Neutrality and the “Desperate Plight of the Belgium People” (Recipe: Cranberry Pie)

Birmingham Age-Herald, November 8-15, 1914

By September 18, 1914, Woodrow Wilson was getting annoyed. He had been quite clear in his August 1914 call to his “fellow countrymen” that they should stay out of the troubles going on in Europe. And yet here was Horace L. Brand, prominent German-American from Chicago, doing just that: bringing a petition in support of Germany, signed by thousands of German-Americans, protesting Belgian claims of German atrocities. (1)

Wilson wasn’t having it. He refused to meet with Brand and let it be known, as newspapers noted, that he was “deeply disappointed.” (2) He himself was busy with the first of many notes he’d send to the various belligerents, trying to set up the U.S. as the meditator who would bring peace to the world, and he needed all Americans, whatever their origins, to just chill out while he got stuff done.

Wilson was well aware many of his fellow countrymen had, in fact, already taken sides. In his August address, he acknowledged that Americans came from “many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war,” and thus it was “natural and inevitable” they’d have pretty strong opinions on which of the fighters was in the right. But he felt that those people “who really love America” would try for neutrality. (3)

The goal here was mainly to stop fighting – whether that was America having to fight in the war in Europe, individual Americans joining the fight in Europe, or recent-immigrant Americans fighting amongst themselves at home — and let Wilson get on with peacemaking. But the proclamation had an effect elsewhere as well. Because Americans were barred from taking sides in the fight abroad, they were limited in the claims they could make about who held any of the blame – even if they were bringing up guilt to help out innocent victims.

Which, as the case of the Alabamian effort to raise aid for those in Belgium showed, slightly complicated explanations to your donors why they should chip in.

Hoover, c. 1917
LOC LC-DIG-ggbain-25292

Movements to help Belgians began to spring up in November 1914, following a nationwide request sent out from the then little-known industrialist, Herbert C. Hoover. Stuck in Europe at the start of the war, Hoover had first taken the lead organizing ways for his fellow Americans to go home, and then quickly shifted gears to providing food to Belgians as the head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Recognizing just how desperate Belgium’s situation was — countryside devastated, cut off from needed imports, occupied by a Germany that refused to feed Belgian civilians — Hoover quickly began coordinating with multiple governments and launched a global campaign to raise money and collect the necessary foodstuffs to keep the Belgian people alive. Over the next few years, he would lead an effort that would provide nearly 1 billion dollars worth of food. (4)

Belgian women embroidered and returned the flour sacks they received. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, IA.

Once the CRB was set up in October 1914, Hoover started calling for donations. Americans read appeals from Belgian King Albert himself, asking for American aid so his countrymen would be “spared the pangs of hunger,” alongside detailed requests from Hoover, laying out how great the need was. Hoover estimated that the avoid famine, Belgium needed a monthly supply of “60,000 tons of wheat, 15,000 tons of corn, 5000 tons of peas or beans and a limited amount of bacon or lard,” which in money terms meant at least a cool 4 million a month.(5) It was humanitarian aid on a global scale never seen before.

Alabama was one of many states that promptly set up official committees for Belgian relief efforts. The governor put out a call for the “noble people of Alabama” to join in enthusiastically, motivated by their Christian sentiments and their awareness of their own material comfort. He designated a group of well-known citizens at the state level and called upon individual towns and cities to create committees at the local level. (6) Within a few days, a group of “prominent citizens” in Birmingham (interfaith, but all white) joined together to start collecting donations from Alabamians. In their announcement of the committee, they offered a vivid depiction of why Belgian needed help, and it was here they ran into the problem of Wilson’s neutrality: They had to say how bad of a situation Belgium was in, but they couldn’t say anyone was to blame for it.

The result was simply a masterpiece of how to use the passive voice.

“Whatever grievances may mutually have existed as between France, Russia, Servia, Japan, Montenegro, Turkey, Germany and Austria, and whatever equities may be as between these warring nations, every humane and liberty loving Alabamian must sympathize with the desperate plight of the people of Belgium. Against that country no accusation has been made. It has suffered all the horrors of a desperate and terrible war. Its industries are prostated, its methods of communication are destroyed, the daily avocations of its people are substantially suspended, great numbers of its breadwinners have been killed, wounded or taken prisoners and the plight of the aged, the women, the children, and of noncombattants generally, homeless, starving, bereaved, on a stupendous scale, represents a climax of distress that must touch every heart in Alabama.” (7)

In this set-up, not one of the countries involved held any responsibility for the fight. What’s more, in all the detail on Belgium’s ruin, there was no indication that any specific actual humans had done any of the industry prostrating, communication destroying, or people killing. It had apparently just happened. Sure, in reality everyone knew that Germany had invaded Belgium, and people were hearing the news of rumored German atrocities. But the dictates of neutrality meant Americans were not supposed to take sides and thus not assign blame. The result was a call for help because Belgium — who knew how?? — had somehow had a war run right over her.

