Empire State Violet Pie: A Victorian New York Florality

Empire State Violet Pie, a watercolor of Woodstock, New York by local artist Dolores Lynch.

Empire State Violet Pie, a watercolor of Woodstock, New York by local artist Dolores Lynch.

Some people swear it tastes like soap and even its aficionados must admit that violet is an acquired taste. You can see it, as a color and you can pick it, as a flower – but taste violet? 

The one and only Violet, The Candy by C. Howard.

The one and only Violet, The Candy by C. Howard.

For nearly a century, New Yorkers and then the entire world came to taste (and sometimes choke on) a candy that was unmistakeably violet. In fact, that’s just what its called. Violet.

It seems to be just exactly what purple would taste like – if the color had a flavor.

C. Howard's violet-scented and -colored gum.

C. Howard’s violet-scented and -colored gum.

C. Howard's scented violet gum.C. Howard's scented violet gum.Still on the market, this hard square light-purple candy has never changed since Armenian immigrant Charles Howard first began making it on lower Broadway in New York City.

When he first started, Howard sold the candy from trays on street corners in the 1920s, making it a local specialty before he began selling it in local stores in 1930 in its unchanged silver-purple foil wrapper.

It was soon followed by an intensely fragrant violet gum. The purple prose that has since been penned by aficionados profuse with rapture for the peculiar little candy.

British Parma Violet Candy.

British Parma Violet Candy.

A violet nosegay.

A violet nosegay.

Making foods using floral essence waters and flavorings had long been popular in Europe and the Middle East, where rose-flavored Turkish paste squares have always been a dessert staple.

In England, generations have snacked on the perfumish candies known as “parma violets” and “violet creams.”

Eating violets took some getting used to in the United States.

Violet perfume.

Violet perfume.

Charles Howard selling of violet candy on street corners in New York was a genius idea; it was a modern and edible take on a scene long familiar to pedestrians in Gotham.

Since the Gilded Age, poor girls had long been selling violet bouquets or “nosegays” as they came to be called, as their impoverished sisters in London had been famously doing for decades.

A violet boutonniere.

A violet boutonniere.

By the end of the 19th century, violets had become the rage of the era, worn by men as buttonhole flowers and held in the hands of brides.

While the wildflowers were exquisite in color, and delicate in size, there was also a continental association with violets as a popular perfume, and flavored aperitif imported from France.

Newspaper-lined boxes contained about fifteen violet bouquets, each covered in wax paper. (growingwithplants.com)

Newspaper-lined boxes contained about fifteen violet bouquets, each covered in wax paper. (growingwithplants.com)

The flower’s zenith of popularity had the elite classes from as far west as Chicago clamoring for violet nosegays at any price and boxes were carefully packed and shipped daily from the small rail station at Rhinebeck, New York to meet the demand.

William Worchester Churchill's, "The Nosegay of Violets Portrait of a Woman."

William Worchester Churchill’s, “The Nosegay of Violets Portrait of a Woman.”

It showed up in portraits of society women. Greeting cards, popular poetry and songs exalted its sweet fragrance.

Playing on the use of purple as a Victorian color of half-mourning, it soon showed up in coffins, associated with funerals.

Violet teacup.

Violet teacup.

Even long after its mass appeal had waned, violets appeared as the centerpiece of a short story about a New York society girl who attends her grandfather’s funeral and lays a small bouquet of the flower at his side, to be buried with: its young author was Jackie Bouvier Kennedy.

The violet was ubiquitous on items associated with polite high teas: napkins, teapots, cups and saucers and eventually even in tea itself.

The Victorians even morphed people into violets.

The Victorians even morphed people into violets.

At the turn of the century, schoolchildren in Rhode Island and Wisconsin voted on Arbor Day to make the violet their state flower. Two other states, New Jersey and Illinois also made the violet its state flower.

During the sensational trial of Aristocrats like Prince Serge Obolensky who fancied posies on his lapel were instrumental in making fashion statements while notorious chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbitt, wore violets on her hat every time she attended her husband’s trial for the murder of her lover, the famous architect Sanford White.

