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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Forget the Coffee Cans but Bring on the Molasses! An 1898 Brown Bread (Muffin) from Connecticut and an 1896 Third Bread from Fannie Farmer’s Original Cookbook

Boston Brown Bread Muffins
and New England Third Bread

 

As we emphasized in earlier posts on the evolution of Rye and Indian (aka Ryaninjun) bread into Boston Brown Bread, New Englanders from the first years of settlement wished to eat bread made primarily of wheat. (See the first post in the series, Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas, for an explanation of these corn-related terms and how we're using them.) For centuries, though, this goal was unattainable for most. Wheat did not grow well in the region's rocky soil and what did grow was susceptible to a killing fungus known as "the blast." Imported from the mid-Atlantic colonies, it was an expensive luxury which only the wealthy could consume on a regular basis. The Connecticut River Valley, with rich alluvial soil suited to wheat growing, was the one area in New England where wheat was plentiful. But things changed with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Wheat imports from farming regions to the west became more plentiful and cheaper. Later in the century, mechanized milling further reduced the cost of wheat, though some began to complain that industrial-milled wheat, shorn of its germ and bran, was tasteless. It was certainly less nutritious. Read More 

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Recollections of B&M Brown Bread

B&M, the best in canned--yes, canned--brown bread!

 

 

If you grew up in or around Boston in the 1950s and '60s, as one of us did, then at one time or another you undoubtedly ate Brown Bread (aka Boston Brown Bread) from a can. Despite the word "brown" in its name, this was not some kind of before-its-time fresh-baked, super healthy bread. No, indeed. We're talking about a mass-produced, steamed, and highly sweetened loaf, sold—yup—in cans. True enough, even the canned variety was, and still is, made with whole grains—cornmeal, rye flour, and whole wheat flour—but its high molasses content will give you in just a single ½ inch slice almost a quarter of your daily recommended dose of sugar. The particular bread we're talking about is made by the B&M (Burnham and Morrill) company of Portland, Maine. There are few truly regional foods left in New England, but these cans of steamed Brown Bread certainly count as one of them, given their one-time ubiquity in the region and the vivid memories many people have of eating warm slices of B&M Brown Bread as children.
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All Steamed Up: Ryaninjun Becomes Boston Brown Bread

Molasses--A Key Ingredient in Boston Brown Bread

 

With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, New England became more plentifully supplied with wheat grown farther west, and people were at last able to partake regularly of the "good white and wheaten bread" that had always been their preference. Yet recipes for Ryaninjun bread, made with rye and cornmeal but little or no wheat, continued to appear in New England cookbooks. How come? (See the first post in this series, Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas, for an explanation of "Ryaninjun" and other corn-related terms and how we're using them.) Read More 

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A Very Good Breade Made of Indian Corne

Colonial New England's Daily Bread

 

In our last post, Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas in Colonial New England, we stressed that New England's first English settlers were embarrassed by their dependence for survival on the principal cereal grain of the region's Indigenous people. Sending word back to England about how successful their settlements were, they adopted diverse, even conflicting, strategies in talking about the grain they called "Indian Corne" or simply "Indian." (See the last post for an explanation of these and other corn-related terms and how we're using them.) Edward Johnson, in his 1654 book Wonder-Working Providence, admitted that at first the colonists had been forced to get along on "Indian Bread and water." But now, a quarter century in, they had reached a point where "good white and wheaten bread is no dainty," implying (untruthfully, in fact) that they were no longer eating Indian Bread. 

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Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas in Colonial New England

Gregorio Coche Mendoza, Corn
Oil on Canvas, 7 x 15 in.
Bloggers' Private Collection
Gift of Homer Stavely Jr. and Mary Mayshark-Stavely

 

The English settlers arrived in New England in the early seventeenth century possessed of an ancient set of attitudes about which kinds of bread were more and less desirable. The most desirable kind—indeed, the only kind that was really desirable—was wheat bread. But their longing for breads made exclusively with wheat could only be satisfied in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, after the opening of the Erie Canal made wheat shipped from areas to the west affordable. Before that, in the 18th century, New England was a major importer of wheat, bringing it in from Pennsylvania and other Middle Colonies. This trade, however, was never carried on in sufficient volume to make wheat bread a dietary staple on all levels of New England society. With a short growing season, stony soil, labor for clearing acreage in limited supply, and the depredations caused by a fungus which farmers called "the blast," colonial New England was particularly ill-suited for growing wheat. Read More 

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"Flour bread," by Lydia Maria Child, as prepared by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald

Our "Flour Bread," following the directions of Lydia Maria Child. Easy to make, great to eat!
 
