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."
Cooking (and Contemplating) New England
Of Citrons and Amelia Simmons (with an Aside about Emily Dickinson)
An Election Baking Selection
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
Boston Refried Beans
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
Brexit? Doubt It
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
"Mince Pies," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)
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
"Escaloped Oysters," from Lydia Maria Child's "American Frugal Housewife" (1833)
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
"Ginger Nuts," from Mrs. Bliss's "Practical Cook Book" (1850)
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
"Lobster Fricassee," from Mrs. N. K. M. Lee's "Cook's Own Book" (1832)
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
"Election Cake," from Lydia Maria Child's American Frugal Housewife (1833)
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
"English Plum Pudding," from Mrs. A. L. Webster's The Improved Housewife (1844)
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."
We know we are in unfamiliar, if tantalizing, historical territory Read More