Early Easter cards often used violets.

Early Easter cards often used violets.

Counter-intuitively, violets were actually popular during the winter months of the social season, often placed atop boxes of Valentine’s Day chocolates, adorning the white dresses of December debutantes, and worn by both men and women who attended the Harvard-Yale football game.

The city folk could revel in their winter purple because locals just a hundred miles away, up the Hudson River Valley, were providing an endless supply grown in heated greenhouses.

William Saltford, the Father of Empire State Violets. (greendoormag.com)

William Saltford, the Father of Empire State Violets. (greendoormag.com)

It had begun in 1886, when the British immigrant William G. Saltford, who had settled in Rhinebeck, recalled the profusion of violets at Eastertime in his native land and coaxed his brother George, a gardener to not just come to America and join him, but to bring along a stock of “Double Parma” violets from home, from which they soon cultivated a large crop.

The brothers didn’t hog all the floral sweetness. “Violet King” George Saltford established The Violet Publishing Company in 1902 so he could print copies of his book, How to Make Money Growing Violets, spurring the craze for the floral production in small Hudson River Valley towns like Poughkeepsie, Milan, Red Hook and as far as Elmira.

The once-grand greenhouses of Hudson River Valley estates were purchased by local families by the names of Coon, Battenfeld, and Von der Linden.

An advertisement for violet bouquets from Rhinebeck, New York.

An advertisement for violet bouquets from Rhinebeck, New York.

By 1912, the American Florist Company Directory published its report of violet production, and tallied some ten dozen greenhouses in the Hudson River Valley.

A million violets were typically shipped out of Dutchess County the week before Easter and there were so many in Rhinebeck (soon known as the “Violet Capital of the World”) that it was dubbed “the crystal city.”

It was believed that the rich, damp loamy soil, in combination with the cold nights and sunny days of spring and early summer, as well as the shade offered from the Catskill Mountains, made this part of the Empire State uniquely adaptive to transplanting of different violet plant types imported from Europe.

A field of wild violets in a Schenedtady, New York cemetery. (schenectadyphotographs.blogspot.com)

A field of wild violets in a Schenedtady, New York cemetery. (schenectadyphotographs.blogspot.com)

Even outside of the winter production in hot houses, there were open meadows and fields which grew violets in the spring, prompting what became known as the annual  “purple thunderstorm” coloring the appearance of what had once only been wide green space.

Boxes of violets being packed for shipment in New York State.

Boxes of violets being packed for shipment in New York State.

Each spring, the perfumed scent of violets could be smelled all through Rhinebeck, Milan and Red Hook as thousands of the flowers were carried through those town by horse-drawn carriages in uniquely deep, nine inch cardboard boxes, on their way to train depots, which then carried the violets to New York City and points south and west.

An Empire State violet grower from the turn-of-the-century.

An Empire State violet grower from the turn-of-the-century.

Empire State violet growers swore that horse manure was an important ingredient in producing the healthy, vibrant purple of its violets, and so the perfume and the putrid simultaneously filled the nostrils of local residents.

They didn’t seem to care.

It was estimated that the purple flower brought in close to a million dollars in annual revenue for Dutchess County.

At the height of violet mania, production of the flowers also employed up to twenty percent of the local population.

Because round worms ate the roots and the virulent fungus Botritis deteriorated them, the soil of the flower beds used to cultivate violets had to be laboriously cleaned and replaced.

Old Violet greenhouse in Rhinebeck, New York.

Old Violet greenhouse in Rhinebeck, New York.

From early autumn to early spring, local children and housewives also found several hours of work each day picking the fifty or one hundred individual hothouse violets that made up the two primary sizes of marketed bouquets and binding them with string.

Violet harvesting was extremely laborious, with tall wood planks being placed carefully across the flower bed and workers laying on them to carefully pinch off as much as they could hold.

