Colonial Cookery

This is the third article in January of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on January 17, 1909, and is an article on colonial cookery.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Colonial Cookery

I WAS conducted through an alleged “suite” of rooms the other day that ended in what should have been called “a light closet,” if it had not had at one side a tiny gas range that might have helped furnish a doll’s house.

“This,” said my hostess, proudly, “is my kitchenette! I had never heard the word before. No other would have fitted so well into the wee corner at sight of which I could not command my risible muscles. For that means the preparation of meat and drink for a family of four. So much—or so little—for the march of modern improvement in the housewifely world.

The whole kitchenette would have gone badly into the fireplace of a colonial kitchen. Those who have seen the domestic offices of lordly mansions in England and o this side of the Atlantic, visited now as antiquities, lived in as homes a century and a half ago, will testify that the above assertion is not an exaggeration of a fact. Even in thrifty New England, where space was not wasted as in the Southern and dwellings were more compact than in New Amsterdam and South Carolina, the huge fireplace filled nearly all of one end of a kitchen spacious by comparison with the rest of the house. The fireplace was wide, and it was deep. Massive andirons (we call them firedogs now) sprawled for a part on the hearth laid with great flat stones. Midway in the cavernous mouth of the chimney was fixed the crane, a stout, horizontal iron bar, hinged at one end, and fastened deep in the masonry. From this were suspended on pothooks and hangers, pots and kettles, big and little.

Two generations later school children knew their first copies in writing books as “pothooks and hangers,” with no thought of the origin of the words. They were solid verities, material agencies to our colonial dame. Crane and dependencies were of honest wrought iron. No “castings” for the cook of that day. Below the crane, whether it were dull or empty, burned a fire that never went out in winter, and smouldered for weeks together in summer under a blanket of ashes.

Before Stoves.

The cook stove and range were as yet in the imagination of the daring inventors. Everything was cooked over and in front of the open wood fire. Tea kettles clothes boilers, big-bellied pots, in which hams and “barons” of corned beef were boiled, and smaller “stew-pans” for vegetables, swung amicably side by side, in the red glare of deep beds of hickory embers.

In front of this substratum of living coals—so hot that the very ashes were alive—were ranged vessel in which baking was done. The semi-weekly baking of bread in the northern States was in the brick oven, built in the outer wall of the kitchen.

We see brick ovens still in colonial houses that have escaped the vandalism of improvement. They are usually closed by a blank wall within, leaving no token of their former work. From the outer wall protrudes the useless hump, like a wen upon the face of the “restored” homestead. Said restoration never goes so far as to open the mouth of the oven. It had an iron door in the days of its usefulness, and an iron floor laid upon a brick foundation.

On baking day the interior was filled with short billets of hickory or birch, the torch was applied and the door was closed. A narrow flue supplied a draught that converted the wood into coals. After they had heated the oven walls through and through, the coals were transferred to the fireplace, the floor and sides of the oven were swept clean and the loaves of bread were slid into the innermost recesses of the cave from a broad wooden shovel kept for that purpose.

It was my privilege as a girl to see, in the venerable homestead which was the birthplace of eight generations of our family, the identical shovel, black with age and hard as lignum vitae, from which had slidden brown and white loaves for 200 years. The dear great-aunt who then presided over the household took the Virginia guest into the spacious kitchen, lifted the latch of the iron door, and with her own hands showed me how the ancient utensil had done its part in the family baking.

“The oven was still in use when your father was a boy,” said the gentle voice. “Tell him that you saw it and the old shovel.”

When the fragrant loaves—light, hot and mellow brunette in complexion—were drawn from the recess, cake and gingerbread went in, and if the oven were a good specimen of its kind, there remained after the cakes were done heat enough for the weekly batch of pies.

The “Dutch Oven.”

I never saw the “brick oven” at the South. Bred was made daily there and in variety that still earns for southern “hot-breads” international reputation. It was baked in loaves, or as rolls, closely set together in the “Dutch oven.” Why the name, I do not know. It was a round or oval pot with a flat bottom and a tightly-fitting lid. Iron legs held it above the coals, among which frying pan and griddle loved to nestle, for baking and roasting required that air should pass between the coals and “oven.” A shovelful of coals covered the lid and kept the heat even.

“A spider” was a smaller pot of the same shape and furnished with three strong short legs. Johnny and hoe cakes were known also as “spider cake” when cooked in this. The hoe had no top. It was round and legless. To bring cakes and pones to perfection it was set in hot ashes—the live ashes of which I spoke just now—a mass of sparks dug out of the bowels of the fire that was never quenched for six months on a stretch.

Our colonial ancestors brought the turnspit with them from England. In some houses they were retained until the beginning of the 19th century. I talked last week with a gentlewoman of the old school, who had seen the “spit” in action in her father’s house.

