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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"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." 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. 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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"English Plum Pudding," from Mrs. A. L. Webster's The Improved Housewife (1844)

For Thanksgiving This Year, Pull Out a Plum

A Classic Yankee Thanksgiving Dish
In her novel Northwood, first published in 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale gives a description of a typical New England Thanksgiving and, as we would expect, turkey and pumpkin pie are duly noted. But along with these dishes, standards of the national feast to this day, Hale includes an array of foods no longer associated with the festival: "surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton . . . a goose and pair of ducklings, . . . [and] that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie." Read More 
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"A Pipin Tart," from Gervase Markham's Countrey Contentments (1623)

A Pip of a Tart from the Seventeenth Century

Piping Up about Pippins
The pippin was introduced into England in the sixteenth century from (where else?) France and quickly became the most popular variety of apple in that apple-loving nation. (The English preference for apples above all other fruits is suggested by the fact that when the English set out to make pies with an unfamiliar New World vegetable such as the pumpkin, they chose to swaddle the sliced pumpkin in sliced apples—see our post on "Pumpion Pye.") Though apples in general became at least as popular in New as in Old England, the pippin never made it into the front rank of New England pomological prestige. One can find occasional references in the historical record to orchards that grew, for example, the "Ribstone Pippin," and in the eighteenth century the American colonies acquired their own pippin, called the Newtown after the Long Island village where it originated. Read More 
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"To Roast Venison," from Gervase Markham's The English Hus-wife (1615)

Roast Venison and All the Trimmings, from an Early Seventeenth-Century Recipe

Deer Me-at!
Deer-hunting season has been over for a month or two now, but for many hunters’ families there’s still plenty of deer (not to mention elk, moose, caribou, and antelope) venison in the freezer. And for the rest of us there is now available on the U.S. market a nice selection of both wild and farm-raised venison. The well-stocked Cambridge, MA market Savenor’s was the source of the gorgeous loin of venison we used in our recreation of Markham’s dish. The meat was pricey (about twenty dollars a pound), but far less expensive than a venison dinner for two in a fancy restaurant—and it provided enough meat for six to eight servings. For a special occasion meal, especially when company’s coming, this dish is an absolute knockout. It’s also quite easy to prepare. Read More 
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"Boston Cream Cakes" from "Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book" (1846)

Catharine Beecher's Take on a “Boston Cream” Dessert That Predates Boston Cream Pie


Let Them Eat Creamy Boston Cakes
Nowadays Americans think the only word that can possibly complete the phrase "Boston Cream" is "Pie." But in fact the BostonCream Pie—a notoriously misnamed yellow sponge cake with cream filling and chocolate icing—did not appear in print until the 1870s, long after Catharine Beecher’s 1846 cookbook made Boston Cream Cakes popular with those of a mind to imitate the dining fashions of New England’s metropolis. To confuse matters further, Beechers’s recipe wasn’t the only one circulating at the time under the stylish name of Boston Cream Cakes. But in our opinion those other recipes, relying on heavier, scone-like dough, aren’t nearly as good as Beecher’s éclair-like concoctions. Her recipe produces a light, flaky pastry, which she suggests filling with cream (meaning pastry cream) or custard. It seems highly likely that she got the idea—and most of the details—for these elegant little cakes from the famous French chef Antonin Carême, who in his Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner (1834) gives extensive instruction on making choux pastry of this type. Beecher's recipe is to all intents and purposes Carême's recipe, so she might just as well have called hers "Boston Carême Puffs.” (Pardon our punning but we just couldn’t resist that one!)  Read More 

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"To Bake a Bulloks Cheek to Be Eaten Hot," from Hannah Woolley's The Queen-like Closet (1670)

A Cheeky Dish


A Bit of Thanksgiving Corrective
Before the standard roast turkey, stuffing, and gravy overtook Thanksgiving dinner like some monocultural virus decimating all other species and preparations, New Englanders enjoyed a healthy diversity of meat, game, and poultry on their annual festive board. Describing a typical New England Thanksgiving of the time, the December 23, 1801 issue of the Hampshire Gazette enthusiastically details steaming joints of roast beef, platters of mutton, tender chicken pies, and succulent geese alongside the reasonably-sized and well-dressed turkey to be found on the typical regional table. Alas, the modern turkey is not only an invasive weed of a bird driving out the many pretty Thanksiving offerings of the past, it is also untidy and overgrown, usually a titan of 18 to 22 pounds that takes visceral strength and uncanny arm movements to wrestle into the oven. Ah, for the eight or nine or even ten pound dainty fowl of yore. And in case we haven’t made our anti-turkey case sufficiently strong, be it remembered that the big bird is, after all, yet more poultry in a contemporary culinary world more awash in the stuff than the Jersey shore currently is in storm detritus.  Read More 

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Not Your Mother's Pumpkin Pie: "To Make a Pumpion Pye," from The Complete Cook (1658)

Pumpkin Pie Fit for a Queen


Now that we're smack dab in the middle of the fall, New England's best time of year (as we noted in one of our summer posts), it's time to talk about one of the seasonal pies for which New England is best known—pumpkin pie. But the pumpkin pie we have in mind isn't your mother's pumpkin pie. Far from it. That pie—a pumpkin custard, gently spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of ginger and allspice, and baked in a crust—didn’t come into existence until the late eighteenth century. A century and a half before that, the early settlers of New England weren't all that keen on pumpkins, or the pies that could be made from them. According to the region's first historian, writing in the 1650s, people ate "Pumpkin Pies" only because they had to, because pumpkins (like corn, another unfamiliar food) grew like weeds in the strange new world in which they found themselves. They came up with ways to cook pumpkins (and corn) so that they could survive, not so that they could enjoy what they were eating.

But their compatriots in England didn't feel the same way. To them, sitting pretty and comfortable back home, pumpkins were intriguing in their novelty, not displeasing.  Read More 

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Summer Pies III: “Short Paste for Fruit Pies,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)

A Lard-de-Dard 19th Century Pie Crust


Bring Back Lard!
Here as promised is the crust we made to go with the peach-cum-pits pie we told you about in our last post. When we first made this shortcrust pastry, which was when we made it for the peach pie, we felt some trepidation about the addition of lard to the dough. We were novices at cooking with lard, and hadn't yet baked anything that included this—to us—new ingredient. Would the baked crust taste, um, piggy? On the other hand, we knew from our historical research that New Englanders had for a long time deployed lard in pie crusts to superb effect. The winning recipe in a 1939 New England apple pie contest called for a crust made with lard as the only type of fat. (Whereas Mrs. Webster’s Short Paste uses equal amounts of lard and butter.) Read More 

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