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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

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

Coming November, 2017, from University of Massachusetts Press!

1
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.

2
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 the great nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson and contained in the Dickinson manuscripts held by the Houghton. They described how they baked it in a blog post, Baking Emily Dickinson's Black Cake. Black cake is a type of fruitcake. Catharine Beecher's recipe for it in her popular 1846 cookbook, is given the name "Fruit Cake, or Black Cake."

Finding Citron

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An Election Baking Selection

Elect to Celebrate Elections


With this bitter election campaign dragging along to its conclusion, we thought we would try to sweeten the experience of the final couple of weeks before November 8th by reminding our readers of an earlier post of ours: Election Cake. We're moved to do this partly because of a recent post about Election Cake on the NPR website, brought to our attention by Tony Stavely: A History of Election Cake.

This NPR "history" of the famous cake is unfortunately  Read More 

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Boston Refried Beans

Vetting Immigrants Once Upon a Time

 

The New Nativism--An Old Story
It has become almost a cliche to say that the present period of American history, beginning around 1975, is similar in many important ways to the period beginning roughly a hundred years earlier. We are living now, it appears, in a second Gilded Age, with pronounced inequalities of wealth and income and with transformative changes in our technology, economy, and the demographic profile of our society.

The last of the trends on this list—the arrival of lots of new people—has received much attention in the past few years from political commentators and is in the headlines almost every day in the coverage of the current presidential campaign, because of the xenophobia that constitutes the primary plank in the platform of the Republican candidate. Read More 

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Brexit? Doubt It

Breakin' Up Is Hard to Do

 

Immigrant Foods
With this post, we start an occasional series on some of the myriad ways that New England foods are connected to the region's broader culture and its place in the world. In the past few days, the headlines have been dominated by the startling news that the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union. There has been, and will continue to be, as there must, much discussion of the many still largely unknown implications and consequences of this decision. Read More 

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"Mince Pies," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)

Where's the Beef? In 1832, it was in the pie!

 

Mincing Medievalism
Mincemeat pie is a relic of the time centuries ago when two things were true of European food: one, that until Shakespeare's day pies were made more often with meat, poultry, or fish than with fruit or vegetables as the primary ingredient; and two, that very few dishes of any kind, including pies, tasted primarily sweet or primarily savory. Most dishes, including pies, offered what we would consider a blend of sweet and savory tastes, something like the sweet-and-sour items on a Chinese restaurant menu. Or like that American classic of the Betty Crocker era--ham baked with brown sugar and pineapple.  Read More 

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"Escaloped Oysters," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)

Escaloped and Elegant, in 1833 or 2015


Oys . . . Oys . . . Oysters!
In a couple of our previous posts—about Hannah Woolley's "To rost a Capon" and Hannah Glasse's "Cod Chowder"—oysters appear in supporting roles. It's high time to put them in the spotlight. Among all the shellfish enjoyed today, oysters alone have a history of continuous popularity and prestige that stretches back to Roman times. In the ancient world, in medieval Europe, in colonial and nineteenth century America, oysters were beloved by people in all walks of life. "Oys . . . Oys . . . Oysters!" is close to the cry used by oyster peddlers in the streets of Boston in the 1830s. Around the same time, America's first freestanding restaurants, not affiliated with inns or hotels, emerged, and these were almost all establishments that specialized in oysters. Some catered mainly to working people who stood at wooden bars at lunchtime, knocking back their oysters. Others were outfitted with booths and tables to appeal to a more well-heeled clientele. Read More 

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"Ginger Nuts," from Mrs. Bliss's "Practical Cook Book" (1850)

Gingery, Nutty, Blissful

Don't Make It Snappy
In the middle of the nineteenth century (before chocolate invaded and displaced all other sweet flavorings), Americans were partial to the zippy combination of ginger and molasses, which they used as the basis for untold varieties of treats. The spicy-sweet flavor duo lent itself to both "soft" gingerbread (like modern shortbread) and denser forms of hand-held treats. Toward the solid end of the spectrum were ginger snaps and a kind of ginger cookie that, sadly and inexplicably, has fallen by the wayside—ginger nuts. Our goal today is to entice you to bake up a batch of these long-forgotten Victorian chews so that you too can experience the deep, glorious taste of a really gingery cookie. Read More 

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"Lobster Fricassee," from Mrs. N. K. M. Lee's "Cook's Own Book" (1832)

Lobster à la Lee


Lobster, Literary Larceny Linked!
"Mrs. N. K. M. Lee" is described on the title page of The Cook's Own Book: A Complete Culinary Encyclopedia (1832) as a "Boston Housekeeper." But nobody has ever been able to verify that an individual by that name, whether a Boston housekeeper or a zookeeper, ever existed. That's not all. The Cook's Own Book is more than 90% plagiarized from English cookbooks. The lobster fricassee recipe is lifted word for word from Catherine Dalgairns's The Practice of Cookery, Adapted to the Business of Every Day Life (1830). By the way, if you're wondering what a fricassee is, see our March, 2012 post on Eliza Leslie's recipe for "Fricasseed Rabbits."

Pseudonymity and plagiarism didn't stop Read More 

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"Election Cake," from Lydia Maria Child's American Frugal Housewife (1833)

Democracy, 1829 Style


Let Them Vote and Eat Cake
Believe it or not in our time of bitterly partisan politics, but Election Day used to be a holiday. In Massachusetts, for instance, in the colonial and early national periods, it took place in May, and, used as an occasion for the standing order to assert social dominance, it was planned to coincide with the Harvard Commencement and the annual meeting of the ministers of the Commonwealth's established churches. Grand processions, formal ceremonies such as the Election Sermon, an official counting of the vote, sumptuous dinners, and elegant afternoon and evening balls were highlights of the occasion.

In Connecticut, according to one account from the late nineteenth century, Read More 

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