This semester is kicking my butt, so I've had to let fun stuff slide--fun stuff like eating home-cooked food. I did actually make three historic dishes for my book club last month, to go with Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I can't really figure out where they would fit into the challenges, so here they are all at once.
Year/Region: 1855; Hartford, CT
How Did You Make It: I had noticed this recipe in The Improved Housewife: Or, Book of Receipts; with Engravings for Marketing and Carving by Mrs. A.L. Webster, a married lady, when I was looking for "foreign" names. The recipe jumped out at me because it's the name of a nearby road.
I followed the recipe faithfully, although if you notice, the recipe doesn't say at what temperature or for how long to cook the cake (which is actually more like a cookie). In fact, it doesn't mention cooking at all. I ended up baking at 350 for about 12-15 minutes. I sprinkled the cakes with powdered sugar both before and after baking.
Time to Complete: Because I had 3 dishes to make, I spent a big chunk of the morning cooking and worked on multiple dishes simultaneously. This one probably took about an hour from start to finish.
Total Cost: I had all the ingredients on hand.
How Successful Was It?: The large number of eggs make for a cake-like, slightly dense crumb. I loved the delicate flavor of the rose-water, but didn't love the texture as much. I have a feeling my book club members were slightly less than enthusiastic about any of these dishes, but they really weren't designed for a modern palate. There were plenty of leftovers, which surprisingly never seemed to go stale. I feel they're kind of a generic cookie/cake.
How Accurate Is It? I used an electric mixer and a convection oven. I also used silpats instead of buttering the cookie sheet. Otherwise, it's an authentic recipe. The eggs were from our birds.
Year/Region: 1855; Hartford, CT
How Did You Make It: I wanted a protein for my book club spread, but didn't want anything too heavy, hot, or messy. I've had this chicken salad before and quite like it. Again, it's from The Improved Housewife.
I decided to double the recipe since I was cooking for a crowd. I boiled some boneless, skinless chicken breasts. It's nearly impossible these days to buy a chicken of that size; roasting chickens today are just massive. I used cider vinegar and prepared yellow mustard. Instead of essence of celery, I used celery seed, which was suggested as a substitute in another recipe in the same book. I also opted to serve it on a bed of lettuce and tomato for color and put a basket of dinner rolls nearby for anyone who preferred a sandwich.
Essence of celery seems like a fascinating foodstuff we've completely lost:
Time to Complete: Maybe an hour, the bulk of which was waiting for the water to come to a boil.
Total Cost: It's been a few weeks, but I do recall that I winced at the price of chicken. I had everything else on hand.
How Successful Was It?: I've always liked boiling chicken. It's so fast and easy and not messy in the way that frying is. Today, we expect to have mayonnaise-based chicken salad, but this was lovely, if a bit dry. As my DH and I worked away at the leftovers, I tended to mix in a bit of mayo.
How Accurate Is It? Fairly accurate. I used chicken breasts only instead of a whole bird. The eggs were from our chickens. The one substitute I made was a period one.
Year/Region: 1870; Oxford, NC
How Did You Make It: I wanted a third dish and recalled I had a lot of persimmons on hand that I could put to good use. I cast about and came up with this recipe from Mrs. Elliott's Housewife: Containing Practical Receipts in Cookery by Sarah A. Elliott.
I had harvested local persimmons last fall and was able to raid the freezer. The day we harvested, a friend and I gathered all we could and tried several labor-intensive methods before finally settling on a chinois, those cone-shaped strainers you sometimes see in junk stores. We each ended up with three gallons of pulp and I've been gradually trying different recipes. I opted for the cornmeal option and baked in a pyrex 9x13 baking pan.
Time to Complete: Well, if you count the persimmon bit, for-freaking-evah! Otherwise, I ended up looking up a more modern pudding recipe and baking for about 40 minutes.
Total Cost: I had everything on hand. At this point, if you've done the math, you'll notice that I have used 17 eggs in just these three dishes!
How Successful Was It?: Moderately. I found that I don't really love persimmon and have a feeling the book club members didn't either. It has a distinct taste that lingers. The texture of this is also something modern eaters aren't used to--dense and quite moist. That said, I generally love puddings. It transported and held up well. I took to serving very small pieces at breakfast time. The chickens eventually enjoyed the last of the leftovers. How Accurate Is It? As far as I can tell, very. I hand-harvested and hand-processed the persimmons, and they were a local variety from a nature reserve nearby. I followed the recipe faithfully.
There you go. Lord knows when I'll get a chance to cook again.
