Tag Archives: colonial gardening

Church Keys are going extinct but not Clarissa Dillon: Colonial cooking in the 21st century

The fire’s roaring in the kitchen of the 1696 Thomas Massey House, trying to take the chill out of the beautiful autumn morning in this 17th century stone house. Eight of us are gathered around a colonial cooking icon – Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D.  I’ll refrain from using the word “legend” since I heard one well known Philadelphia chef recently reject that term when applied to him saying, “I can’t be a legend; I’m not dead yet.” Neither is Dr. Dillon, an octogenarian who next year on her annual trip to the British Isles will study whiskey distilling in Scotland.

Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D.

Clarissa is one of the foremost authorities – and she’ll freely say still a “student”- of 18th century American Colonial cooking, farming, gardening and household activities. I’ll leave all the details to your exploration of her web site. Needless to say, she’s a stickler on authenticity – writing, editing and traveling extensively to get the facts and set the history books straight.

A life-long teacher, she conducts seminars, cooking and gardening classes at many 18th century historic homes that are the legacy of William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony – Pennsbury Manor, the Wyck and Morris Mansions, Pottsgrove Manor, Anselma Mills, Ephrata Cloister just to name a few.

Thomas Massey House, 1696

On this Saturday morning we are learning about, and preparing, an autumn dinner on an open hearth using 18th century utensils with vegetables and herbs from the Massey House garden.

Stewed duck with bacon and veal forcemeat

Boiled Carrots

Boiled Scorzonera

Cranberry Pie

Hard cider

It’s confusing at first when I hear the word “receipt” used instead of recipe, but our modern word is, well, 20th century. For years, receipt meant cooking preparation instructions as well as accounts, and even Dr. Dillion says it’s often confusing until she sees the actual document.

Colonial American receipts were, for the most part, English, which makes perfect sense. After all, we were English colonies with very English sensibilities. Catherine Brooks, The Complete English Cook, 1762, was one of the popular sources for Colonial kitchens.

Brooks’ receipt for Stewing Ducks Whole: (all receipts are written in 18th century format)

Draw your ducks (pluck the feathers, etc.) and wash them clean, then put them into a stew-pan, with strong Broth, Anchovy, Lemon-peel, whole Pepper, and Onion, Mace and red Wine; when well stewed, put one piece of butter and some grated bread to thicken it; lay force Meatballs and crisped bacon round them and garnish with Shallots.

To translate: for 8 servings – 2 to 3 whole ducks covered with water or chicken stock. Add 5 to 6 chopped anchovy filets, peel of one lemon, 12 – 15 whole pepper corns, and one large onion chopped, 1 t. ground mace, and 1-1/2 cups red wine. Simmer until ducks register 165 degrees with a meat thermometer. Remove the ducks from the stock and keep warm. Strain the stock. Skim as much fat as possible. (If you prepare in advance, refrigerate both the ducks and the stock overnight. All the duck fat will solidify on the top and you can simply remove it.) Return to the fire, or stove, and add 1 to 2 cups of bread crumbs and ¼ pound of butter. Simmer until thickened.

Anchovy fillets, and other small salted fish, had been used since pre-Roman days as a salt substitute. Until the 19th century, salt was an expensive item commonly used for food preservation, not in a bowl on the dining table unless you were very rich!

Catharine Brooks’ Veal Force-meat Balls:

Take half a pound of suet, as much veal cut fine, and beat them in a marble Mortar or wooden bowl; have a few sweet Herbs shred fine, and a little Mace dried and beat fine, a little lemon-peel cut very fine, a small Nutmeg grated, or half a large one, a little pepper and salt, and the Yolks of two eggs; mix all these well together, then roll them into little round balls, and some in long ones; roll them in flour, and fry them brown.

To translate: for 8 servings – I’d use 3/4th  pound each suet and ground veal. Buy suet from a butcher or good grocery store (DO NOT use suet for birds!!!) and chop very fine in a food processor. Add 1t. crushed dried thyme, 1 T. fresh minced parsley, 1/2 t. nutmeg, ¼ t. mace, ½ t. grated fresh lemon peel, ¼ t. each salt and pepper and the egg yolks. Roll into balls and coat with flour or bread crumbs. Fry in butter.

Bacon: Cut half a pound of sliced bacon into thirds and fry until crisp.

Presentation: Arrange the ducks on a platter, arrange the meatballs and bacon around the ducks and sprinkle with 2 sliced shallots. Serve the gravy in a separate bowl.

Stewed duck with veal force meat and bacon

In the 18th century, pies were generally thought of as savory dishes whether made from beef and kidneys or fruit. Ann Peckham’s 18th century Cranberry Pie was meant to be served as a side dish. As a counter point to the richness of the Duck dish, the tart cranberries and flakey crust were terrific. In the 18th century, the crust was frequently so thick it was not meant to be eaten. It served as the “dish” from which the filling was spooned out.

Cranberry pie

Ann Peckham’s Cranberry Tart:

 Roll a sheet of tart paste, put it into your dish, boil up some cranberries with loaf sugar; when cold put them in, and trellis them over with the puff paste, cut a border out to lie round your dish, and bake it.

To make the paste for tarts: Take a pound of flour, and half a pound of butter, rub the butter into the flour, two eggs, and a little water, and make it into a paste.

