It had to have been a junior or senior who told me the story about Deacon Porter’s Hat.
Mary Lyon, the founder of our college, the upperclasswoman told me, once had an afternoon tryst with Deacon Andrew Porter, an early supporter and benefactor of the college.
In the afterglow, Deacon Porter returned to his home, and wife.
But he left his hat at Miss Lyon’s. She couldn’t just return it to the Porter household, because then Mrs. Porter would know what was up.
So Mary Lyon, defining the ingenuity and resourcefulness so typical of later generations of Mount Holyoke students, had an idea: she would dress up the hat as a steamed pudding, accented with the hard sauce traditionally served with the dessert, and then take it over to the Porters in the guise of a neighborly gift.
And that, the older student concluded, was why “Deacon Porter’s Hat” was served at dinner on every Founder’s Day.
I was cheerfully credulous back then, happy to embrace any and all legends about my new college home—a place which was so very, blessedly, different from the home from which I’d come, a home where stories about the past were Simply Not Discussed.
So it didn’t occur to me to raise the objections which occurred to me much later in life, chief among them that, even allowing for the dim lanternlight and firelight of 1837, there was no way anyone could mistake a tall men’s beaverskin hat for a steamed bread filled with molasses, spices and raisins.
And even if they did, surely the ruse would fall apart if anyone tried to serve the pudding/hat at tea.
And come to think of it, why would a dessert served in honor of the famously devout and stringent Mary Lyon celebrate her crafty solution for avoiding the social and moral consequences of an extramarital affair?
But pranks pulled by upperclass Mount Holyoke students on first-year students is a time-honored tradition, even on Founder’s Day. In the early part of the 20th century, seniors annually convinced gullible younger students that if they turned up at Mary Lyon’s grave at 6AM on Founder’s Day, they’d be served ice cream by College trustees. Sometime in the 1920s, seniors made the ice cream part come true, and the tradition continues to this day.
No, it’s much more likely that the name “Deacon Porter’s Hat” followed the dessert itself, as Frances Lester Warner, MHC Class of 1911, pointed out in her 1937 book On A New England Campus:
“’Deacon Porter’s Hat’ is the Dean of Mount Holyoke’s desserts. It got its name because its shape reminded the early students of the tall hat worn by our first Trustee in Charge of Building. Literally, the Hat is a steamed pudding usually flavored with West India molasses and spice and raisins. To please present-day appetites it can be a chocolate pudding. But whatever the ingredients are, it must be steamed in a tall round container so that it looks like the lofty superstructure for a gentlemen’s old-fashioned high hat. Occasionally a cottage pudding is made in the same container. In that case, flavored with vanilla, it is called ‘Deacon Porter’s Summer Hat.’
“The pudding must be brought to the table complete, with sauce, and sliced after it has come on, or it is not a Hat. If there are ten or twelve tables in the dining-room, then ten or twelve Hats will be required, one for each table. Deacon Porter’s Hat follows the Quantum Theory. No fraction of a hat is a Hat.”–Frances Lester Warner, “Deacon Porter’s Hat and Other Edibles,” chapter 13 of On A New England Campus (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937), transcribed by Donna Albino, MHC Class of 1983
Even though Mount Holyoke has switched from meals in individual dorms to centralized dining, Deacon Porter’s Hat is still served on Founder’s Day.
If you’d like to make your own Deacon Porter’s Hat at home, note first that when it’s described as a “steamed pudding,” the term “pudding” is used here in the British sense of “dessert” rather than the American sense of “comforting milk-based goo.” Deacon Porter’s Hat is comparable to winter holiday classics such as plum pudding and figgy pudding. (If you’ve ever had Boston brown bread, in a can or otherwise, it’s a lot like that as well.)
(The Epicurious version includes a recipe for an accompanying hard sauce which has always seemed to me to be
–Unlike any other hard sauce I’ve ever encountered,
–Truncated so that key ingredients and instructions are left out.
Finally, you should also know that Deacon Porter’s Hat may be an acquired taste. You might expend a great deal of effort in making it, only to find it unpalatable. I don’t have much advice for you in that instance.
I guess you could always try wearing it as a hat.