I grew up eating hermits all the time, because my father really likes them. No one else I knew ever ate these spiced raisin cookies though. They're still around, but they are by no means something that I see everyday. This recipe was one of the many my great-aunt collected or received from friends. Perhaps a friend named Helen Alexander gave it to her.
They're simple treats, and yet it seems that no one really has them figured out. Many believe that hermits probably originated in the New England region. One interested blogger out of Boston named Lady Gouda thinks of them as bars rather than as cookies. I can see that. Another notes that they were especially popular during the Great Depression. That makes sense, since molasses would have been cheaper than sugar.
My father didn't grow up during the Depression, but both of his parents served as social workers helping people to make it through that hard time in the city of Fall River, Massachusetts. I may not know where hermits come from exactly, but I do know that my grandfather introduced them to my father.
Or maybe their living in New England predisposed them to this molasses cookie. According to the authors of America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing through the first decades of the twentieth century, New England cooks overwhelming preferred molasses to sugar regardless of costs. Sensing that Yankee identity and New England's influence in the nation were waning, female cooks and cookbook writers looked to molasses and its historical ties to New England as a means to managing the blows to their identity. Perhaps molasses helped to foster the popularity of hermits in region.
I guess the Yankee identity crisis had subsided by the time my great aunt received this recipe, because it does not contain molasses. The hermits that my father and I have enjoyed were much darker in color than than the ones that I made from my great aunt's recipe. That's probably due to the lack of molasses and to the fact that I only had light brown sugar on hand.
Most recipes for hermits require molasses, and some, but not all, list brown sugar as an ingredient. So, this recipe is unique or unusual in that it calls only for brown sugar. Coffee is also not a standard ingredient, but there are many hermits recipes out there, including one that claims to be Pennsylvania Dutch in origin, that use coffee.
New England. Pennsylvania. No one knows where these simple, little cookies or bars began.
Nevertheless, the person who penned "delicious" on the recipe before putting it through the ditto machine was right. These hermits are really good. They may not have molasses, but even with the first bite there was no mistaking Helen Alexander's recipe for anything other than hermits.
And who was Helen Alexander? Well, what I know about her makes my knowledge of hermits look encyclopedic.