Celia Thaxter grew up on tiny White Island in the Isles of Shoals, where her father, Thomas Laighton, was the lighthouse keeper in the 19th century. On those isolated, rock-bound isles, off the Maine and New Hampshire coasts, young Celia learned to observe natural phenomena closely and to make up stories to amuse herself and her brothers. She had only one year of formal schooling.
When she was 12, Levi Thaxter came to live on the island to recover from depression. He became Celia’s tutor and in 1851, when she turned 16, her husband.
Levi Thaxter had trained to be a lawyer and then an actor. He was a dilettante, however, and never practiced either profession. He was known in Boston to be superb at reading aloud, especially the poetry of Robert Browning. The marriage was not a success, largely because Levi disliked work and was envious of his wife’s success as a writer. But we can credit him with exposing Celia to the best contemporary drama, poetry and prose and introducing her to artists and writers.
Levi Thaxter’s family gave him a house in Newtonville, Mass. He became averse to the islands after a boating accident. Celia grew to detest Newtonville and her endless round of domestic chores. Her first published poem, “Land-locked,” expressed her yearning for the islands:
O Earth! Thy summer song of joy may soar
Ringing to heaven in triumph. I but crave
The sad, caressing murmur of the wave
That breaks in tender music on the shore.
She often wrote about shipwreck, isolation, loneliness, and heartache, as well as the grandeur and beauty of the sea.
In 1848, Celia’s father, Thomas Laighton, built a hotel on Appledore Island — the first hotel in the Isles of Shoals. Celia attracted artists and writers to Appledore in the 1880s and 1890s, creating the first American artists’ colony. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Greenleaf Whittier and William Morris Hunt were among her friends who came. Childe Hassam painted her several times in her colorful, informal garden.
Her “old-fashioned cottage garden” design was thoroughly American and became a trend in the garden world. Like colonial revival architecture, it was based on notions of how colonial homes and gardens might have looked.
Celia Thaxter wrote a natural history of the islands, “Among the Isles of Shoals” (1874), which is now a classic. For the National Audubon Society, she wrote an appeal to women to stop wearing feathers in their hats.
Maria Parloa, an influential cookbook writer and cooking teacher from Boston, came to Appledore House to work as a pastry cook. She published “The Original Appledore Cook Book” in 1872. Among the recipes is one for graham pies that is attributed to Celia Thaxter. Many hotel guests came to Appledore because sea air was considered healthful. These little hand pies were named after the health reformer Sylvester Graham, who advocated eating bread made from coarsely ground whole-wheat flour, known as graham flour. Here is the original recipe:
Graham pies. Into a pint of Graham flour, stir one teaspoonful of salt; wet with boiling water enough to make a stiff paste. Roll this very thin, and cut into cakes about 3 inches in diameter; put into these a spoonful of apple sauce and fold them. Bake on tin sheets. These can be eaten by any dyspeptic (someone suffering from indigestion).
The original recipe would be more healthful than traditional pastry, but it wouldn’t taste much like pie. I like the idea of using some whole wheat flour in the crust; it adds a nutty, homespun flavor. Adding white flour and shortening makes it pastry. If you already have some homemade applesauce, these little pies are quick to make.