I honestly thought I would not be able to do this challenge. I'm pushing up on a zillion deadlines and had three out-of-town trips in less than two weeks. Then last night, our neighbor brought us over a massive bowl of peaches from his tree, and I found myself doing what I always do--reaching for my grandmother's Fannie Farmer Cookbook to find what I could make with on-hand ingredients. Voila, peach pie!
Date/Year and Region: 1939, Boston
How did you make it?: I went with the peach crumble pie. Over the past few years, I've been making a peach cobbler from Cooking from Quilt Country, which is delicious. We've gotten a bit bored with it, however, and this one seemed like a fun possibility. Plus, even though the recipe title says "pie," there's no actual crust. Given my time constraints, there was a lot about this recipe I found appealing. First, I did a 30-second boiling water/ice water plunge to help with peeling the peaches. This step wasn't mentioned in the recipe, but it's what I've always done with tomatoes and peaches.
Then I sliced them and put them in my pie pan. The recipe calls for the glass pan, but I wanted to use my stoneware one as it holds more. I had a LOT of peaches to use up. In fact, I've got some peach jam cooking away right now as well and still have nine more peaches. Fortunately, they're freestone peaches, which makes them easy to slice. Look how gorgeous!
The recipe called for creaming the butter, but for some reason I chose to cut it in with a pastry cutter.
I sprinkled the crumble over the peaches and popped it in the the oven for 35 minutes. We have a commercial convection oven, so I generally cook for less time than any printed recipe.
Time to Complete: Less than one hour. The most time consuming bit was preparing the peaches. Total Cost: Zero out of pocket. I had all the ingredients on hand, and the peaches were free. How Successful Was It?: I've discovered I like a little more complexity of flavor in my peach pie. It's good, but I would probably add some salt to the crumble and perhaps some brandy or almond extract to the peaches. A little nutmeg wouldn't hurt either. That said, as soon as I'm done typing, I'm going back for seconds.
How Accurate Is It?: Very. I followed the recipe faithfully. I did use a modern oven.
I sent off the second round of craft-it-forward gifts this week. One (Joe R) hasn't gotten back to me with what he wanted, but I sent off cooling neckbands or washcloths to the others. When Mindy posted she was crafting it forward again, I jumped on it. Her stuff is awesome. I was surprised at how quickly my spots filled up, but I'm sending to Ann M, Erin S, Kama B, Linda Y, Mary W, and Mrs. G as a bonus.
A few ideas are percolating in my head, but time will tell.
Last entry's chop suey would have been perfect here, and I'm still reading the book (one last chapter to go), but the main reason I decided on doing these challenges was to get more comfortable with nineteenth-century cooking. I decided to return to The Improved Housewife: Or, Book of Receipts; with Engravings for Marketing and Carving by Mrs. A.L. Webster, a married lady. I perused the table of contents and found the following terms: Spanish, Scotch, French, Tunbridge, Rousse, East India, and Iceland. I was really excited about the Tunbridge cakes, but further research revealed that Tunbridge was in Vermont, while Tunbridge Wells was in England. There was an intriguing reference to roasting coffee the French way, but I don't drink coffee and my husband was less than enthusiastic about helping with the preparation.
Eventually, I settled on Spanish Fritters. I'm terrified by yeast, but since I entered the challenge to stretch myself, I figured this would be a good choice. As a bonus, these didn't seem to require kneading. Besides, anything tastes better when deep fried.
Mrs. Webster was quite the plagiarist; the same recipe appears in The Virginia Housewife in 1828. Spanish fritters appear in a number of historic cookbooks, without much in common beyond the frying.
This one from 1758 looks like French toast:
This one from 1806 sounds like a deep-fried pate a choux:
This one from 1833 is definitely French toast (an earlier edition dates to 1808):
This one from 1854 is entirely different:
Anyway, you get the idea. Some kind of dough, deep fried. Yum! Doesn't this look delicious?
Date/Year and Region: 1847, Hartford, CT
How did you make it?: I followed the recipe fairly faithfully. Because it only called for one egg, I couldn't really halve it. I combined 4 cups of flour with 1 packet of yeast, a pinch of salt, and one egg. I then scalded about 2 cups of milk (the recipe doesn't call for this step, but I knew the milk should be warm for the yeast to rise well) and kept adding milk until the dough had what I thought was a muffin-like consistency (1 1/2 cups).
I set the dough to rise for an hour, added 2T of melted butter, and set it to rise again for 30 minutes.
