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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