“It demanded constant attention,” she said. “After the roast went on it was one person’s business to keep the ‘jack’ in gentle motion. But the properly-tended roast was perfect of its kind. A dripping-pan placed under I saved every drop of gravy.”

Where the spit was not available, large roasts were set before the fire in roasting-pots of corresponding dimensions. Coals were piled beneath and on the lid. The lid had to be removed for each basting and turning of turkey or joint.

The concoction of sweet dishes involved an amount of work the modern housewife would be horrified to contemplate.

Spices and pepper were ground involved an amount of work the modern housewife would be horrified to contemplate.

Nothing was bought ready made. Even flavoring essences were of home manufacture. Within my memory, the housewife who clung pertinaciously to the former ways as indubitably better than these, flavored blanc mange, jellies and cakes with lemon by rubbing the fresh peel upon lumps of loaf sugar, and with bitter almond by rubbing the sugar with green peach leaves. Rosewater flavoring was obtained by steeping rose petals in brandy. After the lump sugar was tinged to the proper degree of yellow or green, it was pounded in a mortar with a pestle, then sifted through lace or muslin to the powder suitable for cake-making.

Had “Longer Days.”

I shall, by and by, offer recipes in evidence of the truth that our foremothers had longer days than ours, hence more time to bestow upon the various processes of culinary operations.

One important branch of cookery in that far-off time when, according to my computation, there were 48 hours to the day, 14 days to the week, and 60 to the month—was putting up all manner of fruits and a few manners of vegetables for use when fruits and green vegetables were clean out of season.

I have recipes for pickles that call for an hour a day for a whole month; for preserves that could not have been brought to the requisite lucency and crispness by less than 12 hours’ skilled labor. Apples and peaches were pared, sliced and dried under the watchful eye of the mistress, turned twice a day, taken out with the young turkeys if the sun shone, and brought in should the skies threaten rain. Then they were put up in muslin bags and examined every Monday, lest worms and mould might attack them. Pears and peaches were pared, crushed and sun-dried into leather” and tomatoes stewed and strained and sunned into “honey.”

We have a way speaking of those departed dames as “thrifty and frugal!” To borrow an expressive nonsense word from Lewis Carroll, I fairly “chortled aloud” with wicked glee in poring over the time-sallowed manuscripts lent to me in the course of my explorations into the daily works and ways of our revered colonial housemother. Foodstuffs were cheaper then than now, it is true. But there was less money in circulation, and what was to be had was worth more than our currency.

Judge for yourself, my economical reader, as to the frugality of a bona-fide recipe, laid before me by the great-great-great-granddaughter of the chatelaine who administered domestic law in a dear colonial homestead on the Hudson River, over 160 years back of our extravagant times. I bring the spelling down to date:

A Stew of Pigeons.

“Take the pigeons, clean and flour them. Brown a quarter of a pound of butter in a stewing pan; put in your pigeons and, when they are brown on both sides, take them out, fling away your butter and wash your pan clean. Put your pigeons in again, with as much water as will cover them, two clovers, pepper, salt and one bay leaf. Let them stew slowly one hour and a half. Strain out the liquor and take the yolks of two eggs beaten up with a teaspoonful of vinegar. Mix in your liquor and thicken it. Put your pigeons in the dish and throw your sauce upon it. You must add to your sauce upon it. You must add to your sauce sweetbreads, mushrooms and roasted chestnuts. Boil these half an hour.”

The quantity of each of the articles last named is left to the discretion of the individual housewife or cook. Madame is more explicit in the next formula:

To Make Waffers (Waffles!)

“Half a pound of white flour, half a pound of fine sugar; then take a little water and boil and melt in it half a pound of good butter. Beat the yolks of two eggs well in a little lemon peel, orange water and a little lemon peel, shred small. Beat all these very well, butter your irons and bake them over a quick, clear wood fire. When the wafers are baked roll them up.”

Another authentic recipe is for

Pound Cake.

“One pound of flour, one pound of butter, washed in three waters, to get out the salt. Knead it well in the water, then squeeze out every drop of water in a clean linen cloth. Rub the butter then to a cream, with a pound of fine sugar flavored with lemon peel before it is pounded and sifted; beat into this a glass of brandy, a grated nutmeg and the same of mace, pounded fine and sifted. Now, whip the yolks of six eggs very light, and beat these into the butter and sugar and spice. At the last put in the whites whipped stiff and high by turns with a pound of sifted and sundried flour. Mix well and beat steadily for half an hour, always from the bottom of the batter.”

None of these were accounted “fancy dishes” by the thrifty dames aforesaid. They reel off the list of pounds of butter and quarter pounds thrown away as coolly as they call for mushrooms by the dozen and pairs of sweetbreads.

Next week we will record other and as startling instances of the “frugality” in time and material which, we were brought up to hold and believe as certain, was characteristic of our revered exemplars.

Marion Harland

OTHER ARTICLES ALSO PUBLISHED…
Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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