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
Cooking (and Contemplating) New England
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
Summer Pies III: “Short Paste for Fruit Pies,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)
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
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
Summer Pies I: “Cherry Pie” and “Pie Crust,” from Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife (1833)
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) by Lydia Maria Child.
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
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
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
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
This recipe dates from a time when wheat was scarce and the bread made with it was therefore regarded almost with awe. Manchets are the name for the finest type of wheat bread. In his discourse on brewing and baking, Markham also offers "cheate" bread, the next level down from manchet in terms of the coarseness of the grains used. The lowest of all is not given a name, but Markham describes it as "bread for your hinde servants which is the coursest bread for mans use." Read More