Tag Archives: culinary history

Getting the Ball Rolling: Gardening, Colonial Foodways, and Local Focus

When I initially planned this book, the goal was to write a book that adapted Markham’s soil amendment and other gardening techniques (from across several of his books) to a modern garden. This idea comes with a variety of challenges for an apartment dweller, having to do with the space to experiment in (apartments typically aren’t known for their sprawling gardens) as well as my desire to not incur my landlord’s wrath by digging up her yard. Another potential challenge for this project is the fact that I don’t live in England (or a similar climate), which is where Markham’s intended audience lived.

Then there’s the issue of sunlight, which is something I’m told is important to plants. My ‘garden’ (currently a few potted plants on a porch table) is far from being a sunny spot. My yard is filled with trees and bamboo plants, which makes it beautiful and cool in the summer, but not the greatest for growing lush planters full of fruits and veggies.

So why continue with the book with all these obstacles in the way? First, because a challenge is fun, but mostly because because it lets me explore a new direction for my work that ties in with the gardening theme. We’re in an interesting place as a culture at the moment, where eating locally is an option rather than the only option, and where it is actually cheaper in some instances to eat food produced elsewhere (there are many pieces on the politics of this and on its relationship to income inequality, which I’m sure I’ll explore at some point as a necessary part of writing about local food).

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Wafers

Wafers are a very thin cookie, originally developed for the end of wealthy feasts to aid digestion (a good historical post about wafers can be found here). I didn’t find a modern equivalent of the recipe, although there are similar wafer cookies that stem from Eastern European and Nordic traditions. Another stumbling block for wafer making by the modern cook is the fact that wafer irons are somewhat hard to come by. This one is the most reasonably priced Nordic iron I’ve found, and it also is a stovetop model, which will make it easier to use (another bonus: purchasing it from that site helps to support the Danish Windmill museum in Elk Horn, Iowa). It’s technically a Nordic Krumkake pan, but is the most affordable ($50) solution: antique wafer irons that are truer to those used by women in Markham’s time will run in the hundreds (and possibly more). These were similar to modern krumkake irons, but had a long wooden and metal handle for holding them near the fire to cook.

Markham’s recipe for wafers (on pg 117 of Best):
“To make the best wafers, take the finest wheat flour you can get, and mix it with cream, the yolks of eggs, rose-water, sugar, and cinnamon til it be a little thicker than pancake batter; and then, warming your wafer irons on a charcoal fire, anoint them first with sweet butter, and then lay your batter and press it, and bake it white or brown at your pleasure.”

I was surprised at how easy they are to make–I’m bringing the fruits of my labors to my calligraphy class tomorrow so I can get some more opinions on them! The recipe below makes ~15 cookies. Make sure to preheat your iron on medium-low heat for a few minutes before adding any batter!

1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup rosewater (available in Middle Eastern markets or Asian food stores if not at the supermarket)
1 cup cream

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth.
2. Grease your iron with a little butter, and add one rounded tablespoon of batter to the center.
3. Close the iron and hold closed tightly for about 30 seconds to press the pattern on the iron into the cake.
4. Continue cooking for about 2 minutes or until golden brown, turning the iron over once to ensure both sides are cooked.

That’s it! I let them cool on a plate or rack before transferring the cooled wafers to another plate (this keeps them from getting soggy).

White and brown wafers (brown ones are just cooked a little longer).

krumkake iron

Wafers

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Class and The English Housewife

I have spent a lot of time talking about The English Housewife as an instruction manual and as a place to learn about cookery. What I have spent less time with is the issue of class and audience, those issues that would give us a better picture of who the English Housewife actually was. Beyond her gender and marital status, the title won’t tell us much, but we do know enough about Markham to make some pretty good guesses. Markham is particularly interesting to me because he is writing for a country audience (this and his other books focus on activities that would be undertaken by a husbandman, or small landowner, and housewife), and because he encourages frugality (later authors seem more lavish).

Food and Class

In order to start thinking about class and cookery manuals, it’s important to know what the different classes were eating. Of course social classes were different from how we think of them today–rather than having a ‘middle class’ there were ‘middling sorts,’ which is kind of a hodgepodge term (that I still have trouble defining well) for those who lived comfortably but were not gentlemen/noblemen. The ‘gentry’ were gentleman landowners, whose social status would have been a bit higher.

