I was in Half-Price Books perusing the "Old and Interesting" shelves when my eye caught on this book: "Recipies from Old Hundred".
There was no logical reason for me to feel drawn towards this book. I'm from California, not New England. I wasn't even looking for a cookbook. Nevertheless I picked it up and opened it to a random page in which was tucked a carefully folded long, narrow strip of paper.
A child's spelling paper with the name "David Nelson" written in shaky cursive at the top and dated March 12, 1954.
On the other side was something I recognized instantly--a parent's list scrawled on whatever paper was handy (in this case David's spelling paper). The list consisted of page numbers and names of about 40 recipes from the very book that I held in my hand.
I wondered for a few seconds about how many spelling papers like Davids had been grabbed over the years by distracted, busy, tired parents--often mothers--flipped over and used as scrap paper for a quick grocery list or a phone message.
I saw the spelling list as a random sign that I should buy this book. So I did.
So let's dig in at the beginning. The title of the book is taken from the Old Hundred Inn, which was located in the town of Southbury in Connecticut. In its heyday it was open March through November for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. (1)
According to Richard Cox in his book "New England Pie: History Under A Crust", Nellie Brown realized that there was a yearning nestling in the souls of her fellow New Englanders: they wanted to eat dishes that hearkened back to an idealized past, such as those described by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1869 book "Old Town Folks":
"In winter's doldrums, chicken pies became a respite from the numbing similitude of preserved meats, baked beans, and brown bread suppers. The fresh cheer that chicken pies brought to the winter dark and their rekindling of holiday celebrations cemented their place in our regional cuisine" (3)
So in 1933 Nellie Brown turned her family's summer home into the Old Hundred Inn and restaurant, leaning hard into "old-time New England food" as the selling point. (3) Their specialty? Nellie's modernized version of the chicken pie that sandwiched pieces of chicken and gravy between 2 pie crusts. (3) In short, what we would recognize as a chicken pot pie.
But not for long.
In 1998 Baskin-Robbins shut down its Southbury CT factory, leaving over 50 people job less and adding the Baskin-Robbins name to the list of companies that had, one by one, closed down their operations in Southbury and surrounding areas leaving people angry, jobless and struggling. (2)
And so here we are, with Nellie Brown and Old Hundred rising from history only to fall back into it.
There is a tragic kind of connection from the dark winters and chicken pies described by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Nellie Brown adapting those chicken pies to being the signature dish of her inn and restaurant, to Nellie's foray from into ice cream, to Nellies ice cream company eventually becoming a part of Baskin-Robbins. And finally the Baskin-Robbins company that would close it's factory out from beneath a community, sending them into their own dark winter, both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps then the best way to remember Nellie Brown and her delicious ambitions is with her words, oh so gently borrowed from Michelangelo:
"Trifles make perfection but Perfection is no trifle"
1. Brown, Nellie I. Recipies From Old Hundred. American Book--Stratford Press Inc. 1939.
2. Andrew, Julien. "Old Ice Cream Factory Melting Into History". Hartford Courant. Oct. 29, 1998.
3. Cox, Robert S. New England Pie: History Under a Crust. Arcadia Publishing. 2015.