Violet hand-pickers, a job which once employed some 20 percent of Dutchess County's residents. (greendoormag.com)

Violet hand-pickers, a job which once employed some 20 percent of Dutchess County’s residents. (greendoormag.com)

The best of them could garner up to 5,000 individual violets in one day. “No daydreaming in a sea of violets for these workers,” one magazine story on the flower production commented, “Picking on both sides of planks, every move is a balancing act.”

The colorful pride of the Empire State suffered its first significant setback in 1914 when the region was hit with a “black rot” diseased soil, stemming from rotting wood in the old greenhouse structures.

When many local growers decided against taking the time to replace the wood on the recommendation of Cornell University’s agricultural experts they soon found themselves out of business.

With the emphasis on modernity which came with the Jazz Age, New York’s violet industry took a second hard hit: continuing the fusty styles and tastes of their Victorian era grandparents was the last thing young people of the Roaring Twenties wanted.

Before its demise, violets were the pride of the Empire State. (greendoormag.com)

Before its demise, violets were the pride of the Empire State. (greendoormag.com)

The violet had become passe, symbol of a bygone era.  Violet mania was over.

There was a flurry of hope when local outfit E.A. Coon & Co. Inc. began cultivating new varieties of colors and durability, after importing new stocks from England, at least one of which, the “Princess Mary” won several medals at the 1927 New York Flower Show.

The program cover for The Captive at New York's Empire Theater, which used violets as a symbol of lesbian love.

The program cover for The Captive at New York’s Empire Theater, which used violets as a symbol of lesbian love.

Not much came from all the effort, however, for a year earlier one of the scandals “sex plays” that began titillating Broadway had ended in the New York Department of Vice raiding the show and forever linking the little flower to the wildest ideas about lesbianism. La Captive, a French play showing at Broadway’s New Empire Theater featured a love triangle between a husband, his wife and her lady friend.

The two women begin pinning violets to their lapels as a  defiant symbol of their forbidden love. Women in love with each other began to mimic the act of using violets to express their right to love one another and to a more conventional society, the violet suddenly became associated with homosexuality.

“Way back in the violet county last year,” a New York City newspaper proclaimed in reference to Dutchess County, “they were still cursing this play as the knell of the violet industry.”

The Great Depression hit every industry hard but especially those – like florists – where the commodity was considered a luxury.

Eleanor Roosevelt wore a violet corsage on her husband's third Inauguration Day, 1941, promoting the industry of her hometown county.

Eleanor Roosevelt wore a violet corsage on her husband’s third Inauguration Day, 1941, promoting the industry of her hometown county.

Hoping to give her beloved county and its residents a boost for survival, the new First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt began wearing violets whenever she could, especially at high visibility events like her husband’s 1937 and 1941 Inauguration. And she relied on a variety of local producers.

The large violet nosegays she pinned to her coats were from  E.A. Coon & Company in Rhinebeck while Trombini Violets supplied those used during events in the FDR White House, like those bouquets given by children from New York State to the Princess of Denmark during her state visit.

A last gasp for violets came with the movie musical Easter Parade, in which actress Judy Garland wore a famous “White Violet” costume, but there was no sign of the old-school purple ones.

A Vreeland Vogue spread touting violet the color failed to revive the flower's popularity.

A Vreeland Vogue spread touting violet the color failed to revive the flower’s popularity.

Even a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot of New York society leader Brooke Astor (who had a home in Briarcliffe, New York) wearing a violet corsage staged by editor Diana Vreeland (who had a home in Brewster, New York) and was determined to make violets the new “in” flower, failed to revive the Empire State’s former purple pride.

Remembering how ubiquitous violets had been in her childhood, she tried again in the 60s, in her capacity as editor of Vogue but Vreeland’s push of the color failed to revive the former love of the flower.

Fred Battenfeld caring for the last remnants of New York State's once thriving violet industry. (leslieland.com)

Fred Battenfeld caring for the last remnants of New York State’s once thriving violet industry. (leslieland.com)

By March of 1979, a New York Times headline announced, “Last Major Violet Grower in East Decides to Get Out of Business,” in its story of how Trombini Violet Farm was ceasing operations, having once boasted a dozen and half greenhouses with a crop of 6 million sweet violet plants.