The passive voice made the fundraising permissible, and, fortunately, didn’t have a negative effect on Alabamian enthusiasm. The Age-Herald editorial board threw its full support behind the enterprise, proclaiming “there never was in the history of the world a cause more worthy than that of the Belgians.” Saying it was time for Alabamans to stop sending money to “heathens” in foreign missions and instead send it to the (presumably non-heathen) needy in Belgium, they presented the work as a Christian undertaking they had no doubt Alabamians would fulfill. (8) Belgian relief became the most popular of multiple relief efforts underway, even if the Germans couldn’t be directly blamed, in no small part because a good amount of American sympathies lay with the Allied side anyways. (9)

Eventually, America’s entry into the war would remove the need for the passive voice or for passive imagery, as this 1918 American propaganda poster showed quite powerfully:

Ellsworth Young, “Remember Belgium,” 1918

With the outbreak of war, Hoover returned to the U.S. to run wartime food rationing here, but relief efforts for Belgium – coordinated under Spain and Denmark instead – continued unabated. (10) The Alabama committees would continue fundraising through the CRB’s end in 1919.

Butter Pie Crust and Cranberry Pie

This week’s recipes came from a column clearly for Thanksgiving baking, called “Pies of Sundry Kinds,” which included this picture of a woman very attentively inspecting her pie crust. I’m assuming like me, she’s wondering which of the ingredients she left out and if anyone will be able to tell. The choices among the “Sundry Pies” were a lot more detailed than usual, which was nice, and included some classics – such as apple pie – and some interesting choices – such as lemon potato pie. Since this was for a national holiday and I want my family to like me, I opted for one of the choices that was new to me, but didn’t sound like a science experiment. (Sorry, lemon potato.) It was a good choice.

There are two recipes we’ll be using here:

Butter Pie Crust

Chop half a pound of hard, firm butter into a pound of flour. When the butter is in bits the size of a small green pea add a teacup of iced water, working it in a little at a time with a spoon or with the chopping knife. When you have a paste that can be handled turn it from the bowl upon the floured board and make it into a sheet with the floured hands. Fold this into three, roll it out again, fold it twice more, and roll it each time. after the third rolling lay the pastry, lightly folded together, on a plate, and set in a cold place for two or three hours, or even until the next day, before making it into pies. This is what is known as rough puff paste, and is deliciously light and flaky […]

When the pie plate is to have the crust put into it a sheet is cut a little larger than the plate, using a sharp knife dipped in flour to do the cutting; the piece of pastry is lightly lifted and carefully laid on the plate, taking pains not to press the outer edges, as this prevents the pastry puffing up into flakes. The paste should have a few slashes cut in the bottom of the plate, so that it will not “crawl,” or shrink. After the pie has been filled, the top crust, consisting of a round like that used for the bottom, but a trifle smaller, is laid on, and this, too, should not be pinched on the outer edges if you wish the crust to be light and puffy.

Cranberry Pie

Cut into halves two cups of cranberries and put them with a cup of seeded and chopped raisins. Add two even cups of sugar, one of water, two tablespoons of flour, and a few drops of lemon juice. Turn the mixture into rather deep pie plates lined with pastry, put on a thin upper crust, cut slits in this for the escape of steam, and bake. Let cool; sprinkle sugar over the top before sending to table.

Notes on this one:

I have no idea why we’re folding, unfolding, and folding the pie dough a bunch of times, but it sounds like fun. In any case the butter/flour ratio is quite nice.

As for the pie, I’d not heard of this particular combo before, but apparently cranberry-raisin pies are A Thing. Specifically, they are A New England Thing, also known as a mock cherry pie. I enjoy both cherries and mocking, so let’s rock this.

As with any recipe that’s a regional tradition, you can find five gazillion suggestions on the internet on how to put it together, from boiling the cranberries/sugar/water first, to adding in orange juice, to adding in Grand Marnier, to just drinking the Grand Marnier and having someone else deal with dessert. I decided against adding in any other ingredients but the suggestion of soaking the raisins ahead of time, to plump them up, seems like a good one, so I’m doing that. I was going to use the mix without boiling it first, but unboiled the mix was one huge amount of sloshy goodness and it seemed a bit precarious to dump it into a crust, so boiling it was.

Cranberry-Raisin Pie

Prep: Crust: 1 hour freeze butter, 20 minutes mix, 3 hours chill, 10 minutes roll out; Pie 10-15 minutes mix/boil
Bake: 50-55 minutes
(Don’t worry, it tastes better than it looks.)



  • 2 sticks of butter, frozen
  • 1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups) flour
  • 3/4 cup very cold water


  • 1 cup raisins
  • 2 cups whole fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 tsp lemon juice

First, make the crust.

