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SUPPLIES OF THE LARDER
IT is a tradition of short commons, usually extending even to stories of starvation, in the accounts of all early settlements in new lands, and the records of the Pilgrims show no exception to the rule. These early planters went through a fiery furnace of affliction. The beef and pork brought with them became tainted, "their butter and cheese corrupted, their fish rotten." A scarcity of food lasted for three years, and there was little variety of fare, yet they were cheerful. Brewster, when he had naught to eat but clams, gave thanks that he was "permitted to suck of the abundance of the seas and the treasures hid in the sands." Cotton Mather says that Governor Winthrop, of the Bay settlement, was giving to a poor neighbor the last meal from his chest, when it was announced that the food-bearing Lion had arrived. The General Court thereat changed an appointed Fast Day to a Thanksgiving Day. By tradition — still commemorated at Forefathers' Dinner — the ration of Indian corn supplied to each person was at one time but five kerpels.
Still there was always plenty of fish — the favorite food of the English — and Squanto taught the colonists various Indian methods of catching the "treasures of the sea." With oysters and lobsters they were far from starvation. Higginson said of the latter shellfish, in 1630, "the least boy in the Plantation may both catch and eat what he will of them." He says that lobsters were caught weighing twenty-five pounds each, and that the abundance of other fish was beyond believing. Josselyn, in his "New England Rarities," enumerated two hundred and three varieties of fish; yet Tuckerman calls his list "a poor makeshift." The planters had plenty of implements with which to catch fish — "vtensils of the sea" — "quoils of rope and cable, roudes of twine, herring nets, seans, cod-lines and cod hookes, mackrill-lines, drails, spiller hooks, mussel-hooks, mackrill hooks, barbels, splitting knives, sharks hookes, bassonettes, pues and gaffs, squid lines, yeele pots," &c. Josselyn also tells some very pretty ways of cooking fish, especially eels with herbs, showing that, like Poins, the colonists loved conger and fennel. Eels were roasted, fried, and boiled. Boiled "eals" were thus prepared:
"Boil them in half water half wine with the bottom of a manchet, a fagot of Parsly and a little Winter Savory, when they are boiled they take them out and break the bread in the broth and put in two or three spoonfuls of yest and a piece of sweet butter, pour to the eals laid upon sippets." Another way beloved by him was to stuff the eels with nutmeg and cloves, stick them with cloves, cook in wine, place on a chafing-dish, and garnish with lemons. This rich dish is somewhat overclouded by his suggestion that the eels be arranged in a wreath.
The frequent references to eels in early accounts prove that they were regarded, as Izaak Walton said, "a very dainty fish, the queen of palate-pleasure."
Next to fish, the early colonists found in Indian corn, or "Guinny wheat" — "Turkie wheat" one traveller called it — their most unfailing food-supply. Our first native poet wrote, in 1675, of what he called early days:
"The dainty Indian maize,
Was eat with clamp-shells out of wooden trays."
Its abundance and adaptability did much to change the nature of their diet as well as to save them from starvation. The colonists learned from the Indians how to plant, nourish, harvest, grind, and cook it in many Indian ways, and in each way it formed a palatable food. The Indian pudding which they ate so constantly was made in Indian fashion and boiled in a bag. To the mush of Indian meal they gave the English name of hasty-pudding. Many of the foods made from maize retained the names given in the aboriginal tongues, such as hominy, suppawn, pone, samp, succotash; and doubtless the manner of cooking is wholly Indian. Hoe-cakes and ash-cakes were made by the squaws long before the landing of the Pilgrims. Roasting ears of green corn were made the foundation of a solemn Indian feast and also of a planters' frolic. It is curious to read Winthrop's careful explanation, that when corn is parched it turns entirely inside out, and is "white and floury within;" and to think that there ever was a time when pop-corn was a novelty to white children in New England.
Wood said that sukqutttahhash was "seethed like beans." Roger Williams said that" nassaump, which the English call Samp, is Indian corne beaten & boil'd and eaten hot or cold with milke or butter and is a diet exceeding wholesome for English bodies." No-cake, or nokick, Wood, in his "New England Prospects," thus defines: "Indian com parched in the hot ashes, the ashes being sifted from it, it is afterward beaten to powder and put into a long leatheme bag trussed at their back like a knapsacke, out of which they take thrice three spoonsfulls a day." It was held to be wonderfully sustaining food in most condensed form. It was carried in a pouch, on long journeys, and mixed before eating with snow in winter and water in summer. Jonne-cake, or journey-cake, was also made from maize. For years the colonists pounded the corn in stone mortars, as did the Indians; then in wooden mortars with pestles. Then rude hand-mills were made — "quernes" — with upright shafts fixed immovably at the upper end, and fastened at the lower end near the outside edge of a flat, circular stone, which was made to revolve in a mortar. By turning the shaft with one hand, the com could be supplied to the grinding-stone with the other. These hand-mills are sometimes still found in use as "samp-mills." Wind-mills and water-mills followed naturally in the train of the hand-mills.