Today, the Milan, New York greenhouse Battenfeld & Sons maintains a merely row of violets which are sold for Valentine’s Day and for use as edible flowers, ensuring the tradition not entirely vanish.

All hope for the violet, however, is not lost. The second decade of the twenty-first century has seen a slowly rising interest in the fragrant little flower again.

France and England are churning out new crops of violet liqueurs each year.

France and England are churning out new crops of violet liqueurs each year.

In the last few years, no less than five new violet liqueurs have hit the global market, most produced in England or France, one from Austria and distributed by an American company.

The cupcake craze of the Twenty-Teens has inevitably led to some stores carrying a violet version.

A Violet Season.

A Violet Season.

Two years ago, the novel A Violet Season by Kathy Leonard Czepiel was published, set in 1898 Hudson River Valley, during the violet production golden age.

The entrepreneurial spirit that for so long defined New York State may once again spark interest in organic farmers and horticulturalists alike.

Apparently the only genuine violet essence produced in the world is made by Selectarome in France.

Apparently the only genuine violet essence produced in the world is made by Selectarome.

Still, for now at least, the center of all things violet have shifted to France where an entire region has made violets while the sun shines and produces a particularly excellent violet essence – which seems to be the only one in the world.

Natural Aroma Violet made in France by Selectarome perfectly captures the authentic florality of violet in a non-purple liquid.

It is not inexpensive. A 3.9 ounce bottle at Surfas, a Los Angeles sells for $22.50. It can be ordered online through Sufas or other gourmet food stores.

Made not only in France but throughout the world and found at specialty food stores are candied or crystallized violets.

A bag of candied violets. (amazon.com)

A bag of candied violets. (amazon.com)

Violets are one of several edible flowers that have long been a gourmet’s delight in baking, often used simply as decoration. If softened, however, the flower will still retain its distinct floral taste.

Crystallized violets can be homemade but can also be found in gourmet shops or online. They are also expensive, a three ounce bag averaging twenty-five dollars.

The violet flower.

The violet flower.

Due to both the prohibitive cost but also its floral intensity, violet is a flavor rarely found in foods other than desserts or drinks, although some chefs have begun employing it in sweet savory sauces.

During the Victorian Violet mania, however, the distinct floral taste found its way into rich custard pies served at some of the popular resorts in New York State. It showed up, for example, on a banquet menu served to the President and Mrs. McKinley during their 1900 vacation stay at the Hotel Champlain.

Violets ready for candying. (wikihow.com)

Violets ready for candying. (wikihow.com)

One of the few contemporary Violet Pie recipes, from the 1998 cookbook The Savory Way by Deborah Madison not only lists ingredients including coriander seeds, cardamom pods and cinnamon stick but nearly two-hundred hand-picked violets. Another, in Heston Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, requires a pastry crust involving a hard-boiled egg pushed through a fine sieve, and then concocting a Violet Syrup by de-sugaring sixty grams of crystallized violet petals in water and cider vinegar and refrigerating it overnight.

A poster for a 2013 documentary on the Empire State's former violet empire.

A poster for a 2013 documentary on the Empire State’s former violet empire.

Adapting aspects of these recipes into the basics of an old-fashioned custard pie, however, there is a simpler and delicious alternative given below.

The success of Empire State Violet Pie is, of course, premised entirely on how well the violet quality emerges. It is easy to make it too floral and strong – but just as easy to make it so weak as to seem like nothing more than a mildly flavorful custard pie.

Experimenting with two of the violet liqueurs both proved disappointing: the distinct violet taste was lost in the baking. What worked well on three test pies was using both crystallized violets in combination with Selectarome’s Natural Aroma Violet.

Several people who taste-tested the recipe below using one tablespoon of the Natural Aroma Violet found it to be the right amount, distinctly violet but not overly sweet or floral.

It will be a matter of personal taste to add more or less.

Homemade crystallized violets.

Homemade crystallized violets.

