American and international literature is inundated with images of the old New England home and hearth. From Longfellow's depiction of Priscilla Mullins at her spinning wheel in The Courtship of Miles Standish to the fantastic musings of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Oldtown Folks. Frugality, hard word and dry morality are given "air-time" by Francis Underwood in Quabbin, but with equally warm, satisfying and level-headed principles paralleling. Some may say a Yankee home is the ideal home, a small cottage nestled in amongst the tall pines while the rest of the world whizzes by physically and technologically. In some ways, it is true but I do think that is why home and hearth(not to mention family ties) is so important to us and why New England has always been, and will continue to be, the epitome of comfort food.
Although I must preface my introduction to the New England way of living as relaxed, we are still informed. The domestic images that have enchanted New England writers and artists since time immemorial have been romanticized, but not exaggerated. Even many academic historians display their interpretation of the New England home and hearth with the same colorful representation as Whittier and Jewett. And you know the old adage, there is a grain of truth even in folklore.
Find below a brief account of who we are, for that has directly evolved from where we came from and how we got here. Let me tell you a little story.
During the early part of new England's colonization and well into the 19th century, families cooked in the fireplace. Large kettles or pots were seen in every home. Most of the time, a certain pot was solely used for soap making while boiling and stewing food was done in another. Having a nest of iron pots of different sizes, a gridiron, Dutch oven, skillets of various dimensions along with a spider and bakeware were essential to early cooking. For those who could afford it, brass kettles were often seen in door yards of old filled with pale, white, bubbling homemade soap or fresh tree sap being reduced for the family's year-long sugar needs.
Francis Underwood, author of Quabbin, extolled the "girth" of breakfasts in the late 19th centuries
..... "a substantial breakfast that was begun by a preliminary nip of hard cider. This might be followed by ham and eggs, or a salt fish prepared with cream, or of bean porridge(for which a ham bone furnished the stock), or of cold corned beef, with hot potatoes, and usually hot bread(called 'biscuits') resembling muffins; and with sauces, pickles, and other provocatives in plenty."
Although Mr. Underwood was writing fictionally, it truly resembled the breakfasts of a few generations ago.....well, maybe a light breakfast. This author has read accounts of much heartier morning fare. But why so much breakfast? Because Yankee's had much to do.
Harriet Beecher Stowe also mentions food in her Oldtown Folks, "I can inform all whom it may concern that rye and Indian bread, smoking hot, on a cold winter morning, together with savory sausges, pork, and beans, formed a breakfast fit for a king, if the king had earned it by getting up in a cold room, washing in ice-water, tumbling through snow drifts, and foddering cattle." There are also many accounts of family's waking up in the middle of the night or in the morning covered with a fine dusting of snow because of the unchinked openings between the logs of the home.
Harriet's representation of the New England breakfast was more of the norm than Mr. Underwood's, although many of our ancestors subsisted on any leftovers from the night before or simply milk, bread or porridge.
Although we do love our time together nestled around the dinner table and talking about the days events, back a couple of hundred years ago meals were, more often than not, just simply time enough to quench your hunger as opposed to relaxing and gossiping. This way, the days' work could either be started or finished without loosing much time.
The difference between lunch, dinner and supper.
The travelling aristocrats that came here from abroad often demeaned much of what us Yankee's either ate, were employed at or our everyday life habits. Cases in point. In many self written books from the Puritan to the Colonial era by these same affluent and wealthy "tourists", there are narratives about the pewter and ceramic serving dishes of the 'typical' New England family. This was not, and I repeat NOT, what most families ate from . Certainly a single large pewter platter or goblet was seen in many homes, but this was usually an artifact that was handed down from one generation to another or that particular family only was able to afford one. Homemade wooden trenchers were widespread throughout our homes, much to the chagrin of these wealthier travelers from abroad.
Also, the habit of 'taking dinner' in the middle of the day while 'refreshing our bodies' with a small viand(the supper) in the early evening was something often ridiculed by those who were ignorantly blind to our dinnerware. During what we call lunch now, our ancestors piled on the food in the middle of the table for everyone to dig into. And most of the time during this meal(especially in the backwoods of New England and the poorer communities) this consisted of a piece of pork surrounded by boiled beans. Nothing fancy, nothing extravagant, just pure fuel for our bodies. Sure we had cheeses, pies, cakes and various sweet treats, but these were lavished on the household infrequently up until the 19th century. It was from the early 1800s onward that we see variety on the kitchen table because of the prevalence of spices, fruits, sugar and all things that couldn't be grown in New England soil but were either bartered for or shipped into the local "store".
