into pie carriers.”
She recalls a childhood spent helping her mother in the kitchen on pie baking days: “Belgian Pie making as a young girl in my mother’s kitchen was more a lesson in observation rather than participation’ she told me. “My jobs were important; dishwashing, peeling apples, pitting prunes, grinding cheese, and greasing the pie tins. My mom, Jean Guth was very particular in mixing the dough, filling and baking the pies to perfection.” In fact, Mrs Guth made it clear that the method of handling the dough and its mixing are of even more importance than the ingredients.
Every Autumn, Belgian locals gather together to celebrate Kermiss which follows the bringing in of the harvest and kicks off with a thanksgiving mass. The word Kermiss was originally Middle-Dutch and comes from Kirk-Messe (the German kirchmësse), which means ‘church mass’, and it originated in medieval times as an annual celebration commemorating the anniversary of the dedication of the church before it morphed into the later festival. In Europe, it has various spellings: kermis, kermes, kercmisse, kircmisse, keermisse, carmisse, kirmisse and kercmisse but none of them end with the double ‘s’ which seems to be the most common spelling in Door County and therefore the one I use here. Belgians have been described to me as a community-minded and extremely social people and they historically valued the social side of church attendance to such a degree that it became a fundamental part of their collective worship. Amusingly, and as befits their practical side too, the Belgian immigrants made sure that they built saloons close to their places of worship- often right next to the church so they could keep what they deemed as the less spiritual chatter and gossip away from the house of God.
The Kermiss kept lonely Belgians in touch with their homeland and they would travel great distances across this most northerly of states to meet and celebrate together. In fact, some locals made round trips of 160 miles in order to buy the ingredients for their pies. The first Kermiss in the region was held in 1858 in Rosiere at the same time as Kermiss in its Belgian namesake. A Father Daems came from the Bay Settlement to say Mass and afterwards, local Belgians processed to a hall, serenaded by a band. The procession was briefly halted for a traditional ‘dance in the dust’ on a dirt road before resuming its route.Three days of feasting, dancing and socialising would follow.
Today, the Namur Belgian Heritage Foundation maintains the Kermiss tradition and hundreds of local families flock to the little brick-built former church of St. Mary of the Snows to eat pies, trippe, jutt, and booyah. Amusingly, their ice-cream is churned by a John Deere tractor.
Even though Gina Wautier helped her mother prepare the pies, she grew up with gaps in her knowledge and, concerned that the custom might be at risk of dying out, she set about the task of learning the process from start to finish, using her mothers recipes and her own memories to draw upon. Aged just 25 and having lost her mother, trial and error and the assistance of her then mother-in- law proved successful (tradition also says that Belgian pies can help new brides break the ice with their in-laws!) and the task itself was made less time-consuming because Gina had access to food processors instead of a hand grinder and swifter ways of cooking such large quantities of apples. However, her mothers recipe did not cut corners when it came to the quality of its ingredients, she told me: ” It contains real butter, cream, eggs, active cake yeast and vanilla. No substitutes or imitations. The crust is thin, fillings thick, and the toppings goes all the way to the crust leaving just enough filling so you can tell what kind of pie it is.”
Like all local foodways, each Belgian pie will be the sum total of their maker and, as Gina says, they are as unique as the people who make them. There are similarities in the technique but its execution can vary: some bakers prefer a thick crust to a thinner one; some will bake a crust using baking soda, whilst others raise their dough slowly, over time. As another Door County resident called Emily Guilette points out in Le Draoulec’s chapter about her Belgian pie (which is made with a raised mashed potato and egg crust by the way), ” who sells frozen Belgian pie crusts?” As things stand, these pies simply must be made by hand although sensible locals do pop a few of them in the freezer for when company arrives.