If you remember my post on the Markham Meal, you probably noticed that the menu was almost entirely vegetarian (save for the one meat dish). That’s not to say that vegetarianism was a common concept in the 17th century (in fact, vegetarian monastic orders were heavily criticized by authors of books on health, who felt a lack of meat shortened one’s life; see Albala 201-202), but rather that there seems to be a misconception that only meat, and not much else, was eaten during this time. Markham does include another menu for a feast that includes a large number of meat dishes, but both this and the banquetting menu I’m working from are noted as not being “of regular use,” but still important for the housewife to be able to cook on special ocassions (Best, 110). Meat had fallen in price in the time after the Black Plague, but its cost had risen by Markham’s time when meat would have been available regularly only to the elite (others ate meat less frequently or ate less expensive cuts, like organ meats–see Albala, 188). Vegetables made up the majority of the diet of the lower classes, who could not afford to have meat or dairy regularly. Meat was commonly eaten by the nobility in the middle ages, but plant-based foods became more popular and began their ascent up the social ladder during this time (Thirsk, 4-8). Books like Markham’s helped further ensure the place of fruits and vegetables on middling tables. These books taught proper social graces and the newest food preparations, and so their inclusion of vegetables made those foods seem worthy of their tables (Schoonover, 20-21).The food on one’s table was indicative of social standing, but was also seen almost as a determinant as well: a peasant eating the food of the peasantry would absorb those elements within the food making it crude, while a courtier’s consumption of exquisite foods served not only as a symbol of wealth, sophistication, and power but also as that courtier’s embodiment of those qualities through the consumption of that food (see Albala, 184).

Cookery Manuals and Class

Most cookery manuals during this time would have been directed toward middling sorts and gentry, and became increasingly popular along with other self-help and how-to manuals (Cormack and Massio, 79-84). Other manuals, such as John Murrell’s A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen… all seemed to follow the theme of providing readers with the newest preparations of foods that were most fashionable at the time. Markham is interesting because he offers some of these preparations, but does so more to provide a well-rounded education in homemaking to his readers, who would need to know how to prepare such dishes for special guests or occasions (see Best, 110). He focuses more heavily on thrift, and on encouraging the use of items grown in the kitchen garden and available in the home (this may be due in part to his own social status as a gentleman, and the fact that he saw his wealth and status decline over his lifetime. For an excellent biography, see Best’s introduction).

The women who read Markham’s book would not only need to be educated enough to be literate, but would also need to be of a social standing where they were still directly involved within household tasks. Middling women, whose husbands owned estates or ran businesses, worked alongside servants to assist with the growing and preparation of food, as well as the production of household goods, such as linens (Mendelson and Crawford, 307). While women in the gentry and merchant classes also supervised workers and organized household affairs, they were much more directly involved in household labor than noblewomen, who directed the labors of large numbers of servants without direct involvement in their tasks (Mendelson and Crawford, 307-309). These women also were likely to be literate: David Cressy places the gentry along with the clergy and professionals on the “accomplished end of the literacy scale,” and his research shows at least a thirty percentage point difference between them and the next most literate group, comprised of yeomen and tradesmen (Cressy, 124). Thirsk suggests that Markham’s writing bridged the gap between gentry and laboring classes through his simple recipes and his focus on economy (Thirsk, 91-92), and while his work may have been more accessible to them, his use of spices and imported ingredients situates it solidly within a gentry/middling audience. His writing also would have been inaccessible to most members of the lower classes and even to the housewife’s servants, which clearly indicates the country housewife would have used the book in the direct supervision of servants’ work. Literacy among servants in most of the country was low, akin to husbandmen and laborers, with illiteracy rates for servants estimated at 76 percent. Only servants in London were more likely to be literate, with a surprisingly low 31 percent illiteracy rate (Cressy, 129).

I’m hoping to write more soon about the different ingredients in Markham and how these relate to class–please let me know if you have any questions or want me to explain/expand upon anything!

Sources:

Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Cormack, Bradin and Carla Mazzio. 2005. Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Chicago: University of Chicago Library.

Cressy, David. 1980. Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mendelson, Sara and Crawford, Patricia. 1998. Women in Early Modern England: 1550-1720. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murrell, John.  A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen… London: widow Helme. 1617.

Schoonover, David E., ed. 1998. Ladie Borlase’s Receiptes Booke. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Thirsk, Joan. 2007. Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760. London: Hambledon Continuum.

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Apple Paste

One of the recipes in Markham’s book is for ‘Paste of Genoa.’ The recipe is found on pg 116 of Michael Best’s edited version of the text:

To make a paste of genoa, or any other paste.

To make paste of Genoa, you shall take quinces after they have been boiled soft, and beat them in a mortar with refined sugar, cinnamon, and ginger finely searced, and damask rose-water  till it come to a stiff paste; and then roll it forth and print it, and so bake it in a stove; and in this sort you may make paste of pears, apples, wardens, plums of all kinds, cherries, barberries, or what other fruit you please.

To see some beautiful examples of what these pastes look like, spend some time on Historic Food. Unfortunately, I am having a really tough time sourcing quinces, although I finally found a place that sells them here. It’s good news for the quince marmalade I want to make in the future! Quinces are related to pears, and so I considered using pears in this recipe to try to emulate the texture, etc. I may do that at some point, but I decided instead to use apples (which Markham also says will work in this recipe) because our local orchards produce some great varieties that I’m looking to add into more of the food I prepare.

