Cooking dinner at Plimoth Plantation
History of Food in America
Rockport History Book Club
Rockport History Book Club
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Wed. Aug. 26, 2015: The History of Food in America. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] Let’s explore what Americans have considered a square meal, starting with Native Americans (Indians), and including Pilgrims, then people arriving from other parts and classes of England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Russia, African slaves, China; look at regional foods from the South, New England, the West, Midwest.
Heather Atwood, In Cod We Trust: From Sea to Shore, the Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts, 2015, Photography by Allan Penn, 2015. Globe Pequot.
Heather Atwood, Cape Ann Food Writer, has written a marvelous, delicious book about cooking and food of the Massachusetts coast.
In Cod We Trust is a colorful, mouth-watering trip along the Massachusetts coastline, from Buzzard’s Bay to Newburyport, pointing out spots and people all along the coast who have a part in the rich mélange of Portuguese, Sicilian, Finnish and old Yankee cooking that one may find here.
Heather has researched her subject well. She’s obviously spent time with Finns in Lanesville and Cape Cod, Portuguese and Azoreans in New Bedford and Gloucester, Italians and Sicilians in Gloucester, and plain old Yankees up and down the coast. She’s pulled out old recipes, and talked to people who prepare, sell or just eat food, and learned the back stories to some dishes.
The title of the book is about Cod, and cod, or bacalhau, baccal, bacalao, torsk, turska or morue, is a fish that everyone along this coast can relate to, and can connect to their home country. Right here in Rockport we had a brisk fish processing business—one just a few yards from our house, on the dam at Mill Pond, where there were always racks for drying fish.
Fish cutters preparing to dry fish on Mill Lane, ca. 1920.
Heather’s intensive investigation has brought up the last remaining dairy in Westport, Shy Brothers’ Farms, turning to a cheese product they now make, as huge dairy companies gobble up small producers. She points out Russell Orchards in Ipswich, the last of a dozen apple orchards along Argilla Road, and then offers a recipe from an old Ipswich cook book for Argilla Road Apple Pie.
This is first a cookbook, but it’s also a fascinating food history.
Of course, there’s a segment on clams, from the clambakes that Agawam and Wampanoag tribes have been throwing for celebrations for many centuries, to the discovery of how good fried clams are, starting with Chubby and Bessie of Woodman’s in Essex.
There are many recipes, and many tales that relate how the Portuguese brought their food here. Those Portuguese are mostly those from the Azores, now an autonomous part of Portugal two thirds of the way from New Bedford to Lisbon, and there are also Cape Verdeans, from a former Portuguese colony off the coast of northwestern Africa. Heather includes mouth-watering recipes like Clams Bulhão Pato, Hake Molho de Vilão, Sopa do Espirito Santo, a soup with beef, a shin bone, and chourico; and Cacoila, a spicy pork stew.
On Martha’s Vineyard Heather drew a recipe for Cranberry Crumble from Gladys Widdis, an elder with the Wampanoag Tribe. Also included is a Spring Garlic Soup from Martha’s Vineyard. I remember having garlic soup in Lisbon—it’s a meal that stays with you, and everyone around you.
From Nantucket Heather offers Fresh Corn and Coconut Soup, and from an 1874 cook book, Nantucket Corn Pudding, which she calls “the Cinderella of corn puddings.”
Heather's time with Finns who live near her home in Folly Cove, Rockport, and more Finns on Cape Cod, produced several recipes like Kropsua, Baked Pancakes, from Lanesville, Rice Pudding, from Rockport’s Spiran Lodge, and Lanttulaatikko, a rutabaga casserole.
Heather draws upon a rich acquaintance with Gloucester as she tells about Lobsterman Geno Mondello and his quiet hospitality on Gloucester harbor. She offers his recipe for Cod Cakes with a homemade béchamel sauce. Of course there have to be lobster recipes, and she offers Mortillaro’s Baked Stuffed Lobster, which, with a photo by Allan Penn, looks fantastic.
Heather returns home to Rockport to tell about lobster rolls, chicken salad in a jar, a Rockport version of Vietnamese pickles, and Anadama, a Rockport original bread, made with molasses. Perhaps in the next edition she could tell more about the Anadama lady, Melissa Smith, and her fabled pies that she always sold at events in Millbrook Meadow. She might even include the story of the time the pigs at Nugent’s piggery got loose and invaded the Anadama bakery.
It’s a wonderful sweep of delightful eating over the centuries, and a book that tells you how much people from all over the world have brought to the table here.
Libby H. O’Connell. The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, 2015, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
Libby O’Connell, Ph.D., is the Chief Historian of the History Channel in New York City. This fascinating book, divided into 100 “bites” takes the reader into the tents, hogans and lodges of American Indians, and follows their food history from the “Three Sisters”, the trio of corn, beans and squash, grown together, and eaten together, because they provided basic nourishment in snowy days when the Indians could not find meat or fish.
Hunting was much harder until the Spanish brought horses to the New World in the 16th century. For centuries Indians hunted bison in herds of thousands, caught huge salmon, and killed deer. They never had dairy products until the European settlers brought cattle here. Cooking was instantly easier for Indians when the Europeans gave or traded them kettles and cook pots.
In this book Libby carefully builds “the American plate”, starting with the food Indians ate, then showing how Spanish conquistadores moved vegetables from Asia to Europe and then to the New World, or from South America to North America. Christopher Columbus, she writes, was not only an explorer, but also a smart marketer. He knew Spanish investors, eager for the expensive black dried pepper that he originally set out to find, would be interested in hot peppers from America. He brought the seeds for Capsicum peppers back to Europe. Completely different from piper nigrum from India’s Malagasy coast, but they became popular in the hot, sunny climates of Europe and North Africa.