Lyndon Freeman of Sturbridge, Massachusetts writes(early 1800s):
"At the setting in of winter every farmer was presumed to have at least a pork and beef of sufficient quantity. The larder was well supplied with butter, cheese, applesauce, pickles, sausages, souse, etc. Their dinner commonly consisted of boiled pork or beef or both, potatoes, cabbage, beets, carrots, etc.....A mug of cider was upon the table never forgotten of as all drank as freely as we do of water today. The meat and sauce left of the dinner were hash-up for breakfast the next morning. The supper was usually brown bread and milk for all."
Food was also a way of obtaining much needed supplies for a large family. There truly shouldn't be much of a distinction between bartering and paying from the early New England era. Since few people had actual cash, gong to the "store" to obtain and pay for supplies was usually done with whatever extra the family had. Wool, tools, pots and pans, ironwork and spices were bartered at every store and even this type of system was prevalent among neighbors. I f one family had an abundance of butter or cheese and their neighbors had a good stash of vegetables or rum, you bet neighbors subsisted on each others kindness. Many men would also take in any food items they were blessed with an abundance of to the nearest tavern as well, in exchange for a few nips of rum or port but store barter for barrels of coffee, tea, tools, molasses and flour. Over time, housewives were able to barter for cinnamon, sage, nutmeg, pepper, cloves, mace and many other essential additions in our well known baking repertoire.
For families to have bread or cakes, some type of meal was needed. Be it wheat, rye or corn, all three needed to me ground. And in the winter when the rivers and streams of New England froze, this was next to impossible for a community to do. In order to keep a supply on hand, you either had to plant plenty of corn to dry and bring to the grist mill before winter or barter.
Some type of leavening was also needed for baking and this was rather easy to keep on hand, even the poorest of homes. Skimming the top barm from a barrel of cider usually did the trick for light and airy breads well as pinching a knob of dough from one unbaked loaf to keep for the next batch. Then another pinch would be taken from that loaf for the next. On and on this frugality occurred and now you know where us Yankee's get if from. There is even an account in my family of Ol' Gus Bailey who dipped his spoon in a pile of "new fallen snow" and mixed it in with biscuit batter in a lumber camp to leaven these white must-haves with baked beans. Did it work? Sure did!
Baking day was but once a week for those who had an oven built into their fireplaces. For those who didn't, this is where neighbors came in handy yet again! Many families had their own Dutch ovens though, because of the scarcity of neighbors in many rural communities. These were shallow iron kettles that stood over coals with three legs and were fitted with a deep lid onto which hot coals would be piled in order to offer all-around heat. Can you imagine puddings, pastries, cakes, gingerbreads, custards and cobblers baked this way? I certainly would love to take a trip back in time just for one day not only to taste what was cooking on the open hearth but to sample the cheeses that were homemade, with not one tasting like the other.
Churning and cheese days were also a chore that, although needed to be done, was not met with open arms. With the females of the home obtaining the milk, this was just the beginning. The pails needed to be scrubbed first, then the milk was to be scalded, skimmed and churned. The butter then had to be worked and that was no easy chore.
Sarah Emery, an ancestor of mine, relates:
"In those summer days, when my recollection first opens, mother and aunt Sarah rose in the early dawn, and taking the well-scoured wooden pails from the bench by the back door, repaired to the cow yard behind the barn. We owned six cows; my grandmother four. Having milked the ten cows, the milk was strained, their fires built, and breakfast prepared...The milk being from the ten cows, my mother made cheese four days. Aunt Sarah having the milk the remainder of the week. In this way, good-sized cheeses were obtained. The curd having been broken into the basket, the dishes were washed, and unless there was washing or other extra work, the house was righted. By the time this was done, the curd was ready for the (cheese) press....After dinner the cheeses were turned and rubbed." The cheese would then be stored in the buttery.
More commonly known, at the time, as a buttery, this room was generally the cellar where the cool air was needed in order to set the pans of milk and ripen the cheese. Many rural families denoted a lean-to as a buttery as well, using their cellar for vegetables and cider. But the cheeses were always kept down in this "root cellar" for keeping throughout the winter to prevent freezing, while meats were kept in these lean-to's.
