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The Spices of Life

 

The kitchen-garden was to be next admired, and he led the way to it across a small portion of the park.
Northanger Abbey

“Season the gravy very high,” advised Thomas Jefferson in a household recipe for beefsteak pie. Such instructions sound a bit vague to modern cooks, but the colonial kitchen-master no doubt understood how to proceed.

A recipe might state, “first make your coffin,” referring to the fact that “pyes” were baked in rectangular, narrow pans (“coffins”) similar to our loaf pans. The British adored their “pyes”, and of course when they settled in [America], whenever feasible, prepared comforting foods reminiscent of those served in merrie old England.

Favorite pies included those containing plovers’ eggs, sparrows, robins, pigeons, pheasant, turkey, veal mutton, pork, “leman” rind, and dates.

A smaller version of the pie was the “pastie” or “pasty” or “fried pie” or “turnover.” These portable pies were handy (and tough-crusted enough) to slip into a saddlebag for journeying, and added variety to other travel fare like journeycake (or johnnycake) and corn bread.

When preparing savory colonial pies and pastries, the cook had but to step outside to the nearby herb garden to gather savory, rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme, chives, garlic, onions, etc. In winter, dried herbs hung from the kitchen rafters ready for use. To add flavor and fat to the dry, lean meat of venison, elk, and moose, sugared racoon fat was utilized.

Other colonial flavor enhancers included an abundance of imported nutmeg, ginger, vinegar, and wines. Moreover, the basic flavor of olden-times meat and fowl was more distinct than much of that served today. After all, the fat hen destined to be the prima donna of the chicken pot pie had actually seen the light of day, eaten tasty earthworms and grubs, and known the attentions of a rooster.

Some food critics claim that early American foods were heavily spiced and seasoned to disguise rancid meat and dairy products, and old, dried-out vegetables and fruits. Though there were periods when hot weather did cause food to spoil quickly, and seasons of long winters when the stored root vegetables began to wrinkle from age, colonial meals were not normally dismal repasts of poor-quality foods disguised with herbs.

The prosperous colonists actually ate an enviable diet — home-grown, “organic,” whole foods; no chemicals, no peculiar-sounding additives. The preservatives used were natural, like salt, vinegar, and particular herbs. (Sage and rosemary are natural preservatives, and mustard seeds also inhabit the growth of mold, bacteria, and yeasts.)

In “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse (1796), a recipe is represented “For Captains Of Ships” which is also billed as “very useful in Families.” This concoction is a heady mixture of ale, anchovies, shallots, mace, cloves, pepper, ginger, and mushrooms, and is entitled “To make Catchup to keep twenty years.”

No nasty added nitrates or nitrites in that list of ingredients! The colonial family was able to enjoy a nutritious diet, most of which was produced on their own land, the result of individual expenditures of time, energy, skill, and attention. That hearth-baked, steaming pot pie had not hibernated in the local supermarket’s frozen food section, or suffered the abuse of a crowded check-out line food conveyor belt and the crushing constriction of a plastic grocery bag. Its experience was very personal and loving.


For Captains of Ships: To Make Catchup to keep Twenty Years
Take a gallon of strong stale beer, one pound of anchovies washed from the pickle, a pound of shallots peeled, half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, three or four large races of ginger, two quarts of large mushroom flaps rubbed to pieces; cover all these close, and let it simmer til it is half wasted, then strain it through a flannel bag; let it stand til it is quite cold, then bottle it. You may carry it to the Indies. A spoonful of this to a pound of fresh butter melted makes a fine fish-sauce, or in the room of gravy sauce. The stronger and staler the beer is, the better the catchup will be.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
Hannah Glasse, 1796

According to the authors at About.com, the word ketchup is derived from the Chinese ke-tsiap, a pickled fish sauce. It made its way to Malaysia where it became kechap and ketjap in Indonesia. Seventeenth century English sailors first discovered the delights of this Chinese condiment and brought it west. Ketchup was first mentioned in print around 1690. The Chinese version is actually more akin to a soy or Worcestershire sauce. It gradually went through various changes, particularly with the addition of tomatoes in the 1700s, and by the nineteenth century, ketchup was also known as tomato soy. Early tomato versions were much thinner and more like a soy or Worcestershire sauce. F. & J. Heinz Company began selling tomato ketchup in 1876. By the end of the nineteenth century, tomato ketchup was the primary type of ketchup, and the descriptor of tomato was gradually dropped. Catsup and catchup are acceptable spellings used interchangeably with ketchup, but ketchup is the way you will find it listed in the majority of cookbooks.”

 

This article by Patricia B. Mitchell was first published as part of her “A Fork in the Road” column in The Register and Bee, Danville, Virginia, Sunday, March 3, 1991. Paticia Mitchell is the author of numerous period recipe cookbooks when she’s not managing the Sims-Mitchell House Bed and Breakfast. Copies of her various cookbooks can be purchased from her website: www.foodhistory.com. Please contact the Mitchells for information on international shipping.

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