Needhams: Global Connections in a Regional Cookbook

By Rachel Snell

According to an undated history of the Mount Desert Chapter of O.E.S., “a committee consisting of Sisters Helen Fernald, Ada Leland and Lillian Somes” was created in 1930 to “solicit recipes and to compile and publish a cookbook.” Their efforts produced the edition of Favorite Recipes analyzed in this article. This was the chapter’s second attempt at a cookbook. An earlier collection of recipes, also titled Favorite Recipes, appeared in 1903. Both editions and a 1980s reprint of the 1903 cookbook are available in the collections of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

In the late 1920s, members of the Mount Desert Chapter No. 20 of the Order of the Eastern Star compiled a cookbook of favorite recipes. During the peak of associational life (late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), the Order of the Eastern Star was one of a number of social organizations that shaped civic life and sociability on Mount Desert Island.[i]

The recipes collected preserve the transition to an industrialized food system with ingredients representing local resources, nationally available commercial brands, and global networks comingling within the pages, sometimes even the same recipe. In the eyes of the outside world, Maine food culture revolves around local produce such as lobster, blueberries, or maple syrup. But this collection reveals the importance of global connections in the diets of early-twentieth-century Mainers.

A sense of local foodways emerges from the pages of this collection of recipes. Homey recipes like Brown Bread, Yankee Bean Soup, Halibut Loaf, and Mustard Pickles, provided the foundation for simple family suppers. Recipes for puddings, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, and pies that homemakers baked on Saturdays satisfied sweet tooths and served company throughout the coming week.

Among the staples of nineteenth-century foodways that appear in Favorite Recipes, a new type of cooking is also apparent. The influence of national, commercial brands is unmistakable in the ingredient lists. Approximately forty percent of the recipes contained within the book reference a commercialized name-brand product, such as Dunham’s Coconut, Karo Syrup, Dot Chocolate, or Quaker Oats, or ingredients that were made available by technological advances and national transportation networks. This included various canned products, tropical fruits, marshmallows, puffed rice, and peanut butter.

Among the sweets in the cookbook are Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. These are an oft-cited example of Maine ingenuity—the recipe calls for three small potatoes—and yet, ironically, their inclusion in the recipe book is perhaps an indication of a growing reliance on mass-produced food and global influences. It is half a package of shredded coconut that provides their iconic taste.

Recipe for Needhams, Favorite Recipes (c. 1930). Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

Despite their association with Maine, few outside the Pine Tree State are familiar with the confection. Yet, Needhams are symbolic of globalized food systems. The sugar, coconut, and chocolate that dominate the taste of a Needham (the potato is a tasteless filler ingredient) are all, of course, imported. Each of these essential baking ingredients became more accessible over the course of the nineteenth-century, even in Downeast Maine, due to advancements in cultivation, processing, transportation–and the exploitation of enslaved laborers. The candy’s namesake, Rev. George C. Needham, further represented the interconnected world of the nineteenth century.

Rev. George C. Needham. New England Historical Society.

Born in Ireland in 1840, at the age of ten Needham joined an English ship bound for South America. In his recounting, he was abused and abandoned by his shipmates he narrowly escaped becoming dinner for a band of cannibal Indians. After his escape, Needham journeyed back to England. As a young man, he was an itinerant evangelical preacher in England and Ireland. Immigrating to the United States in the late 1860s, Needham spent the rest of his life traveling the eastern United States, inclusing Maine, predicting the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. After his sudden death in 1902, his obituary appeared in numerous eastern newspapers evidencing his influence and the extent of his travels.

Needhams, a chocolate-covered coconut candy. New England Historical Society.

The recipe for Needhams is just one example of the global connections in Favorite Recipes. Indeed, the cookbook paints a portrait of a community and its connections to the world by preserving a record of the food items available within a rural municipality along the Maine coast. Favorite Recipes offers a window into the eating habits of the early twentieth-century inhabitants of Mount Desert, Maine at a critical juncture when local and homemade eating habits slowly gave way to nationalized, globalized, and commercialized food choices.

For more information on Favorite Recipes or other materials related to the history of the Mount Desert Island region, visit the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[i] William J. Skocpol, “Fraternal Organization on Mount Desert Island,” Chebacco 9 (2008), 36-59.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.