by Jennifer Scerra
Winston Churchill, President Taft, and a chocolate pie walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Is this some kind of joke?”
I won’t wait for you to laugh, because sure, it’s a joke, but only because what else could those three things possibly have in common? Well, what if I said you were imagining the wrong Winston Churchill? No, still not funny.
Aside from keeping an eye out for my next historic recipe, I spent the last three weeks also prepping for the Homestead’s February fiction book club meeting. We are just getting started with our new season and a group of books we cryptically classified as “historic, historical fiction” (more on that later). While doing research on our first selection (a novel called “The Crossing”), I ran into a newspaper article that surprisingly brought those three previously mentioned disparate things together, at least enough for me to decide that yes, I was going to attempt to tell you about them in one blog post. Hubris.
So, what are we even talking about here?
As all modern articles about him mention (and quite a few older ones as well), this is not Sir Winston Churchill, the great British statesman. We are talking about Winston Churchill, the American novelist from New Hampshire. The American Winston Churchill’s writing career spanned between 1898 and 1917, during which time he pumped out a #1 or #2 best-selling novel of the year, every two or three years, before he abruptly quit writing at 45 years of age. Though his later novels focused on early 20th century politics and social issues, the books that first made him famous were about the early days of the United States: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Because he wrote them to take place at least 30 years in the past, and relied on historic research to inform the characters and plot, his novels Richard Carvel (on the bestseller list for both 1899 and 1900), The Crisis (#1 bestseller of 1901), and The Crossing (#1 bestseller of 1904) all qualify as Historical Fiction.
The fact that The Crossing is historic fiction written more than 100 years ago explains our interest in it for a book club series on “Looking Back at Looking Back: historical fiction written in a time long enough ago to now be considered historic itself.” One of our goals for the series is not just to think at the novels themselves, but also the context in which they were written. So, to me help learn more about Winston Churchill the man, the time period he lived in, and perhaps why he chose to write Historical Fiction the way that he did, I did quite a bit of searching through newspaper articles in the early 1900s. And fortunately, because Churchill was so popular, there was a lot to be found compared to most other authors of the time.
Born 1871 in St. Louis, Missouri, Winston Churchill went to the US Naval Academy, where he fenced and rowed. After graduating he wrote for the Army and Navy Journal and then moved on to Cosmopolitan Magazine. Within a few years he was writing novels and he made it big when Richard Carvel exploded on the national scene. And when I say exploded, I mean this is what they put in the San Francisco Call when one of his new books came out.
The Crossing was one of Churchill’s biggest sellers and had the advertising to match. Not that everyone who claimed to read the novel actually did so, including this copywriter. The Santa Cruz Surf ad shown below says the book is about the Louisiana purchase and American settlers in that territory. It’s not, and though New Orleans features, the story actually takes place mostly during the Revolutionary War years and in Kentucky.
I should be upfront and say that though many readers liked The Crossing for its adventure story and the main character’s intelligence and grit, the novel also describes a very difficult and troubling war between US settlers and Native Americans with about the amount of delicacy and nuance that you would expect from an early 1900s bestseller (which is to say, not much). What I mean by that is, the book has a lot of racist descriptions and portrays racist conversations that may be accurate to the time it depicts (the 1770s), but are also very telling about the state of things in early 1900s America. For example, Native Americans weren’t considered full US citizens and eligible to vote until the Snyder Act of 1924, and The Crossing treats Native Americans not as historical fiction characters (people whose actions are influenced by the history that they are living), but rather as a sort of generic narrative conflict, without feeling or agency, the way a storm or bad weather might be. It’s a glaring narrative flaw, but again, this is why we chose these historical fiction novels, so that we could think about how our processing of history in fiction has molded and changed.
I couldn’t tell you why Winston Churchill wrote The Crossing (neither reading the novel on its own, nor browsing newspaper articles from the time made me feel like I understood its message), but I do know that the author soon took a turn for the political both in life and in his novels. So, after 1904, instead of venerating(?) the past, he chose instead to use his books to think about contemporary problems such as political corruption, trusts, religious reform, and women’s rights. His wife, Mabel Harlakenden Hall Churchill, was a prominent suffragist (no doubt they influenced each other’s thinking) and in 1906 he ran for governor of New Hampshire as part of Teddy Roosevelt’s newly created Progressive Party (known more famously as the Bull Moose Party). He lost, but stayed politically active and never returned to historical fiction.
Along with all those newspaper accounts of book launches, reviews, political speeches, and campaigns, I found Winston Churchill again in a context that caught my eye.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1919, The Long Beach Press Telegram ran a syndicated series produced by the Boston Post called “Condensed Classics of Literature,” where notable people took well respected books and wrote condensed versions brief enough to be published in the space of a few newspaper columns. Along with Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Homer’s Illiad, and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, books which are known and recognized today, there were also three write-ups of Winston Churchill’s most popular novels: Richard Carvel, The Crisis, and Coniston. His three books, which were written in 1899, 1901, and 1906, respectively, I would have thought hardly qualified as “classic literature” less than 20 years later, but I suppose they got in on the merits of their popularity and not age.
You might remember from earlier that I mentioned an advertisement for The Crossing written by someone who clearly had not had the fortune to read the book first. These “Condensed Classics,” by their own admission, were supposed to help you in just these sorts of cases, where you would really like to be well-read but just can’t find the time to regularly make it through 400-page volumes.
