I grew up enjoying the dessert called Apple Brown Betty, a comfort dish of baked sliced apples with brown sugar under a crust of baked and buttery bread. It’s a cute name, but there's likely more to the story.
It appears Betty wasn’t just some generic lady dressed in an old-timey, ruffled apron, but a mixed-race woman. Betty was probably a servant, likely a slave cook. “Brown” didn’t refer to what happens to the buttery bread as the dish bakes, but to skin color.
In America’s past there were numerous dishes born in slavery. The "Oxford Companion to Food" has long had its eye on Betty:
“The name [Apple Brown Betty] seems to have first appeared in print in 1864, when an article in the Yale Literary Magazine listed it … with tea, coffee, and pies as things to be given up during ‘training’ [physical training, what we call working out]. That author gave brown in lower case and Betty in upper case: and, in default of evidence to the contrary, it seems best to go along with the view that Betty is here a proper name. A proper name for a brown-skinned woman.”
Gabriella Petrick, a food historian at George Mason University in Virginia, wrote:
“Recipes with racial coding are common, especially in the South. But decoding history—finding out why a simple apple dessert originally from New England took the name of a mixed-race cook, real or mythical—is tricky, and often impossible.”
* It should be noted that there is a “Brown Betsey” recipe in the "Every Lady’s Cook Book" from 1856. This recipe calls for a pudding made with rich apples, eggs, stale bread, nutmeg, butter and sugar. It goes on to say that the eggs can be omitted.
Rum Raisin Apple Brown Betty
This recipe gets a little creative and replaces the traditional molasses with some spiced rum. You’ll still enjoy that deep sugary flavor, but with a little taste of rum to “spice” it up. This is a great dessert for this time of year.
2 oz spiced rum
1/2 cup raisins
3 large Granny Smith apples
juice of one lemon
4 Tbsp salted butter plus more for pan
3 cups stale breadcrumbs
2/3 cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350F.
Combine rum and raisins and set aside to soak.
Peel and core apples and then slice them very thinly.
Place apples in lemon juice and toss to cover.
Slice butter into paper thin slices.
Butter the bottom and sides of your baking dish.
Cover the bottom of the pan with 1/3 of the the breadcrumbs.
Top breadcrumbs with half the apples and raisins and a third of the brown sugar and butter.
Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon.
Add another layer of breadcrumbs and repeat the above two steps.
Top with the remaining breadcrumbs, brown sugar, butter and another sprinkle of cinnamon.
If you like rum, drizzle some more over the pudding.
Bake for 50-60 minutes or until apples are tender and the top is a golden brown.
Serve warm with ice cream (cinnamon or vanilla go great)