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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

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

Among the ingredients in both the Dickinson and the Beecher recipes is citron. The Houghton bakers wondered how Dickinson, living in rural New England in the middle of the nineteenth century, would have obtained citron. They were also curious as to whether the citron she did succeed in obtaining would have been fresh or pre-candied.

These questions piqued our interest. For many of the speaking engagements promoting our last book, Northern Hospitality, we had brought along for the reception after our talk a "Plumb Cake," from a recipe in what is considered the first American cookbook. 


In another post, we've described how we made this Plumb Cake. It also calls for citron. The first time we made it, we were unable to find candied citron, or indeed any other candied fruit, in our local markets. We were told that these items were only stocked in large quantities during the holidays. We had to resort to an online vendor to get the candied fruit we needed for Simmons's Plumb Cake.

By the way, one thing you can be sure of is that when the time comes to promote our new book, we'll again be bringing something for the refreshment table from Amelia Simmons's American Cookery.

The answer to the first of the Houghton bakers' questions about citron, how Dickinson would have obtained it, was pretty clear. "Citron" can mean either a citrus fruit somewhat similar to a lemon or some varieties of melon, including watermelon. Melon citron would have been no problem for Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts, to get hold of. Neither would citrus fruit citron been hard for her to find. Among the goods long imported into New England via maritime trade were citrus fruits of many types. Lucy Larcom, in her memoir, A New England Girlhood, recalls that in the early part of the nineteenth century, in Beverly, Massachusetts, where she lived, “jars of preserved tropical fruits” were to be found “in the cupboards of most housekeepers."

Homemade or Store Bought
As for the question of whether Emily Dickinson candied the citron for her black cake herself or bought it candied already, there is no direct evidence, and the indirect evidence is ambiguous. Plenty of cookbooks in the nineteenth century included recipes for candying citron. In The Cook's Own Book (1832) by the pseudonymous Mrs. N. K. M. Lee, there are seven such recipes. We never candied the citron ourselves, when we made Amelia Simmons's Plumb Cake, but we did sometimes candy the orange peel that the recipe also called for. You can find the recipe for candying orange peel that we used here.

Dickinson might have candied the citron herself, as the Houghton bakers did. On the other hand, she lived at a time when, according to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, candying began to change from being done domestically to becoming “the domain of the professional, with manuals for professional confectioners becoming more common.” She might have gotten candied citron for her black cake from a confectioner shop in Amherst.

"American" Citron
About that melon type of citron. Catherine Beecher has a recipe for preserving melon with sugar that she calls "Citron Melon." Her predecessor Amelia Simmons also includes a recipe of this type in American Cookery. As part of her project of establishing an "American" cuisine, Simmons calls her recipe "The American Citron." But in fact, except for specifying watermelon, Simmons was, with this recipe as with many others, following precedents set in English cookbooks. The recipe for citron in the most popular English cookbook of the eighteenth century, Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, begins "Quarter your melon."

Our new book is about Amelia Simmons's American Cookery and the society and culture that produced it. The book is called United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook. We'll keep you posted as it nears publication. In the meantime, why not try one of these recipes and celebrate a small and mostly neglected culinary grace note--candied citron!

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