There is nothing that irks me more than reading that meat and fish were not that plentiful for our ancestors. Many famous historians have mentioned that it was a rare treat for the man of the house to have any wild life barreled up for his family. That ranks right up there with another historical inaccuracy purveyed by most of the history professors and authors of New England life, which is that us Yankee's very seldom lived in log cabins. Absolutely rubbish this Yankee avers to both.
It is true that our Puritan ancestors relied heavily on salted meat and fish, but as the generations passed, fresh meat and fish was more the staple because of better guns and methods of fishing and trapping. Although historians say that fresh meat was hard for our 18th and 19th century forefathers to find, not only is this inaccurate, but we were still salting our meats for winter preservation. Why? Mostly because we always made sure our family's were secure in every aspect, but especially being fed. It was far better to have more than not enough and with such large families and hard work for everyone in the household, extra food was still not the norm.
When it was butchering time, usually in the late fall when the weather here in New England was cold enough to preserve without much salt, everyone helped with the slaughter. From cleaning the tripe, trying out tallow and lard, getting the head and feet ready for making headcheese or foot pies, cleaning out the intestines for sausage casings and cutting the meat into family-sized portions for preservation in fat or salt. Hams were salted as well, to ready it for the smoke house and fish was cleaned and hung from the rafters to dry out.
I am not ashamed to say that our poorer ancestors(as many of mine were) along with the more remote populations, forest creatures of every type were caught, trapped and shot for consumption. I have so many hand-written notes and recipes from my ancestors for partridges, quails, woodchucks, beaver, squirrel, birds of all types, musquash, rat, porcupine and skunks, to name a few.
The same holds true for our lakes, streams, rivers and ocean. My father(right up until the day he died) always prepared eel the same way, he said, our great great great grandmother did during the Revolutionary War period. I remember well Dad stringing up the eel on the side of the house and ,with a dry cloth and sharp knife, he would draw the skin from the tail end to the head. Gutting it was done while suspended, and leaving the head intact. He would then skewer that bad boy with a long, green stick from the woods behind our house and "barbecue" it over an open fire. To this day, that is the only way I will thoroughly enjoy eel.
Try this on for size! Did you know that lobsters were so plentiful in the early days of New England that many families, including the poorer farming households, looked at lobsters with disdain. The reason? Because before the over-harvesting of these delectables, these crustaceans literally littered our shoreline. They would wash up on shore by the hundreds, along the many miles of New England. After a number of years of the free-for-all taking, families simply stopped snatching them up because they 'had their fill'. I just can't imagine ever getting sick of lobsters, but then again I have never had the pleasure of eating them day in and day out.
It is easy to imagine the basis of our New England standby of codfish cakes and codfish balls every Saturday night and Sunday mornings. Fish of all sorts was that important and available throughout our waterways. The most abundant, believe it or not, was salmon, shad, mackerel and smelts. Unlike meat, fish could not be frozen to preserve. Salting or drying had to be accomplished in order to store for the winter when it was simply too much work to dig through the ice to fish. The most amazing dish I have ever eaten that was prepared according to an old-time "receipt" book was Cod Scootin 'Long the Shore. It was prepared by cutting up cod and placing in a cast iron skillet that is been greased with some bacon. On top of it lay some diced potatoes, beets, onions and some salt pork. Drizzle some oil over the top, salt and pepper liberally and cover. Baked in an oven until done. This classic Yankee dish rivals any Michelin-star meal served anywhere. Fish was often served or cooked with vegetables during our Yankee beginnings because of the salt used to cure fish. Vegetables seemed to take the 'bite' out of this spice.
I have had the pleasure of visiting my ancestors homes, although all that is left are their "root cellars", which were rock lined cellar holes. I have found two of them, one made by the hands of my great great grandfather(Josiah Bailey, 1778-1869) and his father(Nathaniel Bayley, 1740-1796). I just stand at the edge of each hole and marvel at the work it must have taken to not only dig the hole but roll these boulders into it to make these cellars. And to top it all off, within 20 feet of each was their rock lined water well. Now THAT was a marvel of engineering. One of them is at least 30 feet deep and lined with rocks that are still solidly intact unto this day(2013).