I heated the lard to 375 (the temperature recommended for modern donut recipes) and used a serving spoon to pull off walnut-sized chunks of dough. They tended to be ready to flip after about 1 minute per side.
I sprinkled a few with cinnamon sugar (as in the 1758 recipe) but have yet to try the other sauces.
Time to Complete: I let the dough have a first rise for one hour. Although the recipe didn't call for it, I gave the dough a second rise of about 30 minutes since mixing in the butter caused quite a bit of deflation. Each batch of fritters took about 2 minutes to form and fry up. Total time was probably slightly less than 2 hours.
Total Cost: Out-of-pocket expenses were zero. I happened to have some lard in the fridge and this recipe was a perfect way to clear it out. How Successful Was It?: Surprisingly only so so. I wasn't expecting them to be so bland. Unlike a donut, there's no sugar in the dough and with my decision to interpret "a little salt" as just a pinch, there just isn't a lot of taste. Both the sauces recommended would be quite strong tasting, however, so perhaps they are merely a vehicle for sauce. If I got lazy and didn't make my dough walnut-sized, the insides tended to be a bit gummy as well. How Accurate Is It?: Very accurate. I did make it "early in the morning." The egg came from our own antebellum-breed, backyard chickens. I used a packet of instant-rise yeast. I did fry them in lard. Period cooks would have fried a bit of bread to check for temperature, but I used a digital thermometer. My favorite bit of accuracy was that I got to use my yellowware dough bowl, which my mother recently passed it to me. She had used it to make bread when I was a child, and it's clearly a family piece with no markings. Someone at some point dinged it with electric beaters, but I was delighted to set the dough to rise in it.
For me, this challenge exemplifies the absolute rabbit hole that is historical research and some of the lessons I teach my students in my writing classes. I didn't really know which date to pick, but didn't want to do a patriotic or obvious date. I happened to glance at my blues calendar and noticed all the musician birthdays or death dates within this fortnight: Georgia Tom Dorsey, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Smiley Lewis, Louis Armstrong, and Casey Biill Weldon. Great, I thought, I'll look up some blues tunes to see if there are any that fit. I'm always up for some great double entendre blues.
I didn't find much until I hit Louis Armstrong, who was actually quite the foodie, even signing all his letters, "Red beans and ricely yours ..." I looked through his list of songs and saw references to cheesecake and bbq, but I ultimately opted to be inspired by "Cornet Chop Suey," which lacking lyrics, also lacks my beloved double entendres.
I initially misread the calender and thought Armstrong was born on July 4, something he himself believed his whole life. In fact, it wasn't until ten years after his death, that his true birth date was discovered: August 4. Lesson #1: Even people living their own history can be wrong about what is a historical truth. Armstrong definitely died, however, on July 6, 1971.
In search of a pre-1950 recipe, I poked around on Google Books and didn't come up with much: a US Navy cookbook, which didn't have an actual recipe, and a 1917 book by a Chinese author, which states "This dish is not known in China."
I'd been wanting to read Andrew Coe's Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States for some time. I love narrowly focused food books: Salt: A World History, The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell, etc. Alas, Coe doesn't really get to chop suey for about 200 pages, and I was under a bit of time pinch. Lesson #2, kids: The index is your friend. You don't have to read the entire book.
Lesson #3: By using only the index, you lose a lot of context. I used a 1910 chop suey recipe Coe transcribes from the Alton Evening Telegraph. Alton is just up the river from St. Louis.
The ingredients don't look particularly Chinese, do they? I'm only on Chapter 3 where I'm still with American merchants in China about 1840, but this recipe appears in Chapter 6, at which point Chinese emigres have been in the United States for several decades. Chop suey restaurants had become popular and the term itself had apparently come to mean just a "hash."
The Telegraph recipe reads as follows:
"Place in a spider a lump of butter, size of a walnut; in this, when hot, brown one and one-half pounds of Hamburg steak; heat a can of tomatoes, fry four medium-sized onions, and boil two cups of macaroni or spaghetti; seasoning each article well; drain macaroni and add it, with the onions and tomatoes, to the meat, and simmer five minutes. No side dishes are needed if this is made for lunch, as it makes a palatable, substantial lunch for six or seven people."
