Lemon Pie and Roach Poison

Caroline C. Morris

Ellen's Cookbook.jpg

Mrs. Ellen Pennell Hixon, the affluent mistress of 429 North 7th St.  La Crosse, liked her sweets.  She hand-wrote dozens of recipes, many of them for desserts, into a composition book some time in the 1880s or 1890s.  Page 93 of her book provides a glimpse of Victorian housekeeping at its finest, with recipes for “Lemon Pie” and “Roach Poison.”

By serving lemon pie, Hixon was making somewhat of a political statement in the late nineteenth century.  The pie became popular around the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly as cooks began experimenting with a whipped egg white topping known as a “meringue.”  The piled-high lemon pies had the perfect combination of sweet and sour, and dense and airy.  Victorian Americans, known for their collective sweet tooth, were enchanted.  But by the 1880s, the lemon pie was under attack as being unhealthful, largely because the eggs were not cooked long enough to kill bacteria.  “Its glories have departed, its sun has set, and it no longer holds its proud position on the bills of fare on the land,” the Boston Globe proclaimed in 1881.  But in La Crosse, the lemon pie survived in the Hixon home.  Ellen Hixon would not be put off by East Coast domestic science.

Sprinkled among the recipes for cakes and puddings were other handy household “recipes,” such as the one at the bottom of this page for “Roach Poison.”  Pyrethrum, an extract of the chrysanthemum, is still used as an insecticide.  It’s not toxic to humans, but be careful not to mix it in with the egg whites for the pie; the meringue might fall.

The Hixon home is now an historic house museum. Copies of Ellen Hixon’s recipes are available for sale in the Hixon House gift shop.  Come take a tour and go home armed with recipes for new Victorian confections.  Just be sure to cook the eggs thoroughly.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune June 6, 2015.