The crystallized violets are used in the batter, but are also crucial sprinkled on top after the baking, not merely for decoration but for the taste and crunch. Using light brown sugar provided a slightly nuttier taste than did plain white sugar.

The finished pie has a pale amber color, dotted with the purple of the crystallized violets in the batter.

C. Howard's Violet gum popping out of the factory conveyer belt.

C. Howard’s Violet gum popping out of the factory conveyer belt.

For the sake of matching eye and mouth, one of the three test pies had the extra ingredient of violet food coloring.

While the distinctly purple look of it may not add any further taste, it certainly helps the diner to remember this is definitely a violet pie.

Perhaps violetizing your Violet Pie it is a bit of foodie brassiness not unlike C. Howard coloring his gum and candy – but that too is a distinctly New York quality.

Violet Pie

A slice of Violet Pie - the violet version.

A slice of Violet Pie – the violet version.

3 eggs

2 egg yolks

about twenty crystallized violets

1 tablespoon of violet essence

3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 cups of half-and-half

1 tablespoon of flour

pie crust

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Beat eggs and egg yolks well. Add crystallized violets, violet essence, light brown sugar, half-and-half and flour. Let it sit for 20 minutes until the crystallized violets have softened. Add batter to pie crust and bake for ten minutes or until the outer rim of the filling has set. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake for another twenty-five minutes or until the center has risen and is firm. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Before serving, sprinkle about twenty crystallized violets on top, distributed evenly. Garnish with whipped cream if preferred.


Categories: State Pies

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8 replies »

  1. Very nice piece on a misunderstood chapter in our botanical history–a forgotten chapter, in fact! Important to distinguish the sweet violet of candy and perfume from the “dog” violet widespread in the U.S.:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_violet

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_violet

    The sweet violet is just about as easy to grow as the common, and as you see far more rewarding. If I find some reliable sources I’ll let you know.

    Thanks again for a great piece of history!

    • First of all – thank you for taking the time to write on the website Kevin – I appreciate that because it takes a little bit of time. But also – you make an important distinction here which I failed to do. It is the Sweet Violet that is the one used in the pie. In New York State, it was first the Sweet Violet but then, eventually, all sorts of variations which were cultivated and prospered. The links you provide are valuable too – thank you – and I think those who might be researching and come to this article will thank you as well. I have a sense that at some point there will be a full-blown revival along the lines of the Macaroni and Cheese revival of the last few years. I’m still waiting for the corn muffin to make a comeback, haha. Cheers.

  2. This is amazing! I’ve always loved these humble little flowers, admiring them each spring as they bravely sprout up in my lawn… What a great story, and all in my own backyard of the Hudson River Valley!

    • Thank you so much for leaving a comment on the website Christopher. I particularly appreciate your well-chosen description of the hardy violet. So many layers of so many generations are echoed on both sides of the Hudson River Valley. It is my favorite part of the world, an East Coast match for the magnificence of nature in the San Francisco Bay area. Thanks again.

  3. Who knew how mesmerized I would be about the history of edible sweet violets. As I was reading it though I kept thinking of the smell of lilacs and getting it confused with violets, therefore I want to go to Fairway and find some sugared violets and the essence of violet!

    • Thank you very much for writing Maria. I don’t think you are alone in being a bit surprised by the concept of “eating violets.” One “flower” I think is often confused with violet is lavender – and that can also be imbibed on different ways, but again more as a flavoring in sauces, teas, etc. Though now you’ve got me thinking – I wonder if there’s a lavender pie or a rose pie? Knowing humans, I’m sure someone out there has thought of it and tried to concoct them. Anyway, I appreciate you writing – and go enjoy some violets in one form or another. Even just in an open meadow!

  4. Great article on edible violets – jello makes a purple mix, I can’t remember if it’s grape based, but everytime you have it you’d swear it tastes like, well, purple!

    • Thank you Olivia – great to hear from you. I bet it is grape, or maybe berry. I can’t imagine there being much of a demand for violet jello – or lavender. Even in France! I did run across several recipes which used violet as a flavoring in savory sauces for venison meats. Regardless – thanks for writing.

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