Interestingly, not only do they include several of Winston Churchill’s novels, but they also use him as their example when explaining just what makes these condensed versions so special. The books were supposed to be abridged by someone with particular knowledge in the subject. And because Churchill wrote about history and politics, no less than (our long awaited) William Howard Taft, former president of the United States, took the time to abridge The Crisis. In the short biography that accompanied the story, Taft said that, “If Winston Churchill did not succeed in his attempt to become governor of New Hampshire, he has had a far different result in his appeal to the suffrage of American readers.” The other two Churchill novels were condensed by two very different governors of Massachusetts, isolationist Democrat, David I. Walsh, and progressive Republican, Samuel W. McCall, who wrote respectively, that, “some leaders of the Democratic party fully recognized the good he was attempting to accomplish in this early progressive movement…” and that, “Winston Churchill has been almost as versatile as his English namesake.”
…and a Chocolate Pie
We still have one missing piece to our puzzle (pie?), which is the chocolate pie itself. And the answer to that lies just to the right of the condensed Coniston.
The “Condensed Classics” series was found almost daily on the Long Beach Press’ Feature Page, where it shared space with a trivia feature, uplifting notes from a Christian minister, social and etiquette advice, and a daily cooking and housekeeping column written by Laura Kirkman. Abridged Churchill readers who stuck around found advice from Laura on making Norwegian Hot Slice, Peanut Butter Croquettes, Oatmeal Crackers, and Sweet Tomato Pickles. In my case, it was a Chocolate Pie recipe that caught my eye, because when you are wrestling with complicated history, it’s nice to have comfort food.
“Easy Pie Crust—(This recipe will make an upper and lower crust for two pies). One cup lard, one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon baking powder, three cups flour, one-third cup very cold water. Mix the lard into the flour, using a case knife or the finger tips. Moisten to a dough with the water. Toss on a floured board. Roll Thin. (The paste will be improved and will be easier to handle if allowed to stand for several hours in the refrigerator before attempting to roll out.)”
“Chocolate Pie—Yolks of two eggs, one cup sugar, two cups milk, two tablespoons flour, one teaspoon vanilla, butter size of small egg, one square chocolate melted. Cook flour in part of the milk, add the other ingredients and bake with one crust. Use whites of eggs for frosting.”
Notes on the Recipe:
Newspaper recipes from this era are always light on details, so it is a bit of a gamble trying to make them (How long do we cook the pie? What temperature? What do you mean cook the flour in part of the milk?). In this case, the crust was a success, but I don’t think that the finished pie turned out as intended. You can probably see from the picture above that the pie filling separated into layers before setting (browned butter on the top, chocolate in the middle, custard on the bottom). But it was still surprisingly enjoyable to eat.
For the pie crust, I followed the directions given, but I did need about twice the water quoted to get the crumbly flour and fat mixture into a dough. The doubled amount of water is pretty consistent with what other crust recipes call for. The recipe also doesn’t specifically say to do so, but I blind baked my crust in the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes, with parchment paper and dry rice inside, before cooling and adding the chocolate filling. The crust was a rockstar, flaky, nutty, and not at all soggy at the end.
For the filling, the recipe was sparse. I ended up taking the flour and about a third of a cup of the milk and cooking it over very low heat in a saucepan while stirring constantly. After about five minutes, I added the sugar, vanilla, and the rest of the milk. I also added 4 tablespoons of butter (the size of a small egg?) and 1 oz of melted chocolate (a google search told me this is probably what they meant by one square). I heated it, stirring, for another few minutes and then poured the thin liquid into the prepared pie crust. It went into the oven at 350. And after much looking, jiggling, and indecision, I ended up cooking it for 45 minutes (a typical amount of time for cooking a custard), during which time it bubbled, caramelized, and apparently divided into layers. It did not really set until it came out and cooled, first on the counter and then in the refrigerator overnight.
Family Recipe Reviews:
Kid 1: “I ate all of it. I can have some more. I need a bowl for me.”
Kid 2: “I love it.”
Adult 1: “It’s really good. Every part is delicious on its own and combined they are better.”
Adult 2: “What do I think? The crust is nice. The blind bake was the right call. Chocolately. Tasty.”
Adult 3: “I think I would add less sugar. It’s like pecan pie level of sweet, which is too much for me. But surprisingly good for being so ugly.”
Adult 4: “Hmm. I would eat this again. You just don’t have enough whipped cream [to cover the ugly top].”
Winston Churchill’s popular career spanned between 1898 and 1917 and covered a time when he was active enough in politics to be a serious contender for New Hampshire governor. In 1919, when the “Condensed Classics” were printed, readers couldn’t have realized yet that he had written his last novel and was going to voluntarily disappear from the literary stage at 45 years old, an unbelievable step from someone who had produced nine bestsellers in the last 20 years. By 1934 (when, by the way, he was still very much alive), someone had already written “What Has Become of Winston Churchill?” Purposefully or not, he had outlived his fame and has only grown more obscure in the 80 years since. Reading through the “Condensed Classics,” it’s President Taft’s name who is more likely to catch your eye, and Coniston, David Carvel, and The Crossing, whatever their merits or lack-thereof, are unlikely to ring any bells with most modern readers.
Next month for book club we will be tackling another work of historic, historical fiction, Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts, an author who purposefully tried to write empathetically about unpopular people and causes in American history. I don’t know if there will be an historic cooking involved, but you can sign up for more information on our website, and maybe share your own thoughts on how our understanding of history evolves.