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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Pompkin" Pudding (Pie), by Amelia Simmons, as made by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald

Amelia Simmons, author of the first published recipe for American pumpkin pie, made two versions, including this two-crust beauty!


We devote an entire section of a chapter on pies in Northern Hospitality to the pumpkin pie. Why so many pumpkin pie recipes? Because it turns out that the pumpkin pie as we know it is only one of many versions early New Englanders baked. Before there was the custardized pumpkin pie that Americans came to call their own, there was a somewhat odd pumpkin pie made in Britain and throughout the British colonies. Yup, folks liked it. It called for frying pumpkin strips in an herb-and-spice-laden pancake batter, known by its medieval name of froiz, then cutting up the pancakey pumpkin strips and layering them in the bottom of the pie with apple slices, currants, and lots of butter. Then, after the two-crust pie was baked . . . well, we'll leave the addition of the wine caudle to the warm pie for you to read about in Northern Hospitality (p, 301), or in a post about it elsewhere on this blog! Read More 

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Things to Know about American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first American Cookbook: #3 & #4

"Bunch of Onions," from Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, L. H. Bailey and Wiilhem MIller, 1906

Jedidiah Morse, father of the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, complained in his American Geography (1789) that in Albany, New York, all the houses were constructed with projecting "watergutters or spouts," a custom that made it "almost dangerous to walk the streets in a rainy day."

In the 1740s in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town near Hartford, women were employed to prepare onions for sale by tying them in bunches. Historian Gloria L. Main writes that these women workers were paid not in cash but rather in "store merchandise, mostly luxury imports." One woman's payment took the form of "a copy of Homer's Iliad."

These intimate details about life in the young republic--variations in house design, the specifics of a barter economy--paint a picture of early American society that we don't often see. How do such portraits of ordinary American life help us understand American Cookery by Amelia Simmons? Find out this November in our new book from University of Massachusetts Press, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.

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Things to Know about American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first American Cookbook: #1 & #2

Coming November, 2017, from University of Massachusetts Press!

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson's father, William Emerson, was the pastor of the prestigious First Church of Boston. "Every Sunday evening," writes historian Phyllis Cole, "the deacons and other friends enjoyed wine and spirits, arrayed in gleaming decanters on the sideboard" in the dining room of the Emerson residence.

According to then-president of Yale Timothy Dwight, in his Travels in New England and New York, sometime in the early years of American independence, a justice of the U. S. Supreme Court told a governor of Connecticut that "when General Washington took the oath of office in the balcony of the assembly house in Philadelphia, the chief justice, who administered it, could scarcely be heard at a distance of ten feet on account of the noise and tumult of the yard below."

These intimate details about life in the young republic--cocktail hour at the parsonage, an unruly audience for Washington's swearing in--paint a picture of early American society that we don't often see. How do such portraits of ordinary American life help us understand American Cookery by Amelia Simmons? Find out this November in our new book from University of Massachusetts Press, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.

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Of Citrons and Amelia Simmons (with an Aside about Emily Dickinson)

How Are These Two Alike? Find Out Below

Black Cake
In working on our next book, due out from University of Massachusetts Press this fall, we had some correspondence with the staff of Harvard's Houghton Library on the subject of citron, a fruit that, in candied form, is included in many fruitcakes. Some of the Houghton staff had gotten together and baked a "black cake,"

from a recipe used by  Read More 
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"To Smother a Fowl in Oysters," from Amelia Simmons's "American Cookery" (1796)

An "Oystered" Fowl That Makes Excellent Fare

The Oyster: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
In our last post, the oyster had the featured role. As we mention there, the oyster has also performed admirably in historic New England cuisine in supporting parts. This time we offer oysters in such a supporting role from our old friend Amelia Simmons and the book by her that's considered "the first American cookbook." Read More 
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"To alamode a round," from Amelia Simmons's American Cookery (1796)

