My family and I spent last week in the great Up North. We have a cabin on the Tahquamenon River, where it is tranquil, rustic, and a sincere connection to times past. There is nothing like cooking over a campfire (and maybe a stroll around Mackinac Island in a horse drawn carriage) to make me think of how our ancestors cooked much the same way not so long ago. To commemorate my trip I purchased a newer print of an old cookbook, Early American Cookery or Ye Gentlewoman’s Housewifery, by Margaret Huntington Hooker. I was very curious to see what kinds of recipes were made over 100 years ago. The author even referred to previous ‘cookery’ books as early as 1736. Obviously some things have changed, but we’re both using fire and cast iron!
I was actually amazed that they had so much access to a variety of spices and herbs. For whatever reason of my limited knowledge, I am impressed to learn they cooked with Marjoram, ‘Tumeric’, ‘Gynger’, Summer Savory (I don’t even know what that is), Parsley, Thyme, Laurel, Sweet Basil, Mint, Cloves, Cinnamon, ‘Garlek,’ Mace, and so on to name a few. I guess I imagined things being bland. The author refers many foods I can relate to soups, anchovies and ‘tomata sauce.’ And although the language is before my time and measurements aren’t always given, many of the techniques still apply. For example “a piece of butter rolled in flour…” They were making a roux!
Of course some things were totally un-relatable to me. I can’t imagine giving an eel a salt rub to remove the slime. And although I know people still cook eel today, I actually have a hard time imagining that it was ever common practice. I understand using all parts of the animal and making the most of what you have. That stated, it is completely foreign to me to put a “neck of mutton about 6 pounds…” into any of my recipes. I mean, they just say it so nonchalantly. Was that the norm neck size? Just about 6 pounds? Do they just assume it has been de-haired? In another mutton recipe they instruct to put the “head, heart and lights and 1 pound pork into 5 quarts of water…” Lights? What are the lights? If I had to guess, I’d say the eyes; which leads me to believe that again they assume I know what to do with the head, i.e. de-furring, removing parts, etc. After an hour of boiling you add the liver, and a while later one finishes it off with some doughy dumplings before serving. And I’m wondering if the head is still in there? Does it dissipate? Because I think my kids would freak out. I, myself, can barely stand the thought of bouillabaisse. I mean, I’ve made leg if lamb, but this is on another level. So I think to myself, we are so far removed.
At the same time I am starting to read a suggestion from one of my blog readers and friend, A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield. Now here is a current and up to date cookbook. In this book she acknowledges celebrities like Jay Z, okay; modern. And as I am reading the forward of the book the writer that assists Chef April Bloomfield mentions a cumin-spiked tomato sauce and filleting anchovies; and again I am struck by the similarities. Then, I kid you not, they write “…a peek into the oven to check on a roasting lamb’s head.” Maybe it’s just me?