Wheat but little availed for food in early days, being frequently blighted. Oats were raised in considerable quantity, a pill-corn or peel-corn or sil-pee variety. Josselyn, writing in 1671, gives a New England dish, which he says is as good as whitpot, made of oatmeal, sugar, spice, and a "pottle of milk;" a pottle was two quarts. At a somewhat later date the New Hampshire settlers had a popular oatmeal porridge, in which the oatmeal was sifted, left in water, and allowed to sour, then boiled to a jelly, and was called "sowens." It is still eaten in Northumberland.
By the strict laws made to govern bakers and the number of bake-shops that were licensed, and the sharp punishments for baking short weight, etc., it seems plain that New England housewives did little home baking in early days. The bread was doubtless of many kinds, as in England — simnels, cracknels, jannacks, cheat loaves, cocket-bread, wastelbread, manchet, and buns. Pure wheaten loaves were not largely used as food — bread from corn meal dried quickly; hence rye meal was mixed with the corn, and "rye 'n' Injun" bread was everywhere eaten.
To the other bountiful companion food of corn, pumpkins, the colonists never turned very readily. Pompions they called them in "the times wherein old Pompion was a saint." Johnson, in his "Wonder-Working Providence," reproved them for making a jest of pumpkins, since they were so good and unfailing a food — "a fruit which the Lord fed his people with till corn and cattle increased."
"We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undone."
Pompions, and what Higginson called squantersquashes, Josselyn squontersquoshes, Roger Williams askutasquashes, Wood isquoukersquashes — and we clip to squashes — grew in vast plenty. The Indians dried the pompions on strings for winter use, as is still done in New England farm communities. Madam Knight had them frequently offered to her on her journey — "pumpkin sause" and "pumpkin bred." "We would have eat a morsel ourselves, but the Pumpkin & Indian-mixt bread had such an Aspect." Pumpkin bread is made in Connecticut to this day. For pumpkin "sause" we have a two-centuries-old receipt, which was given by Josselyn, in 1671, in his "New England Rarities," and called by him even at that day "an Ancient New England Standing-dish."
"The Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe and cut them into Dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons and stew them upon a gentle fire the whole day. And as they sink they fill again with fresh Pompions not putting any liquor to them and when it is stir'd enough it will look like bak'd Apples, this Dish putting Butter to it and a little Vinegar with some Spice as Ginger which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with fish or flesh."
This must be a very good "sause," and a very good receipt when once it is clear to your mind which of them — the housewives or the pompions — sink and are to fill and be filled in a pot, and stirred and stewed and put liquor to.
In an old book which I own, which was used by many generations of New England cooks, I find this singular good "rule to make a "Pumpion Pye:"
"Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handful of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and Sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalkes, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves and beat them, take ten Eggs and beat them, then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz, after it is fryed, let it stand til it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne rounde-wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz and layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it, when the pye is baked take six yelks of Eggs, some White-wine or Vergis, and make a Caudle of this, but not too thicke, cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them wel together whilst the Eggs and Pompions be not perceived and so serve it up."
I am sure there would be no trouble about the pompions being perceived, and I can fancy the modest half-pound of country vegetable blushing a deeper orange to find its name given to this ambitious and compound-sentenced concoction which helped to form part of the "simple diet of the good old times." I have found no modern cook bold enough to "prove" (as the book says) this pumpion pie; but hope, if any one understands it, she will attempt it.
Potatoes were on the list of seeds, fruits, and vegetables that were furnished to the Massachusetts Bay colonists in 1628, and fifteen tons (which were probably sweet potatoes) were imported from Bermuda in 1636 and sold in Boston at twopence a pound. Winthrop wrote of "potatose" in 1683. Their cultivation was rare. There is a tradition that the Irish settlers at Londonderry, N. H., began the first systematic planting of potatoes. At the Harvard Commencement dinner, in 1708, potatoes were on the list of supplies. A crop of eight bushels, which one Hadley farmer had in 1763, was large — too large, since "if a man ate them every day he could not live beyond seven years." Indeed, the "gallant root of potatoes" was regarded as a sort of forbidden fruit — a root more than suspected of being an over-active aphrodisiac, and withal so wholly abandoned as not to have been mentioned in the Bible; and when Parson Jonathan Hubbard, of Sheffield, raised twenty bushels in one year, it is said he came very near being dealt with by his church for his wicked hardihood. In more than one town the settlers fancied the balls were the edible portion, and "did not much desire them." Nor were fashionable methods of cooking them much more to be desired. In "The Accomplisht Cook," used about the year 1700, potatoes were ordered to be boiled and blanched; seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper; mixed with eringo roots, dates, lemon, and whole mace; covered with butter, sugar, and grape verjuice, made with pastry; then iced with rosewater and sugar, and yclept a "Secret Pye." Alas, poor, ill-used, be-sugared, secreted potato, fit but for kissing-comfits! we can well understand your unpopularity.
