Jane Austen's birthday: radical domesticity, good apple pies, + historical recipes

"Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness."- JANE AUSTEN

December 16th, 1775, bonneted-icon of femininity and the OG empowered rom-com writer Jane Austen was born. 2017 has been quite a year for the author as both die-hard fans and chagrined high school English Lit students alike marked the 200th anniversary since her death, the introduction of the 10 pound bank note printed with her likeness, and the New York Times tracked all things Austen complete with handy infographics. And in each and every instance the same question: how and why does Jane endure?

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She endures (hashtag #shepersisted) because she is applicable, because she is readable (well maybe not each and every word), and because she writes about the every day, which, in her case, was consummately domestic. Anyone who has ever picked up an Austen novel can discern its contenst just by looking at the publisher’s artistic cover design: clothes, books, dances, marriage, the home, women, extra domesticity. But her work and life choices demonstrate a far more radical perspective on women’s roles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries than those 21st-century interpretive covers convey.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Austen was a feminist. It can be difficult to see at first, but examples are plentiful from her self-care focused characters like Emma Woodhouse and Lizzy Bennet to her own tireless effort for economic autonomy. Austen’s work has been historically confused for sentimental literature when, it reality, it spoke plainly about real world issues. And non-issues, too. In the same pen stroke, Austen could artfully clap-back at 19th century sexism and then share her favorite recipe for spruce beer or baked goods. She was honest about what she liked and what contributed to her happiness and that included “good apple pies.”

The food and recipes Austen mentions in her letters and prose are heavily imubed with historical context, allowing the reader to discover new aspects about her characters (like understanding Mr. Darcy’s ridiculous wealth through his imported fruit habits) as well as her own lifestyle and dining patterns. Through this historical foodways we can better understand Austen in her own time and the purposeful choices she made to empower her female characters.

So it seems only fitting to celebrate her 242nd birthday by baking her favorite pie.

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I asked my PhD program colleague and fellow food scholar, Claire, to join me on this research (mainly because her crust crimping is immaculate, but also because baking in an academic sisterhood seemed decidedly appropriate given the situation).

Ever the academics, we questioned everything: Should we bake an English-style pie? What even IS an English-style pie? Do we add raisins or currants? Do the English like a lattice? What about rose water? [turns out we didn’t have any rosewater] How about vanilla? What kind of apple? [But it’s winter, apples are out.] What about dried apples? That’s very North Carolina (where we both live and work)! Should we consider the appropriate historical sugar? Refined or brown? [And then things got deep…because why not] December 16 is also the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Austen is British and would have probably appreciated such resistance, let’s add some tea!

We sifted through several historical recipes, consulted The Jane Austen Cookbook by Deirdre Le Faye and Maggie Black, dug through the digital archives at Feeding America, and finally ended up with a transatlantic amalgamation of a pie using British flavors, American techniques, and North Carolina-style dried apples.  

A very modern Austen good apple pie.

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Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, Hartford: Printed for Simeon Butler, Northampton, (1798).

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, Hartford: Printed for Simeon Butler, Northampton, (1798).


Winter Tea + Dried Apple Pie
makes one 8-inch pie

For the filling:

  • 1 pound dried apples
  • 2 cups cold-brew earl grey tea
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • brown sugar to taste (about 1/4-1/2 cup) 

Combine the apples, earl grey tea, lemon rind, and juice in a large saucepan and simmer until the apples are plump and have soaked up most of the liquid. Allow to cool slightly.

For the crust:                                                                                                                                     

  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons dried earl grey tea leaves (optional)
  • 1/2 cup butter, chilled
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 6-10 tablespoons chilled water
  • egg wash

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and dried tea. Cut in the butter and shortening until large pea-sized pieces remain. Sprinkle the water one tablespoon at a time over the mixture until a workable dough forms. Divide the dough in half, wrap, and chill for a half hour before rolling out.

To assemble:

Set the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out one piece of dough to form the bottom crust. Roll out the second to form a top crust or cut into thick ribbons to make a lattice. Carefully place the bottom crust into a pie pan, trim the edges. Add the dried apple filling and sprinkle sugar on top. Add the top crust, trim and crimp the edges. Brush on the egg wash and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the crust is set and a deep golden color. Serve warm with sweet cream or milky tea.


