Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Would Lincoln Eat?

Two weeks ago, I presented a recipe for a bizarre red, white and blue salad that a 1950’s home economist had invented as the first course for a Lincoln’s Birthday Dinner. It’s safe to say that Lincoln himself would never have been served such a concoction; I’m not even sure grapefruit was common on ante-bellum tables, I think it became fashionable about forty years later.

The sort of food Lincoln would have eaten in Springfield, Illinois as promising young lawyer and politician can be found in The Great Western Cook Book, or Table Receipts, Adapted to Western Housewifery, written in the 1850’s by a lady resident of the Utopian colony at New Harmony, Indiana.

(n.B.: For those unfamiliar with this era, the terms “West” and “Western” were used to refer to the new states of Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848). It was not until after the American Civil War that people began referring to the country beyond the Mississippi River as the West, and the old Northwest Territory gradually became known as the Midwest).

Although there is a chapter on “Fancy Dishes” with instructions for making Charlotte Russe and Italian Meringues, the emphasis was on robust, plainly cooked fare that made use of the agricultural bounty of the area and was compatible with the primitive culinary technology of the time. Plainly cooked but not bland, I should point out; Mrs. Collins uses a variety of spices with a sure hand, and offers instructions for making mushroom catsup and curry powder.

Mrs. Collins starts her list of recipes with a chapter on soup. “An invited dinner-party should invariably be presented with a plate of soup as a first course, and no doubt it would be a judicious arrangement to have soup make its regular appearance at every day’s dinner.”

Rough and Ready. “Crack a shin-bone well, boil it in five or six quarts of water four hours. Take half a head of white cabbage, three carrots, two turnips, and three onions; chop them up fine and put them into the soup with pepper and salt, and boil two hours. Take out the bone and gristle half an hour before serving it.”

She adds “In preparing soups, always cut the pieces of meat you send in the tureen small enough to be eaten without introducing a knife and fork into the soup plate.”

Oysters would have been a rare winter-time treat in pre-war Illinois, but not unknown, particularly after the coming of the railroad. Civic groups and professional associations often imported barrels of oysters from the East for convivial dinners.

To Stew Oysters. “Take a quart of oysters, lay them out of the liquor, into cold water, take the liquor and strain it through a sieve, add an equal quantity of water, put it in a saucepan, then a tea-spoonful of black pepper, an ounce of sweet butter, then lay the oysters in, let them simmer a few minutes, have ready a deep dish with some nice slices of toasted bread, then pour the oysters over them.”

Stewed Mushrooms. “When mushrooms are old, pour boiling water over them; if they are young, it is unnecessary to do so; let them lie a few minutes in cold spring-water, then rub the skins off with a clean, coarse napkin. Cut them up in fine pieces, put them in a saucepan with a small quantity of water – barely cover them – add some butter, pepper, salt and them boil about six minutes; thicken them with cream. Toast a slice of bread very neatly, and lay it in a dish and pour the mushrooms over it. This is a very cheap dish, and very easy to prepare.”

Tomato Salad. “Slice fine, ripe tomatoes very thinly, and sprinkle with salt; let them lie a minute or so, then add pepper and vinegar, and a tea-spoonful of loaf-sugar.”

Sausage, Hoosier Fashion. “Peel six potatoes, lay them in a stewpan with salt and pepper sprinkled over them, then cut in small pieces three small sausages, a small slice of lean ham, minced neatly, the crumbs of two crackers, or a slice of toasted bread, crumbled over the surface, another layer of potatoes, pour in a cup of water with melted butter; stew it slowly.”

Succotash, a la Tecumseh. “Boil the beans from half to three-quarters of an hour, in water, a little salt. Cut off the corn from the cobs, boil the cobs with the beans, be sure and not cut too close to the cob. When the beans have boiled three-quarters of an hour, take out the cobs and put the corn in; let it, then, boil fifteen minutes, if the corn is tender, if not, twenty. Have more corn than beans. When it is boiled sufficiently, take a lump of butter as large as you think will be in proportion with the vegetables, roll it well in flour, put it in the pot with the beans, with black pepper enough to season it well. This is a real Western dish, and is very easily made.”

This seems like an awfully long time to boil lima beans and fresh corn, until we remember that while today’s vegetables have been bred for tenderness, the varieties grown back then were not.

Sally Lunn. “Take one pint of milk, quite warm, a tea-cupful of yeast; put them into a tray with sufficient flour to make it into a stiff batter. Let it stand two hours to rise, then add two ounces of sugar, dissolved in a tea-cupful of warm milk; rub a quarter of a pound of butter into some flour. Add flour sufficient to make it into a dough; let it stand half an hour. Then make it into a loaf, let it stand a little while to rise, and bake it in a moderate oven. Split it across three times while it is hot, and put plenty of fresh butter between. It is then ready for the table.”

Pie Plant Pudding. “Peel and wash well, four dozen stalks of Rhubarb, and put them into a stewpan with a little cinnamon, and as much sugar as will swetten it sufficiently. Stew it till reduced to a marmalade; then pass it through a hair sieve, add to it the yolks of four eggs, and one white, a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, half a nutmeg, some grated lemon-peel, and bet it all well together. Line the inside of a pie-dish, with good puff-paste, and put in the pudding. It takes half an hour to bake.”

The book can be found on the Michigan State University website, Feeding America.


Packrat said...

Isn't it interesting what recipes and habits stay around? My grandmother boiled the life out of vegetables, and we couldn't get her to realize she no longer needed to do that. The soup recipe is still being made, and I have had the rhubarb "pudding" sometime in the last couple of years (probably at a church potluck).

Mushrooms are no longer cheap - even if you gather your own. Our time is so "expensive" now.

T-Mom said...

I'm always appalled at how long they suggest boiling veggies in these older cookbooks, but I didn't know they weren't as tender as our modern varieties. Something learned!

Packrat said...

To T-Mom: If vegetables were canned another reason vegetables were boiled so long was to kill botulism toxin. We hardly ever think of botulism any more, but babies can get it from eating raw honey.

Shay said...

That boiling canned vegetables will kill any botulism bacteria is a widely held and (according to the science teacher who married me) dangerously incorrect belief. He started tossing terms like anaerobic microorganism around, but I blanked out on him.


Fascinating! I love things little things you post!

Packrat said...

Shay - I laughed out loud - "blanked out on him". I studied the stuff, and I still blank out. Your husband and my (now very old) food science professor would have a great discussion on whether boiling kills the toxins or not...