To translate: Make the filling by combining 1-½ pounds of fresh cranberries and 1 to 1-½ pounds of sugar. Place on the fire, or the stove, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain through a colander. (Reserve the liquid, if you wish, adding ½ to 1 pound more sugar. Bring to a boil until reduced by half, and you have a cranberry syrup to use on pancakes, etc.)

For the crust: Cut the butter into the flour either with two knives, a pastry blender or in a food processor. In the bowl, using clean hands, lightly rub the flour and butter together to coat the flour with the fat, BUT don’t knead it together like bread. The heat in your hands will melt the butter and toughen the dough. Add the eggs and combine with a fork. If the mixture is not combining into a ball sprinkle in a little ice cold water just until the dough forms. Roll out 2/3’s of the dough and line a deep pie pan. After the cranberries have cooled to room temperature, pour into the crust. With the remaining 1/3 of the crust, roll out and cut into strips making a lattice design on top of the pie. Place into an oven at 375 degrees for 45 minutes until the crust is golden brown.

 If baking on an open fire, place the pie pan into a cast iron Dutch oven and cover with the lid. Place on the coals of the fire, or better, on a cast iron trivet above the fire, and cover the top of the lid with coals. Rotate the Dutch oven after 20 minutes. Check the pie after 40 minutes by removing the coals from the top of the lid and checking to see the color of the crust.

Serve the pie as a side dish to the duck.

top left: whole scorzonera, top right: trimmed, bottom left: cleaned, bottom right: fresh carrots
from the above raw amount, this is the quantity of scorzonera ready to cook

Carrots are carrots and even in this very late October day, they were still fresh in the garden. Scorzonera though is something else and you’ll not find it in any market. You have to grow it yourself. Known in England as Viper grass, its root is the only edible part, but it’s a very thin root. After scraping the skin off, what you have are very thin pieces of a root vegetable which was fried or steamed and frequently cream and butter were added. Its flavor is akin to a mild carrot. In the 19th century it fell out of the general cooking repertoire and was replaced by parsnips. Since the amount was so small we simply added them to the carrots and simmerd both over the fire for about one hour.

Hard apple cider was the beverage of choice for the common English/Colonial person for most meals and the major reason for cultivating apple trees in the first place.

As delicious as this dinner was, more fascinating were the tidbits of knowledge I was able to absorb at this first class.

The green tops of the carrots were used as a wool dye. After boiling, the wool turns yellow.

Claret, a common wine in English receipts, is French Bordeaux.

Suet for all recipes is the thick layer of creamy white fat that cushions the kidneys.

the kitchen garden

Kitchen gardens were first created by the Dutch and not adopted in England until the 16th century, even then only the affluent had extra land around their houses for a garden. Most kitchen gardens were for medicinal purposes – sage, turnips and potatoes being among the many forms of produce used for medicine. The average person gathered wild herbs, green onions in the spring, nuts etc. for cooking until the 19th century.

American colonial cooking was not in any way influenced by the Native American diet – with the exception of common vegetables such as corn.  Native Americans, considered savages, were ignored and condemned. John Bartram, the famous 18th century Philadelphia medicinal gardener grudgingly served as a go-between with the Onondaga  in order to increase his knowledge.

The Colonial diet was as far from organic, vegetarian and low-fat as one can imagine. Human manure was commonly used as fertilizer. Meat was devoured especially in winter and copious amounts of fat were used in all dishes.

Cheese was a summer substitute for meat since cattle was not slaughtered until winter – they needed the summer to fatten. Cheese and butter were made in late spring and summer when the grass the cows were munching on were free from spring onions and other weeds that would taint the milk sour. Most cheeses were of the soft, fresh variety. Obviously the wealthy could afford to preserve or import high quality, and harder, English cheeses such as cheddar.

Because hearth cooking made it difficult to keep food hot while waiting for the remainder of the meal to cook, dishes were frequently eaten at room temperature which often does not detract from the flavors. All dishes would be placed on the table at once – even those deemed “sweets.”

A very wealthy household with many servants frequently served three courses with an average of 20 – 25 different dishes per course – “buffet style.” Meats, fish, seafood,  vegetables, pies and puddings would all be part of each course. The first course would be “hardy” – beef, etc. Second course lighter – chicken, small birds, etc. The dessert course usually consisted of fresh and dried fruits, nuts and chocolate coated nuts.

Wine was made from everything including turnips and parsnips and brewing beer was part of every houshold and farm. “Fresh water” for drinking was an anomaly. Wherever there were towns and farms, lakes and streams were polluted with human and animal waste.

This is just the proverbial “tip of the ice berg” when it comes to my knowledge of 18th century food preparation, but it was sufficient to make me desire more!

Pat Martin

The Thomas Massey House hosts authentic Colonial dinners, by candlelight, several times during the year, check their web site, and will host a Christmas house event on 11 December 2010 highlighting the food of the various ethnic groups that comprised Penn’s colony. Pat Martin is the very capable, and overly modest, chef of these dinners.

a "church key"

Oh…the church key. Clarissa said it soon will cease to be manufactured because few liquids these days are canned that necessitate the punch section of the opener. Except that in Colonial cooking, items such as canned milk are necessary. She urged that we all stock up on this simple and effective tool. Nothing, including Dr. Clarissa Dillon, ever loses its usefulness!