Other vegetables were produced in New England in abundance. Higginson speaks of green peas, turnips, parsnips, carrots, and cucumbers, and a dozen fruits and berries. Cranberries were plentiful and soon were exported to England. Josselyn gives a very full list of fruits and vegetables and pot-herbs, including beans, which were baked by the Indians in earthen pots as they are now in Boston bake-shops.
There was a goodly supply of game. Bradford wrote of the year 1621, "beside waterfoule ther was great store of wild Turkies." Wood said these turkeys sometimes weighed forty pounds apiece, and sold for four shillings each. Josselyn assigned to them the enormous weight of sixty pounds. All agreed that they were far superior to the English domestic turkeys. Morton said they came in flocks of a hundred; yet the Winthrops had great difficulty in getting two to breed from in 1683, and by 1690 it was rare to see a wild turkey in New England. The beautiful great bronze birds had flown away from the white man's civilization and guns.
Flocks of thousands of geese took their noisy, graceful V-shaped flight over New England, and were shot in large numbers. Dudley wrote home that doves were so plentiful that they obscured the light. Josselyn said he had bought in Boston a dozen pigeons all dressed for threepence. It is said they were sometimes sold as low as a penny a dozen. Roger Clap said it would have been counted a strange thing in early days to see a piece of roast veal, beef, or mutton, though it was not long ere there was roast goat. By 1684 a French refugee said beef, mutton, and pork were but twopence a pound in Boston. Clap says he ate his samp, or hominy, without butter or milk, but Higginson wrote in 1630, and Morton in 1624, that they had a quart of milk for a penny. John Cotton said ministers and milk were the only things cheap in New England.
By Johnson's time New Englanders had "Apple, Pear and Quince Tarts instead of their former Pumpkin Pies." They had besides apple-tarts, apple mose, apple slump, mess apple-pies, buttered apple-pies, apple dowdy and puff apple-pies — all differing.
Josselyn said the "Quinces, Cherries, & Damsins set the Dames a-work. Marmalet & Preserved Damsins is to be met with in every house." Skill in preserving was ever an English-woman's pride, and New-English women did not forget the lessons learned in their "faire English homes." They made preserves and conserves, marmalets and quiddonies, hypocras and household wines, usquebarbs and cordials. They candied fruits and made syrups. They preserved everything that would bear preserving. I have seen old-time receipts for preserving quinces, "respasse," pippins, "apricocks," plums, "damsins," peaches, oranges, lemons, artichokes, green walnuts, elecampane roots, eringo roots, grapes, barberries, cherries; receipts for syrup of clove gillyflower, wormwood, mint, aniseed, clove, elder, lemons, marigolds, citron, hyssop, liquorice; receipts for conserves of roses, violets, borage flowers, rosemary, betony, sage, mint, lavender, marjoram, and "piony;" rules for candying fruit, berries, and flowers, for poppy water, cordial, cherry water, lemon water, thyme water, Angelica water, Aqua Mirabilis, Aqua Coelestis, clary water, mint water.
No wonder a profession of preserving sprung up. By 1781 we find advertised in June in the Boston News Letter, "At Widow Bonyots All Sorts of Fruits in Preserves Jellys and Surrups. Egg Cakes, All sorts of Macaroons, Marchepane Crisp Almonds. All sorts Conserves, Also Meat Jellys for the sick."
We can see plainly by these statements that New England was no Nidderland. Even in Josselyn's day he wrote, "they have not forgotten the English fashion of stirring up their appetites with variety of cooking their food." The pages of Judge Sewall's diary give many hints of his daily fare. He speaks of "boil'd Pork, boil'd Pigeons, boil'd Bacon and boil'd Venison; rost Beef, rost Lamb, rost Fowls, rost Turkey, pork and beans;" "Frigusee of Fowls," "Joll of Salmon," "Oysters, Fish and Oyl, conners, Legg of Pork, hogs Cheek and souett; pasty, bread and butter; Minc'd Pye, Aplepy, tarts, gingerbread, sugar'd almonds, glaz'd almonds;" honey, curds and cream, sage cheese, green pease, barley, "Yokhegg in milk, chockolett, figgs," oranges, shat-tucks, apples, quinces, strawberries, cherries, and raspberries; a very fair list of viands.
"Yokhegg" is probably "yeokheag," a name for Indian corn, parched and pounded into meal, a name by which it was known for many years in Eastern Connecticut.