  1. Chop up two sticks of butter. Place on a plate and place into the freezer to get really cold. Put there for at least an hour. (Later I read other blogs that recommend freezing sticks of butter, and then grating the sticks to get small bits. That would probably easier. Do that.)
  2. Measure out 1 pound of flour – about 3 1/2 cups – into a large bowl.
  3. Measure out 3/4 cup of very cold water.
  4. Using a pastry cutter, two forks, or your hands, work the frozen butter into the flour. As it breaks up, gradually add in water, about a tablespoon at a time, until it becomes a paste.
  5. Dust a large cutting board or silicone mat or a clean countertop with flour.
  6. Turn the paste from the bowl on to the floured surface. Dust flour onto your hands. Pretend you’re a ghost.
  7. Using your hands, flatten the flour out into a sheet
  8. Fold the sheet in half. Fold this in half again, then fold it one more time.
  9. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out into a sheet again.
  10. Fold three times and roll out again.
  11. Fold three times and roll out again.
  12. Fold the pastry up and set it into the fridge, lightly covered, two to three hours or overnight. 
  13. When it’s time to make the pie, take the dough out of the fridge. Let it come to room temperature on the counter.
  14. Have fun dusting your silicone mat again, and then roll out the pie crust. Roll thin – this crust really does puff up nicely, so if you start thick, you end up super-thick.
  15. Cut a circle slightly larger than the diameter of your pie plate. Carefully drape the crust into the plate. Following the 1914 instructions, do not crimp the edges down. Cut off any excess while carefully not crimping. I SAID DON’T CRIMP.
  16. Cut out another circle a little smaller for the top, and set aside. It’s cranberry time.

Now, make the filling.

  1. Preheat the oven temperature to 425.
  2. Place one cup of raisins in a 2-cup measuring cup. Let your tap water get really hot, and add 1 cup of hot water to the raisins. Let soak for at least 5 minutes and then drain.
  3. While the raisins are soaking, wash 2 cups of cranberries. Cut the berries in half and place into a medium saucepan. Add in the drained raisins.
  4. Add 1 cup of water, 2 cups of sugar, and 1/4 tsp lemon juice into the pan with cranberries and raisins.
  5. Heat berry-raisin-everything mixture over medium heat until it boils. Reduce heat and let simmer until reduced by about half. You want it closer to a jelly.  
  6. Stir in two tablespoons of flour. (I forgot this but sure, you do it.)
  7. Pour the mixture into the pie crust in your pie plate.
  8. Take your smaller circle and drape it over the top of the cranberry-raisin mixture, again not crimping.
  9. Use a sharp knife to cut slits in the top of your pie. (If you want you can instead cut shapes out of your top dough before you drape it on. I did stars. Because I could.) 
  10. Sprinkle white sugar on the top.
  11. Place into preheated oven. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and bake another 35 to 40 minutes, until the crust is brown and the cranberry-raisin mixture is bubbling.
  12. Let cool from super-hot. Serve warm or at room temperature.


The taste on this was AMAZING — so good it’s definitely going into the Thanksgiving rotation. I did not roll my crust thin enough, so while it was buttery and flaky it was also beyond a mouthful. Thinner is better. I also did not simmer my filling long enough and it was still quite runny when I cut the pie open. The flour I forgot probably would’ve helped. Definitely add that, and then maybe simmer longer before putting the pie together or, if the crust isn’t burning, bake a bit longer once the pie is together. Even runny and chewy, though, the whole thing was fantastic. Highly recommended.


(1) “Emphasizes Plea for Neutrality,” Evening Star, September 18, 1914
(2) “Wishes Americans to Be Entirely Neutral,” Las Vegas Optics, September 18, 1914
(3) “An appeal by the President of the United States to the citizens of the Republic, requesting their assistance in maintaining a state of neutrality during the present European war; presented in the Senate, August 19, 1914, and ordered to be printed,” Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United states, 1914, Supplement, The World War, Document 886
(4) Branden Little, “Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB),” in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08.
(5) “Albert Appeals to American People to Help Feed His Starving People,” Birmingham Age Herald , November 1, 1914
(6) “Governor Asks Aid for the People of Beligum,” November 9, 1914, Birmingham Age-Herald
(7) “Work Begun for Belgian Relief,” Birmingham Age-Herald, November 15, 1914
(8) Editorial, “To Help the Belgians,” Birmingham Age-Herald, November 10, 1914.
(9)For more on the reality of American attitudes at the start of the war, see: Michael S. Neiberg, ” Blinking Eyes Began to Open: Legacies from America’s Road to the Great War, 1914–1917,” Diplomatic History Vol. 38, No. 4 (SEPTEMBER 2014), pp. 801-812.
(10) Little, “CRB.”
(11) The Alabama files for the CRB are at the Hoover Institute if you feel like doing some research.

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