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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Summer Pies II: “Peach Pie,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)

A Peach of a Pie from the 1840s


It’s the Pits
Peaches in any form are one of summer’s greatest delights. That goes double for peaches in a pie, and doubled again for the peaches in this particular pie, for which we’re indebted to Mrs. A. L. Webster of Hartford, Connecticut. Webster’s The Improved Housewife first appeared in the 1840s, just as the American publishing industry was getting itself modernized and consolidated and was starting to issue cookbooks at a much faster and more furious rate. Webster’s book was extremely popular and was frequently revised and reissued.  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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Summer Pies I: “Cherry Pie” and “Pie Crust,” from Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife (1833)

A Child (Lydia Maria, not Julia) cherry pie from 1829


New England is perhaps  best known for pumpkin and apple pies. The fall season, when pumpkins and apples are ready for pie-making, is considered by many to be New England's best time of year. But the region's historic cookbooks also offer lots of great recipes for summer fruit pies as well, and we'll be telling you about some of them in this and upcoming posts.

We’ll start with a simple yet elegant recipe for cherry pie from the second cookbook ever written by a New Englander, The American Frugal Housewife (1829)  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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"Fricasseed Rabbits" by Eliza Leslie, a dish from 1840

Rabbit simmered in a cream sauce, courtesy of Eliza Leslie (1840)


The Historic Setting
As we discuss in Northern Hospitality, game was neither as prominent in cooking sources nor as prestigious among the upper classes in New England as it had been among the aristocracy in England. Perhaps the difference in valuation can be attributed to the desire of the English colonists to distance themselves from the Indians' ways of obtaining food. For many settlers, too, hunting was a time-consuming activity of uncertain outcome that took the men of the household away from the important tasks associated with farming. Finally, we speculate, the plenitude of the resource in New England from the earliest years of settlement through most of the nineteenth century made wild game an important supplement to the diet but kept it from becoming the locus of leisure which it had been for the highest classes in England, where by law only the aristocracy could hunt it.  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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Loin and Neck of Pork by S. J. Hale (1852) and M. Rundell (1807)

Rolled and Stuffed Loin of Pork, a Hit from 1852, and from 1807 too!


In The Culture of Food (Blackwell, 1994), historian Massimo Montanari writes that the ancient Celts and Germans did not have a "plant of civilization," (the phrase is taken from Fernand Braudel) such as the wheat that served this purpose for the Greeks and Romans, the corn for Native Americans, or the rice for Asians. Instead, these forest peoples had an "animal of civilization," the pig, "to express and embody the cultural and productive values" of their civilizations. Thus we are treated to Celtic myths, such as The Story of Mac Dathos' Pig and Germanic tales of a paradise in which the great pig Saehrimnir provides its meat to fallen heroes.  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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Beef, or Veal Stewed with Apples (Very Good) by Catharine Beecher

Beef Stewed with Apples--indeed very good! A dish from 1846.


Despite its title, this dish isn't much like a modern stew of pieces of meat, fowl, or fish simmered along with vegetables in a rich broth or gravy. It's more like a seventeenth- or eighteen-century hash, which, as we explain in Northern Hospitality, was an elegant preparation of thinly sliced meat. Beecher's recipe calls for beef or veal, cut "in thin slices," and apple "sliced fine."

We confess that we thought this might be a rather bland dish. It was a popular preparation right into the nineteenth century, which is why we included it in our book. But there is so little to it--just sliced beef or veal, apples, a bit of onion, salt, pepper, and some butter to coat the pan. Read More 

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“To rost a Capon with Oysters and Chesnuts,” from Hannah Woolley’s The Queen-like Closet (1670)

Capon roasted with oysters and chestnuts, from 1670


Fall in New England is an ideal time to roast all sorts of good things to eat. Firing up the oven warms the kitchen on cool autumn days, while making dishes based on such classic foods as pumpkins, apples, and turkeys suffuses the house with wonderful aromas. But sometimes making a whole roast turkey with stuffing provides just too much of a good thing, leaving too many leftovers. The recipe we give you today offers an alternative to roast turkey, one that is just as delectable but that better suits our smaller modern families. The surprising thing is that it's also part of the classic New England cooking repertoire. Read More 

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