Sewall was a very valiant trencher-man. He records with much zest going down the Bay to an island, or riding to Roxbury for an outing and dinner, and coming home in "brave moonshine." And, like his neighbor, Cotton Mather, he drew many a spiritual lesson from the food set before him; especially, however, at a scambling meal, or at any repast which he ate alone, and hence had naught and no one to divert therefrom his ever-religious thoughts.
From a curious account of Boston, written by a traveller named Bennet, in the year 1740, we take the following statements of the cost of food there:
"Their poultry of all sorts are as fine as can be desired, and they have plenty of fine fish of various kinds, all of which are very cheap. Take the butchers' meat all together, in every season of the year, I believe it is about twopence per pound sterling; the best beef and mutton, lamb and veal are often sold for sixpence per pound of New England money, which is some small matter more than one penny sterling.
"Poultry in their season are exceeding cheap. As good a turkey may be bought for about two shillings sterling as we can buy in London for six or seven, and as fine a goose for tenpence as would cost three shillings and sixpence or four shillings in Condon. The cheapest of all the several kinds of poultry are a sort of wild pigeon, which are in season the latter end of June, and so continue until September. They are large, and finer than those we have in Condon, and are sold here for eighteenpence a dozen, and sometimes for half of that.
Fish, too, is exceeding cheap. They sell a fine fresh cod that will weigh a dozen pounds or more, just taken out of the sea, for about twopence sterling. They have smelts, too, which they sell as cheap as sprats are in Condon. Salmon, too, they have in great plenty, and those they sell for about a shilling apiece, which will weigh fourteen or fifteen pounds.
"They have venison very plenty. They will sell as fine a haunch for half a crown as would cost full thirty shillings in England. Bread is much cheaper than we have in England, but is not near so good. Butter is very fine, and cheaper than ever I bought any in Condon; the best is sold all summer for threepence a pound. But as for cheese, it is neither cheap nor good."
I am somewhat surprised at Bennet's dictum with regard to cheese, and can only feel that he had special ill fortune in choosing his cheesemonger. For certainly the Rhode Island cheese, made from the rich milk of the great herds of choice cows that dotted the fertile and sunny fields of old Narragansett, was sent to England and the Barbadoes in great quantity, and commanded special prices there. Brissot said it was equal to the "best Cheshire of England or Rocfort of France." This cheese was made from a receipt for Cheshire cheese which was brought to Narragansett by Richard Smith's wife in the seventeenth century; and her home is still standing, though built around, at Cocumcussett, where her husband and Roger Williams founded a colony.
We have a very distinct rendering of the items of family expense, chiefly of food, at about that time, given us by a contemporary authority, and bequeathed to us in a letter to the Boston 'News Letter of November 28, 1728. The writer refers to other "scheams of expense" for a household which have been made public, one apparently being at the rate of £250 a year for the entire outlay. This sum he thinks inadequate and "disproves in a moment." He gives his own careful estimate of the cost of keeping a family of eight persons. It is computed for "Families of Midling Figure who bear the Character of being Genteel," and reads thus:
Certainly we gain from this "scheam" a very clear notion of the style of living of this genteel Boston family.
There is, of course, no possibility of exactly picturing the serving of a meal in early days; but one peculiarity is known of the dinner — the pudding came first. Hence the old saying, "I came in season — in pudding-time." In an account of a Sunday dinner given at the house of John Adams, as late as 1817, the first course was a pudding of Indian corn, molasses, and butter; the second, veal, bacon, neck of mutton, and vegetables.
For many years the colonists "dined exact at noon," and on farms even half an hour earlier. On Saturday all ate fish for dinner. Judge Sewall frequently speaks of his Saturday dinner of fish. Fish days had been prescribed by the King in England, in order that the fisheries might not fail of support, as was feared on account of the increased consumption of meat induced by the reformation in religion. New Englanders loyally followed the mandate, but ate cod-fish on Saturdays, since the Papists ate fish on Fridays.
One very pleasant and friendly custom that existed among these kindly New England neighbors must be spoken of in passing. It is thus indicated by Judge Sewall when he writes, in 1723, of Mr. and Mrs. Belcher, "my wife sent them a taste of her Diner." It appeared to be a recompensing fashion, if invited guests were unable to partake of the dinner festivities, or if neighbors were ill, for the hostess to send a "taste" of all her viands to console them for their deprivation. This truly homely and neighborly custom lingered long in old New England families under the very descriptive title of "cold party;" indeed it lingers still in old-fashioned towns and in old-fashioned families.
In earlier days when a noble dinner seemed to be the form of domestic pleasure next in enjoyment to a funeral, a "taste of the dinner" was truly a most honorable attention, and a most pleasing one.