The toppings vary too although one thing is made absolutely clear: a true Belgian pie must have the cheese spread out towards its edge. I was told most firmly that ‘those that claim they are Belgian pies and then put a small dab of cheese in the middle are so wrong in their claims’ by an impassioned local. According to Gina Wautier, when making the cheese topping, some people will use cream cheese and others cottage cheese sweetened with egg-yolks, butter and sugar. The filling underneath the crust of cheese can be prune (sweetened with applesauce) or apple and raisin with a cottage cheese topping or the pie can be filled with cooked rice topped with whipping cream. Generally, rice-filled pies do not have the cheese topping and the popularity of apple is down to the preponderance of apple orchards in Door County although during my own research I encountered a recipe for Grandpa Boyen’s Famous Belgian Rice Custard Pie. This version has a regular pie crust base and a rice filling poured over a layer of sweetened, cooked prune left au naturel, with no topping of any kind. Apparently the Grandpa Boyen of the recipe was a boulanger-patissier in Belgium before he moved to Montanta of all places, where he opened a bakery and popularised his pie.
Yet another version was tracked down to a bakery in West Tarentum, Pennsylvania where the pies had a crust base resembling bread dough in texture and were filled with prune, rice, apricot and raisin. Certainly that bread-like crust sounds similar to the pies made and sold in Kewaunee County which had the typical ‘Danish pastry’ type appearance. At Marchants Bakery, they still use the traditional recipe, do not describe it as having ‘a typical pie crust’ and offer a variety of fillings: rice, prune, apple, cherry, raisin and poppyseed, Sue Marchant told me, adding, “prune and rice are the best sellers at Kermiss but for the store and Belgian Days the best seller is cherry.” Door County is also home to thousands of acres of cherry orchards and both sour and sweet cherries are popular in all kinds of baked goods- not just Belgian pies- although the fruits inclusion is an interesting example of local foodways melding with those European food traditions brought to the USA by the migrants.
The fillings listed by Gina Wautier were all made by her own mother although “other varieties (cherry, blueberry, apricot, poppy seed) were discovered by accident in our house.” As she points out, when you make batches of 30 – 60 pies it is hard to be exact on ingredients, remembering “when mom would have extra dough and cottage cheese left she would send one of us kids to the store to get a can of Wilderness pie filling to “use up” the extras to save on waste. It really was a great combination.”
Wautier started teaching pie-making classes in 2009 and is now based at Saint Norbert College Language Services Program alongside Karen Stillman who assist in the three hours each class runs for. Each participant is asked about their Belgian heritage (if they have one). ” A common theme in these stories is that they remember their moms and grandmas making the pies but were not allowed in the kitchen to learn how.” It seems that such a labour-intensive process, where bulk-baking is involved, might be less conducive to parent and child baking, I wonder. The classes offer an insight into the way these pies are baked too, in several batches of ten pies per batch. “I have played with my mom’s recipe in order to bring it down to a manageable amount, she says. “Following my directions it is easy enough to make 5 pies at a time of one kind in a 2 hour time frame. The rising of the dough is what takes the time. One 2 oz. cake of yeast will make 10 pies.” Wautier demonstrates how to make the dough and uses the slow rising time to teach participants how to make the filling and toppings before dividing the class into two groups for their hands-on part of the lesson. Everyone gets to take home a couple of pies. They all have great fun.
What would your mother think if she could see you now. I asked Gina.
“I think my mom would be very pleased to know that since I started teaching nearly 150 people (young and old) have learned from us. Also my skills are used to bake pies for various non- profits and benefits. Over $1,500 combined has been profited for charities,” she replies. “Yes, I have a passion for pies. However I have yet to teach my own children the art. Maybe I should make that another goal!”
The Marchant Bakery is also concerned about the future of Belgian cuisine and are taking steps to ensure the skills required to bake these pies are handed down: “We need to keep our bakers passing the recipe on to the new staff if we want it to continue,” Sue Marchant told me.”We make and have in the store many old recipes of different products from the mother country and yes, I would say we are very proud of our heritage here in Brussels and Namur.”
Huge thanks to Regula Ysewijn for her informative emails and help with research.
Laatsch, W. G., and C. F. Calkins. “Belgians in Wisconsin,” in A. G. Noble (ed.), To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 195–210.
Martin, Xavier. “The Belgians of Northeast Wisconsin” in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1895, pp. 375–396.