Not Your Average Pot Roast, from 1796

A La Mode des Francais, Anglais, Américains
The expression "à la mode," as appended to apple pie in modern American English, actually makes no sense: apple pie in the style or fashion of . . . what? Or whom? Have we slovenly Americans yet again, in importing vocabulary and cuisine from France, robbed both of their native clarity and elegance? Not really. It turns out that long before apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, another "à la mode" dish was so widely loved that there was in that case as well no need to fill in the blank after the "de." This was, in the Anglophone world, "beef a la mode." Nor was the American Amelia Simmons the first to make the usage even more casual by turning the phrase into a verb that served as shorthand for the entire process of cooking the dish: "To alamode a round." The English author Elizabeth Raffald had pulled a similar stunt three decades before: "To a-la-mode beef." Read More 
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Amelia (1796) Strikes Again: “To Dress a Bass”

Amelia Simmons’s stuffed striped bass, accompanied by Elizabeth Raffald’s stewed oysters

Good Every Way
Along the New England coast, it’s the peak time of year for catching striped bass. Or if like us you’re not that much into fishing, it’s the season when you can be sure to find this delicious species at your local market. Back at the very beginnings of the English settlement of New England, in 1634, William Wood, in his book New Englands Prospect, wrote that “though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet they are never with Basse.” Over two hundred years later, our good friend Catharine Beecher heartily agreed. “Bass are good every way,” she said. Nowadays, one of the ways of cooking bass that people particularly like is grilling it on a cedar plank, as is also popular with salmon, and as we did, using a recipe from Mrs. Bliss, with haddock (see our blog post, “Scrod or Young Cod, Roasted”).  Read More 

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"Gingerbread Cakes"—another offering from Amelia Simmons’s “first American cookbook” (1796)

Amelia’s “veddy English” Gingerbread Cakes, enjoyed with a “nice cuppa”

Gingerbread: The History
Simmons’s recipe is closely based on one in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (see our blog post on her chowder recipe). Indeed gingerbread had a long history in England before it crossed the Atlantic. The earliest gingerbreads were made with grated crumbs from the finest type of wheat bread, the manchet (see our blog post thereon), were sweetened with honey rather than sugar or molasses, and were often dyed red, violet, or yellow. In the course of the seventeenth century, flour began to replace the manchet crumbs and sugar or treacle (molasses to us Yanks) the honey, while the garish coloring gradually faded away.  Read More 

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“Plumb Cake," from Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)

A yeasted "Plumb Cake" from the first American cookbook

In New England, Christmas didn't become an important holiday until about the middle of the nineteenth century. The Puritans distinctly objected to Christmas celebrations. In time, they became less strict about some of their beliefs, but not their hostility to Christmas. But the Puritans and their descendants weren't nearly as consistent as they liked to think they were. In the eighteenth century, when Thanksgiving began to develop as the most important regional holiday, New Englanders began sneaking Christmas in by the back door, featuring traditional English Christmas foods in their Thanksgiving feasts. That's how turkey became the centerpiece of the American Thanksgiving dinner. It's also how several traditional English Christmas desserts like mince pie and plum pudding found their way onto the festive New England board. The recipe we're going to tell you about in this post, for "Plumb Cake," is an example of an English treat that became popular in New England for Thanksgiving and, later on, for Christmas. Read More 

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Marlborough Pudding (Pie) by Amelia Simmons

Marlborough Pudding, a custard apple pie from Amelia Simmons (1796)

In Amelia Simmons's day, "pudding in paste" was a common term for custard pie. Her "Marlborough Pudding" is just that, a custardized apple filling in a crust. For this pie, she recommends using her own paste No. 3, lining a deep dish, and filling it with a rich apple custard. Her paste no. 3 is a superb puff paste (we give it in Northern Hospitality, p. 247). But any good homemade pie crust will do nicely. The essence of this apple pie is the filling: luscious fresh apples, cooked down to a thick sauce, mixed with eggs, wine, butter, cream, spices, and sugar. It's a pity that Marlborough Pie is seldom seen on restaurant menus or in cookbooks today.  Read More 

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