Guest blogger Q Miceli does some tasty research on one of Charles Sheeler's favorite desserts.
While doing research in the papers of photographer and painter Charles Sheeler for my final paper as part of Professor Anne McCauley’s “Masters and Movements of Twentieth Century Photography” art history class, I encountered a peculiar notebook in box one. I had seen the folder before; I had read Sheeler’s diary, along with other artists’ diaries at the Archives last summer. Because I was constructing an argument about the importance of photography as documentation in Sheeler’s artistic oeuvre, I returned to the journal for my final paper. In academic research, I’ve heard finding a relevant or intriguing book on the same shelf as that book which a researcher initially planned to investigate referred to as “stacks serendipity,” but serendipity isn’t just for libraries—I would say that “box serendipity” happens in archives. A zealous baker, I’m always on the lookout for a good recipe, and once I saw folder fifty-five with recipes in the title, I had to check that box first.
While I prepared for my research trip to DC to read Sheeler’s papers, I read selections from The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist. After looking at some of his paintings and photographs, particularly those of the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant and of his Doylestown, Pennsylvania farmhouse, I expected to read the papers of a “thoroughly modern” individual, someone who was fascinated by scientific progress or who wanted to create some kind of narrative about the world’s technological progress.
One line from Sheeler’s journal disrupted my assumption. About painting, Sheeler wrote, “I am largely attracted to things seen in nature, by instinct for their intrinsic beauty rather than seeing them as manikins upon which to drape my pet theories.” Additionally, his apparent enjoyment of a certain Pennsylvania Dutch dessert prompted me to reconsider how I thought of Sheeler.
Found among the Sheeler papers, in addition to his main journal, there is a notebook in which he recorded a recipe for shoo-fly cake and then another version of the same, molasses shoo-fly. This Lancaster County, Pennsylviana pie traditionally appears in two formats: a cake shoo-fly features the crumb mixture mixed into the molasses, while “wet-bottom” shoo-fly consists of layers of crumbs and molasses mixture.
After I finished my paper (and completed my undergraduate degree), I made Charles Sheeler’s molasses shoo-fly pie for a family celebration. Using Sheeler’s recipes along with the shoo-fly pie recipe included in Phyllis Pellman Good and Rachel Thomas Pellman’s From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens as a secondary source, I modified—or modernized—the dessert to be vegan and gluten-free. In keeping with the rustic nature of this dessert, I figured Charles Sheeler would have had access to buckwheat and oats rather than other, more exotic gluten-free flours.
My version of Charles Sheeler’s molasses shoo-fly pie
3/4 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup oat flour
1/4 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon sugar (I used maple sugar)
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
6 tablespoons shortening (I used organic palmfruit)
2 tablespoons vegan margarine (I used Earth Balance original buttery spread)
3–4 tablespoons ice water
1/4 cup brown rice or oat flour for dusting and rolling
1 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
2 tablespoons shortening (I used organic palmfruit)
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed + 4 tablespoons water
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
scant 1 cup molasses
In a large bowl, whisk together crust ingredients. Using a pastry blender, cut in the shortening and margarine until mixture resembles wet sand. Adding the water by the tablespoon, cut in the water until mixture sticks together. Pat into a 1-inch thick disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least a half an hour.
Once crust has chilled, preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch pie plate. Remove the crust from the refrigerator. Liberally dust a sheet of waxed paper with brown rice or oat flour. Place the crust in the center of the prepared work surface, dust the top with flour, and roll out the crust with a well-dusted rolling pin until it is 1/4-inch thick. Transfer the crust to the pan and crimp the edges (this is best done by placing the pie plate on top of the waxed paper and crust and flipping over the whole assemblage. It’ s messy but leads to the fewest breaks in the crust). Set aside.
Boil the water for the soda. In a medium bowl, whisk together the crumbs ingredients. With a pastry blender, blend in the shortening until the mixture forms small clumps. Set aside.
In a large measuring cup, whisk together the flaxseed and water. Pour the boiling water into a small bowl and stir in the baking soda. Add the molasses to the flaxseed mixture, stir, and add the baking soda mixture. In the piecrust, pour about a third of the molasses mixture and then sprinkle on a third of the crumbs. Continue alternating molasses and crumbs to finish with the crumbs.
Place pie on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Bake on the middle rack for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 35–40 minutes or until firm (filling will feel springy and it won’t be wet in the middle). Remove from the oven and cool on a rack before refrigerating. For the true wet-bottom pie experience, serve on the same day. For a firmer pie filling, chill four hours or overnight.
I chilled mine since I was bringing it to a party the next day. Twenty-four hours later, the filling had set to a consistency and taste I can only describe as gingerbread pudding. It was gravity-defying, coherent, and delicious, with soft, melting layers of molasses interspersed with crispy, crunchy crumbs. I applaud Charles Sheeler’s addition of gingerbread spices in his “Molasses Shoo-Fly” since they make special a dessert that would otherwise be a sugar-filled pie.
Whether one remembers Charles Sheeler for his painting or his photography, whether one chooses to bake a cake or molasses-style shoo-fly pie, art is art and dessert is dessert. Both, as Charles Sheeler wrote, are “Yummy!”
- Charles Sheeler letter collection, 1939–1958
- Oral history interview with Charles Sheeler, 1958 Dec. 9
- Oral history interview with Charles Sheeler, 1959 June 18
Q Miceli is a former Archives of American Art intern who recently graduated from Princeton University.