The Spanish started exporting the foods of America to the rest of the world a century before the Mayflower unloaded her seasick passengers in 1620, O’Connell writes. The Spaniards exported the first maize, turkeys, potatoes, chocolate, various beans, squash and tomatoes. Somehow, Europeans thought that turkeys had come from the East, hence the English name of “turkey” for these birds. The French call them dinde, or “from India”. The Dutch say turkije.
Columbus introduced pigs to the New World on his second voyage west, and English settlers brought more of them, and the hogs found paradise here. They happily gorged on wild acorns in 17th century Virginia, and America became “hog heaven”. O’Connell brings pork back over and over in pulled pork, barbecue, all sorts of sausage, bacon, scrapple, chitterlings (chitlins), and even the salt pork in fish chowder. Inexpensive cuts of pork became a favorite food for slaves, and later for freed blacks as well as whites.
Roast beaver tail once was a favorite for hungry trappers, but it’s one of many American favorites which have come and gone. Eels, still popular food in other parts of the world, were British Americans’ gourmet food. What did they use for bait to catch eels? Lobster. Perry, or pear cider, became popular with settlers who had been accustomed to beer back home in Europe. Roast turtles are another once-popular dish.
During the first generations of English colonists in the new world, “sallet” was the name for a vegetable dish, hot or cold. Our word “salad” comes from this, simply meaning “salted”.
Sarah Josepha Hale, the Martha Stewart of the 19th century, published recipes in Godey’s Lady’s Book for roast turkey with stuffing and pumpkin pie as she lobbied to create a new national holiday. After many years, President Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, designated the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.
Doughnuts, created by the Dutch, were popular in 17th century America, but they were round balls of dough, about the size of a large walnut. An American seaman cook is credited with putting a hole in his doughnuts in 1847, so they would cook more evenly.
Columbus also brought sugar cane to the New World. Originating in New Guinea, this became a crop in the West Indies, Brazil and Louisiana that depended upon backbreaking labor to plant, grow, cut and refine into molasses, sugar and rum. This involved shipping millions of African slaves to the New World. From then up until the end of slavery, there developed a trade route triangle that brought fresh slaves west, and took molasses north, where it was refined as sugar or turned into rum, and east with the sugar and rum. Rum and bourbon are New World originals.
O’Connell takes us through American history, with an Election Cake during the time of President Andrew Jackson, and includes a recipe that calls for 30 quarts of flour, 10 pounds of butter, one quart of brandy, three dozen eggs, and more.
Union troops ate far better than Confederates during the Civil War, because most of the food production was located in the North. Southerners had concentrated on building up the cotton and sugar industries, and had not really planned an economy that could operate independent of the north. Union soldiers ate good bread and beef often, even near the front lines, while Johnny Reb had to subsist on cracked corn.
Chinese workers building the great Union Pacific railway introduced Chop Suey and Chow Mein to America. The fact that no restaurant in China served either dish bothered no one, O’Connell writes.
As food distribution got better, America started to see national products, like Borden’s Canned Condensed Milk, and canned vegetables by Libby, McNeill & Libby, Campbell Soups, Jell-O, Heinz 57. Coca-Cola, and Cracker Jack. There’s a “bite” of a story for each one of these, and many more.
The Gilded Age, the 1890s, brought Delmonico’s in New York, the Palmer House in Chicago, and Antoine’s in New Orleans. This is when Baked Alaska, Oysters Rockefeller, and Beef Tenderloin appeared.
Food in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House was notoriously bad, O’Connell writes, but FDR made good Martinis and Old Fashioneds, and Eleanor even cooked up some tasty Scrambled Eggs.
On and on the “bites” come in this book—103 of them, right up to Salsa, Sushi and Chili Con Carne.
NEXT FOR ROCKPORT HISTORY BOOK CLUB:
Wed. Sep. 30, 2015: Charismatic leaders in History. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] What were the keys to Hitler’s, Churchill's, Mussolini's, FDR's successes? Keen perception of public moods? Oratory abilities? Character, firm ideology? Connecting to the people? How did they deploy their charisma? How could Napoleon manipulate the masses without TV ads? Why were people so perceptive to a madman in Germany? Intriguing and recurring questions.
Wed. Oct. 28, 2015: Show Trials in History. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] Read how nations and leaders have used a well-publicized court trial to serve another need, like demonstrating power, making peace, deflecting responsibility, etc.
Examples: Trial of Socrates; Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms; Sacco Vanzetti; Nuremburg War Crimes Trials; Julius and Ethel Rosenburg; Trial of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; Stalin’s NKVD show trials; Trials in Stalinist Hungary like Cardinal József Mindszenty, oil executives, L. Rajk.
Wed. Dec. 2, 2015: Elections in American History. Donald Trump may think he is something unique in the long history of campaigns and elections in the United States of America, but our history is chock-a-block with strange, weird and fantastic characters and events. For this November meeting, one week late to account for Thanksgiving, read any book about presidential campaigns and elections, There was 1800 when Adams ran against an "Un-Christian Deist", Thomas Jefferson. There was 1828, when things got dirty-- the Adams men said Jackson was the son of a prostitute and a Mulatto, and a bigamist and an adulterer. We had Know-nothings, Mugwumps, Half-breeds and Progressives. One man, Eugene V. Debs, ran from prison and still received 900,000 votes. And then there was Watergate... and the Swiftboaters.