Places and pies in Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” (1911)

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Welcome back to the Literary Kitchen! As the last leaves fall and December arrives we leave Belfast (see the last post below) to embark on the long journey to the New World. More specifically, to the symbolically named Starkfield, New England, at the turn of the twentieth century.

Spaces and places are central to all of Wharton’s novels, and Ethan Frome is no exception. However, this 1911 novella marks a departure from the glittering interiors and ornate architectural designs enjoyed by New York’s fashionable elite in The House of Mirth (1905). The wintry landscape of Ethan Frome is entirely bereft of such glamorous surfaces. The oppressiveness of the snow-covered fields infiltrates every aspect of the novella, from the characterisation of Ethan to the pared-back narrative technique, from the frozen marital relationship to the simplicity of the food. The first person narrator is a stranger to Starkfield and – in true Gothic style – quickly stumbles across a mysterious story of transgressive love and powerful emotions held in check. By piecing together fragments of information, the narrator constructs the story of three people – Ethan, his wife Zenobia, and the cousin-servant Mattie Silver.

The Fromes’ isolated farmhouse is the novella’s epicentre. Although this building once reflected its owner’s relative prosperity, during the twenty-five or so years covered in the novella it gradually diminishes in size and comfort. The ‘L’ (the part of the building which connected the living space to the outhouses) is demolished and some rooms (such as Ethan’s study) become virtually uninhabitable. Within this increasingly confined space, the three central characters spend most of their time in the kitchen. This is the scene of a series of strained conversations – full of unasked questions and unspoken thoughts – in which Ethan, Zenobia, and Mattie play out a tense drama of desire and increasing despair. For Mattie, frequently described as a poor housekeeper, the kitchen is also her workroom. Here she makes donuts, meat pies, pickles, and stewed blueberries. Whereas Zenobia believes that cooking is part of Mattie’s social function, for Ethan culinary accomplishment is intimately connected with his wish to marry this young woman: jealous of a suspected love rival, Ethan imagines that if Mattie were to marry another man ‘her pies and biscuits [would] become the pride of the county’. Of course, both ideas can be criticized in the light of feminist thought and it is significant that Mattie seems more comfortable outside than indoors. Notably, she shares a kiss with Ethan in the liberated, natural setting of a small wood, rather than in the kitchen – the space in which her two companions imagine different, but equally constrictive, gendered identities for her.

Two key ‘pie scenes’ feature in the novella. In the first, Ethan looks through the window of Starkfield’s church building and sees Mattie dancing with a suitor. At one end of the room ‘devastated pie-dishes’ stand as testimony to the good time the revellers are enjoying (it is difficult to imagine these platters gracing the elegant dinner tables of a later novel entitled The Age of Innocence). Ethan jealously looks on at an ideal he thinks will remain unrealised within his own life. Wharton plays with the symbolism of interior, exterior, and liminal spaces, placing Ethan on the threshold to a possible life from which he is separated by the glass of the window (anyone thinking of Wuthering Heights here?). In the second scene, Zenobia celebrates her supposed triumph over Mattie by criticizing her meat pie, which ‘sets a mite heavy’ on the stomach. Although Wharton does not delve into Zenobia’s mind as she does into Ethan’s thoughts, this brief comment reveals a wealth of emotional angst. As the narrator realises, the real story is in the gaps – in what remains untold.

The pie in question is probably a version of tourtière. This is a French-Canadian meat pie which can be made with a variety of fillings and is commonly baked in Quebec and the north-eastern states of the USA. There is some debate about the origin of the name of the pie, however it could derive from the name of the dish in which it was cooked (the Dictionary of Food defines ‘tourtière’ as a French word meaning ‘pie dish’). The stodgy, protein-filled, and low-cost pie is, of course, a staple in communities in which manual labour is the main source of employment (compare the prevalence of Cornish pasties amongst mining and farming communities as outlined on the Cornish Pasty Association website). One wonders why Zenobia would complain that the dish was a little heavy as that was, in reality, the point of this particular meal. In our Literary Kitchen we have made mince and vegetarian versions of the pie and the recipes are below. As tourtière is traditionally eaten at Christmas, it is the perfect meal for this time of year. Eat it with cranberry sauce, pickle, gravy, mustard, or whatever you fancy.

Recipe

Meat Filling:

  • Beef mince
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary to taste

Vegetarian Filling:

  • Selection of root vegetables (e.g. potatoes, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash – depending on your budget, taste, and what’s in season)
  • 2 tablespoons of rice (this absorbs any excess liquid and helps prevent a soggy bottom!!)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary to taste

Pastry

  • 200 g plain flour
  • 100 g diced, cold butter
  • A few tablespoons water
  • A pinch of salt
  1. Rub the butter into the flour and salt. Add a tablespoon of cold water and bring the pastry into a ball. Add more water if necessary. Try not to overwork the pastry as this will make it heavy. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Cook the filling in a large saucepan. For the meat pie, cook the onions in oil or butter for a few minutes and then add the meat and flavourings. For the veggie filling, boil the veg for 5 minutes, add the rice for another 5, then drain and stir in the flavourings.
  3. Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Put a metal baking tray into the oven. Then grease a 20cm pie dish.
  4. Take the pastry out of the fridge, then lightly dust the work surface and rolling pin with flour. Divide the pastry into 2/3 (bottom of pie) and 1/3 portions. (If your kitchen is very warm, return the 1/3 to the fridge temporarily.) Shape the 2/3 portion into a square or circle depending on your dish, and then roll it out. Make sure you leave 2 cm extra to hang over the side of the dish. Roll the pastry round the rolling pin, then unroll into the dish and ease into the corners.
  5. Add the pie filling to the dish.
  6. Roll the top of the pie into the right shape. Roll it round the rolling pin, and then unroll over the pie. Fold the excess pastry over and crimp to seal the pie. Make a couple of slits in the pastry top.
  7. Put the pie dish on the pre-heated metal tray (no soggy bottoms here!). Bake for about 30 minutes.

References:

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (London: Virago Press, 1991)

Dictionary of Food: International Food and Cooking Terms from A to Z, <http://search.credoreference.com.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/content/entry/acbdictfood/tourti%C3%A8re/0> [accessed on 24 November 2014]

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