Date/Year and Region: 1917; Alton, IL
How did you make it?: I followed the recipe but opted just to brown the ground beef in its own fat, and used the butter to fry up the onions. The recipe doesn't say what size of can to buy, but I bought a 28 oz. can, the largest at the store. Four onions is a heck of a lot of onions. As far as "seasoning each article well," I just went with salt and pepper. The dish also uses a lot of pots: one for the pasta, a skillet for the onions, a Dutch oven for the ground beef. I opted just to dump the tomatoes into the onions for 5 minutes as I couldn't bring myself to dirty a fourth pot. I'd say it would definitely make a "substantial lunch" as it absolutely filled my Dutch oven. We'll be eating this for several days, I'm sure.
Time to Complete: Probably about 20 minutes from start to finish, largely to chop and fry the onions.
Total Cost: Probably about $12.65. I used about half of a $1.29 box of pasta and half of a $3.00 bag of onions. The tomatoes were $1.50. The ground beef was the most expensive ingredient at about $5.40 a pound. Since I was cooking under a deadline, I couldn't wait for a sale like I normally do. I usually plan my proteins around whatever is on sale. Overall, the dish was more than I would normally spend per serving, but did make a ton.
How Successful Was It?: I thought it was pretty tasty if a little bland, like many early 20th-century dishes. My little helper was very interested in it and liked the bits that fell on the floor. My husband hasn't tasted it yet. I can see myself having to doctor up the leftovers after the third or fourth time, perhaps by broiling with a bit of cheese on top.
How Accurate Is It?: What is "truth" or "accuracy" really? I accurately followed a 1917 recipe for a dish with a Chinese name, a dish that even a Chinese author says "is not known in China."
Lesson #4: Not everything is on the internet! While I was waiting for the beef to brown and the onions to cook, I pulled some of my grandmother's cookbooks off the shelf. I use these cookbooks all the time as they have wonderful egg recipes and great techniques for hiding leftovers. I looked in the index (Remember Lesson #2, kids!) and, sure enough, there were several chop suey recipes:
From the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, American style:
And two more "authentic" versions:
And from the 1940 American Woman's Cookbook, a recipe very similar to the Chinese author:
Finally, one more food reference from this fortnight, although there's no recipe because I somehow think Mississippi John Hurt isn't really talking about food:
I missed the deadline on this one by two days, but largely because I just had a 15th of the month/30th of the month idea in my head. I had decided to stick with the same cookbook, The Improved Housewife: Or, Book of Receipts; with Engravings for Marketing and Carving by Mrs. A.L. Webster, a married lady. I also picked a recipe that sounded like I would have most of the ingredients, I had great plans to make this with cold smoked trout, which I love, but we have been travelling quite a bit and are only home for about 2 days, so I went with tuna, which I already had in my cupboard. I did a bit of double checking to see what size a mustard spoon was (pretty dang tiny) and decided on my own that a salad spoon was basically a tablespoon in size. I suspect it's actually smaller, but felt comfortable with the ratios.
Date/Year and Region: 1847, Hartford, CT
How did you make it?: I followed the recipe, with a little bit of approximation as to sizes and ratios. I knew the recipe would be like a very thin mayonnaise, which is essentially eggs and oil, with the vinegar acting to thin it. Because of the similarity to mayonnaise, I decided I really wanted to emulsify my eggs and oil, so I tossed all the ingredients in the blender. A three-minute egg is essentially a soft-boiled egg, barely above raw. Some people worry about raw eggs, but I don't mind.
Time to Complete: Prep time was about 5 minutes.
Total Cost: Out-of-pocket expenses were zero. I used 2 cans of tuna fish from the cupboard. Total cost for the dressing itself (and there's a ton left for future salads) is probably less than a buck.
How Successful Was It?: Reasonably successful. Tasted on its own, the dressing is very vinegary, and complements salad greens well. I could easily imagine it on cold roast beef, ham, or chicken. I'm sure it would be great with the more delicately flavored trout, but the tuna taste was stronger than the dressing. My husband opted to add more salt, more pepper, and splash a bit more of the sauce on top of the tuna salad (I had mixed it in). He declared it "interesting" and then quickly added, "That's a compliment." It's tasty, and I do recommend this recipe if you are comfortable with raw eggs.
How Accurate Is It?: Middling accurate. The eggs came from our own antebellum-breed, backyard chickens, which I think should count for bonus points. Tuna was not one of the fish mentioned in the cookbook itself. In fact because of its strong taste, tuna doesn't seem to be widely consumed in the United States until the very early 20th century. I used commercial, modern ketchup and an electric blender.
married, knitter, wearer of pet hair, dancer, little bit of a rock star. Oh, and if I mention anything about students, rest assured that I have changed their names, gender, age, and any other identifying features. Or maybe I don't even teach and am making it all up.