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#FreeFireCider: Folk Herbalists, Feminist Hashtags, and the Instagram Modernity

Earlier this month, I participated in The Recipes Project virtual conversation "What is a Recipe?". The Recipes Project is a Digital Humanities focused blog devoted to the study of recipes from all time periods.  Through their five years of historical research, several underlying questions emerged:

"What exactly is a recipe?  How do we know one when we see one?  What is their structure? What functions do recipes serve? How are they shared and passed on? Are they a set of instructions, a way of life, or a story? Aspirational or frequently used? Prose, poem, or image?" 

To help answer these questions, scholars from all corners of the food world came together through various technological media - including Twitter, blog posts, and Facebook Live - to share their work and research. The virtual conference started off with a live-stream panel on "Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy" from the Berkshire Conference. Other presentations included a weekly update on A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791” with @SpuddenlyFarming,  a blog post on "Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate," and my friend and colleague Emily Contois distilled her research and experience with #teachingcookbooks into a capsule thread on Twitter. On the final day, I presented my work on fire cider, the traditional folk herbalists who make it, and the role of the Instagram app using the image and video sharing features in Instagram Stories. 

Click through the slides above to see a version of the archived instagram story. 

Herbalists consider fire cider a community-owned recipe, one that is open-sourced and routinely reimagined by individual practitioners. With the advent of Instagram and the broader connected community it creates, many folk herbalists carved a commercial niche and developed an extended client base by marketing their individual versions of fire cider through this social media platform. My research looks at this historic “recipe” and how this community of shared knowledge deals with modern legal issues including copyright and trademark law. While this story spans several mediums, I focus mainly on the Instagram accounts of women folk entrepreneurs, how they use the hashtag #freefirecider in the hopes of winning back their recipe, and, in turn, help form a folk narrative within the Instagram modernity.

Part of my original Instagram Stories presentation, a boomerang (gif) with a filter and tag (#recipesconf).

As I will outline in other posts in the near future, there are many reasons to incorporate social media into your academic and alt-ac work and public-facing presentations. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to use Instagram and Instagram Stories for sharing my research:

1. Visuals - No other social media platform (or slideshow for that matter) will allow you tell a story through images as powerfully as Instagram. This is what the app was designed to do. While words and facts are the foundation of our work, ultimately, visuals help keep an audience engaged and interested. 

2. Reach - Plenty of academics are on Instagram (though not nearly enough), but, more importantly, so is everyone else. Instagram allows you connect with individuals and groups that you never knew were interested in your work. Connections and engagement through non-traditional outlets like Instagram could even lead to surprising writing and publication opportunities. 

3. Creativity - All research is, at its core, creative, but posting your work in this way allows you to flex a different part of your creativity. It may force you to learn new tech-related skills, try your hand at making short Instagram videos, or figure out how to tag other users, but it will also provide breadth to your research and your abilities as a modern scholar.  

4. Longevity - And for a final logistical point, while Instagram feeds are static (unless you edit or delete a post), Instagram stories are ephemeral and disappear after 24 hours. These dual posting options allow you to choose how to post your work and who will be able to view it. A well-framed single image could exist on your feed, whereas the more entertaining and whimsical aspects of your research (like that silly image you found #inthearchives or a video of you recreating a historical recipe) can live, temporarily, in your Instagram stories. 

When asked about the role of Instagram in the success of the #freefirecider campaign, several herbalists claim that it gives the community a voice and a platform through which the newest generation of folk traditions can learn about the issues surrounding the recipe. One herbalist credits the success of this year’s World Fire Cider Day with the “massive social media coverage” as herbalists and supporters shared their sentiments, recipes, images of their process, and stylized ingredient shots, each connected with collaborative tags. A quick search for the #freefirecider tag populates over 1,600 posts and the more generalized #firecider has nearly 13,000.  Combined with the other terms that make up their collective folk taxonomy, this feminist narrative reaches a digital community spread across the nation, around the world, and far beyond the geographic boundaries of U.S. trademark law. Whether this reach culminates in a successful win for tradition over trademark, only time and the tags will tell.