So what is a hermit anyway?

Oh you never would believe where those hermit cookies come from…

They’re made mostly by New Englanders these days. That is, the people of Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine…New Hampshire, and, oh…come on now…uh…Rhode Island! That’s it. As a flatlander, I always had trouble with those little states on grade school geography tests. Things clearly aren’t much better now.

Where hermits came from originally is anybody’s guess. The trouble with cookie recipes is that people really didn’t start writing them down in earnest until the 1800’s. As with most culinary mysteries, people speculate wildly, and misinformation abounds. Some cookie historians claim hermits were so-named because their brown color resembled the sack-cloth clothes of a hermit living in the hills. Next! Others cite the cookie’s ability to keep well for weeks in a tin…very hermit-like. No way.

The most convincing story I’ve heard attributes the Hermit’s origin to the Moravians, who were sometimes referred to as “Herrnuters” here in the states and elsewhere. I’m susceptible to explanations like that, since unlikely names and terms frequently arise from mispronunciations of foreign words. We do know that the Moravians were prodigious bakers, as those pringle-like tins that show up around Christmas attest. Like hermits, Moravian cookies are heavily spiced and sweetened with molasses. The only real difference between the two is that today’s New England hermits tend to be thick and chewy, whereas Moravian cookies are ultra-thin and crispy. But in the wide and varied world of cookies, that’s a fairly minor difference.

The heavy spicing suggests that hermits are descended from some very old old-world recipes indeed. Small cakes very similar to hermits go back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Though they wouldn’t have been sweet (see yesterday’s posts on sugar) they were frequently heavily spiced, especially on religious holidays, when people tended to flaunt their rare and expensive ingredients.

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