In these root cellars, our fore-families kept their apples, cabbage, pumpkins, turnip, beans, peas, beans, potatoes, carrots and squash. They would easily last the entire winter without softening in the least bit. As for the corn, we dug corn holes, or potato holes as some have referred in journals of old, in order to keep corn from shriveling up too fast. Although we dried much of our corn harvest for grinding, corn could be kept better by covering with birch bark and pine boughs, then covered with a layer of dirt to keep the wild-life from scavenging. This method was taught to us from our Native American friends. In fact, my ancestor, Nathaniel Bailey, was stabbed to death in 1796 by a Native American after digging a corn hole. He had agreed to pay a Passamaquoddy Indian in rum if he helped with the harvest and storage of corn in one of these corn holes. One night when the rum was all imbibed by the Passamaquoddy, he came back to Nathaniel's cabin on top of Bailey Hill in Baileyville, Maine and wanted more rum. Not having any left, the Native American began to get angry and stabbed Nathaniel to death.
My book, above and here n Amazon, tells Nathaniel's complete story for the first time. An Amazing Journey also includes a treasure trove of information about life in New England from the 1600s to the 1800s, from the eyes of the backwoods family and those who eked out an existence.
With regards to fruit and berries, there is no shortage of literature written about our love of all things naturally sweet. Pumpkins, of course, were the number one staple in our kitchen for generations. A seeded out whole pumpkin roasted in the embers of a fireplace, then removed and warm milk from the family's dairy cow poured into the center was a real treat with everyone.
Apples, of course, would be a very close second. When apple picking time was at hand, not only would they be baked in pies, made into applesauce and squeezed for cider and eaten as is, strings of sliced apples filled every home that dotted our landscape. When dried, they could be used for an entire year in everything from savory dishes to sweet. Apple Pie, and Apple Cider Pie, is truly not only an American dish, but a proud Yankee offering to the world.
It is funny to read journal entries of New England family's when they regale of the joy of sharing certain fruits with neighbors. Now you need to remember that many fruits that we take for granted today were simply too expensive and hard to find centuries ago.
In one entry, Ruth Bascom treats her neighbors to a delicacy. In August "sent a piece of our great Savannah Watermelon, which we received 2 or 3 weeks ago cut today and distributed a part to our neighbors."
Even up to my father's day, born in 1938, he would always add an orange to our Christmas stockings growing up in the 1960s. He followed that tradition to the day he died in 2001. I asked him why? Since oranges could be had anytime I wanted to take a trip to the supermarket, yet he made it a point to add one to my stocking every year. His answer was pure Yankee. "When I was a kid" he glumly explained "We didn't have the money to buy much fresh fruit. So when we did get them, it was a treat. And oranges were too expensive, so my father used to buy them once a year and put them in our stocking".
Cooking and recipes was something that was passed down from one generation to another. I am aftraid that this custom is becoming more scarce as the years zoom by. In this generation, eating out seems to be more of the norm than preparing a meal and eating in.
Many people thought cookbooks were a waste of money(again, a Yankee dread) because everything you needed to know was taught to you. One needn't measure by the teaspoon or cup. Simply add a pat of butter the size of an egg or scoop out flour with your teacup. You either cooked something over a fire or in a low, moderate or hot oven. Only the upper class, who wanted to indulge with food that was being enjoyed by their equally wealthy English counterparts, began the idea of purchasing cookbooks usually written by someone across the pond in the early days. It wasn't until Amelia Simmons, in 1796, that an American author had made such a great impact on the cookbook craze. What made her cookbook so successful was that she incorporated many ingredients and recipes with the New England housewife in mind. Johnny Cake and Indian Slapjacks are among the recipes that drew even the poorer families to purchase it.
Then along came Lydia Maria Child, the author of The American Frugal Housewife(my kind of lady). Not only did she incorporate great, simple recipes using everyday items but she added ways of using leftovers, taught frugality, preservation and remedies using herbs that were easily grown by anyone unfortunate enough to have the same type of rocky soil New England is known for.
I could go on and on with regards to New England food heritage, enough for a book actually, but I would like to summarize my introduction to New England cuisine by touching on the "personality" change of our kitchen over the generations.
I am so proud of my heritage, even though it wasn't one of extravagances or money. We come from a poor family and made do with whatever food we were able to grow or shoot. It was said that my father and grandfather could make a meal out of a pot of boiling water.