 

Since the pandemic spring of 2020, we've been attending a wonderful online workshop, led by food writer and historian of bread, William Rubel, called "Bread History and Practice." There's a Facebook group, too, for any who might be interested. For the December holiday group meeting, we decided to make 19th-century American author Lydia Maria Child's "Flour Bread," from The American Frugal Housewife, 1829. (We used the 1833 edition, as reproduced verbatim and with commentary in our book, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England, University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). 

 

Baking in December, in a wood-heated house, meant moving the sponge and dough around quite a bit to warm (but not too warm) spots while it bubbled and rose. Making bread and ferrying it around the house is good winter exercise! Read More 

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"Apple Pie," by Lydia Maria Child, as prepared by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald

Apple Pie, a classic version from 1833 by abolitionist, novelist, and children's writer Lydia Maria Child

 

In our book Northern Hospitality, we include a selection of apple pies from early New England, including some that originated in England. We've got recipes for "An Apple Pudding," by E. Smith from 1739 (a delightful custard pie), "An Apple Pye," by Hannah Glasse from 1747 (made in a dish, with no bottom crust and an elegant puff pastry topping), and even a poisonous one, Elizabeth Raffald's "A Codling Pye"(1769), in which the recommended method for cooking the codlings in a brass pan with vine leaves produced toxic verdigris! But let's leave those English cooks and their recipes be for now, and make a real American apple pie. Our all-time favorite early American version is a straightforward rendition by a great nineteenth-century American woman, Lydia Maria Child. Read our book--or just look around online--if you want to know more of Child's fascinating life. And after you do, may we suggest that in honor of her service to humanity, her personal integrity, her creativity--or simply because she was a great cook--you make her luscious apple pie? Read More 

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"Connecticut Thanksgiving Chicken Pie," by Mrs. A. L. Webster, as prepared by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald

Connecticut Thanksgiving Chicken Pie
Mrs. Webster's 1844 Connecticut Thanksgiving Chicken Pie. Here it is, ready for eating!

 

Clearly from the name she gave her recipe, Mrs. Webster thought Thanksgiving was a time for pies--and not only of the sweet variety. This savory one is as delightful an addition to the banquet today as it was in the 1840s when the recipe was first published. The tradition of adding savory pies to the meal was widespread in New England, in part because domesticated turkeys in the nineteenth century and earlier were generally smaller than ours today, weighing on average eight pounds or less. To feed hungrey dinner guests, the turkey was supplemented with roast meats and other dishes, such as this one. We think this is a Thanksgiving tradition well worth reviving. Read More 

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Things to Know about American Cookery by Amelia Simmons: #17 and #18

Albany Edition of American Cookery, 1796


17
A few years after he published the second edition of American Cookery, the Albany printer Charles R. Webster received a letter from President John Adams thanking him for his patriotism. Webster was a captain in Albany’s Independent Artillery Company, and when it seemed that war with France was about to break out, he volunteered the Company’s services to the President.

18
In 1807 in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, newspaper, five cookbooks were advertised, including American Cookery. In today’s money, the prices were $27.50, $20, $15, $12.50, and $5. Any idea which of the cookbooks was going for the way lowest price of $5?

These intimate details about life in the young republic—a printer’s social position and political allegiances, prices of books—paint a picture of early American society we don’t often see. How do such portraits of ordinary American life help us understand American Cookery by Amelia Simmons? Find out in our just released 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: #15 and #16

Samuel Adams

15
In the eighteenth century, writings of all kinds—letters to the editor, articles, essays, books, pamphlets—were published with the author's identity concealed beneath a pseudonym. Literary critic Michael Warner notes that Samuel Adams used over twenty-five different pseudonyms in his revolutionary writings. Women authors also hid behind pseudonyms, such as "A Lady of Maine" and "an Aged School-Mistress, in the State of Massachusetts." The reasons writers used pseudonyms varied, but in general the public was not put off by these disguises.

16
Two novels written in the 1820s but set a few decades earlier, one by then-famous novelist Lydia Sigourney, the other by James Fenimore Cooper, mention a food item called a "nutcake." In the Sigourney novel, a family offers its guest "a plate of nut-cakes and cheese." In Cooper's work, one corner of a Christmas Eve banquet table features a plate of "certain curiously twisted and complicated figures, called 'nut-cakes.'" In other words, Cooper's nutcakes are what we would call crullers. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the most common meaning of nutcakes was doughnuts.

These intimate details about life in the young republic--the ways authors presented themselves, the names given to foods--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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