If you looked at the Historic Food site, you will see that these pastes were put in molds before baking to create elaborate shapes. I actually have a pan I got at a second hand store that will be absolutely perfect for this, and I am really excited to use it.

 

Apple paste pan

My copper pan, complete with camel

 

The process of creating the paste itself is one that I feel warrants a couple side notes. First of all, it suggests beating the boiled apples in a mortar with the remaining ingredients. Unfortunately, my mortar and pestle are rather small, which means that I will either have to work in 5 or 6 very small batches, or I will have to improvise using a larger bowl. I do have some bowls that will work, so perhaps I can use my small pestle with them. Best’s endnotes also bear mentioning here–the first says that Markham’s writing, as well as that of his contemporary, Hugh Platt, recommend using 1/2 pound of sugar for each pound of ‘quince pap.’ Platt’s book, The Ladies Companion, gives a much better description of the technique than Markham: “Set your [paste spread on a] pie plate in a warm oven or stove (upon two billets of wood for to keep it from the bottom of the oven) all night; then on the morrow turn it, and so do it every day until it be dry.” (Best, 266, quoting from Platt, pg 46). To try and emulate this in a modern oven, I’ll set it to the lowest setting (‘warm’ or about 200 degrees). Then I can leave it on today while I’m up so that I can keep an eye on it and make adjustments as needed before letting it continue to dry tonight while I sleep.  More updates to come as the day continues!

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So the first step is to boil the apples. Since Markham gives no special instructions about boiling them with sugar or anything, I just chucked them in a pot with some water. I’m using Rome apples because they are cultivated more for cooking than for eating raw (although they are delicious raw as well!) from Apple Cart Orchard in Vinton, IA. I am using five medium-sized apples (not the giant ones in the supermarket), chopped and boiled.

In order to get the correct amount of sugar, I had to use a 2:1 ratio of apples to sugar. This time, my kitchen scale is out and usable! I had about 720 grams (~1.5 lbs) of cooked apples, so I figured I would need to use about 3/4 lb. of sugar to mash with the fruit. Unfortunately, my estimate was wrong (very wrong indeed). I think the big secret with this recipe, were I to make it again, is to not only strain the apples but to mash them and strain the mashed apples before adding the sugar. I made the mistake of adding the 2 1/4 c sugar prior to straining, only to discover that it looked like applesauce. After straining that mixture, I kept adding more and more sugar to make this elusive ‘paste’ Markham was aiming for (I added another 3 1/4 cups) but I actually ran out of sugar before I got to a paste that could be rolled out. The recipe might not be salvageable (we’ll see), but I’m cooking it in the oven at 200 right now to see if I can slowly dehydrate it, and perhaps end up with the same end product that just takes longer to make!

The flavorings I added were definitely on the mark, though, so if nothing else I will have an *incredibly* sweet and delicious mixture. As per Markham’s recipe, I added rosewater (1/8 c), cinnamon (1 tsp), and freshly grated ginger (1 tsp). You can buy rosewater at specialty markets, or you can make it by infusing water with roses by gently simmering. The flavor is deep and complex, which is one of my favorite parts of using these kinds of spices and waters. I left it in the oven for several hours, only to discover that it (not surprisingly) was not going to dehydrate to the paste I needed it to be. So, now I have a pie filling, and I’m en route to the store to get more apples to make it a second time!

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So I made the paste a second time! I’ve decided that the problem might be the fruit I’m using: even after squishing all the water out of the apples after mashing them, I still couldn’t get a paste once I added the sugar. So, now I have two batches of pie filling! I’ll have to give it a shot with pears later on.

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fruit conserve

I’ve decided to start out this project with one of the simpler recipes from the book. The English Housewife is full of recipes for preserving food, so it is likely that I will be doing a lot of it in the coming months. Preservation would have obviously been important for storing food without refrigeration, but this method also would have been viewed as healthful, because the fruit was cooked prior to being consumed (raw fruits and vegetables were seen as non-nutritous at best and poisonous at worst). I mentioned that Markham’s book is filled with recipes for preserves, and I think part of that might be due to his focus on frugality. While preserved foods are found in contemporary cookery manuals, I have yet to see one with as large a section on the subject as The English Housewife. Many books stress the importance of impressing guests and using fashionable food preparations (which Markham does too, but perhaps to a lesser extent). Markham instead chooses to place emphasis on cultivating frugality, and this point is reiterated (again and again!) in his section on the character traits a good housewife should embody (frugality, modesty, deference to the husband, etc). Growing food in a kitchen garden is encouraged as a way to save money, and what better way to stretch that money farther than by preserving the excess produce?

Today, I am using the recipe entitled “to make any conserve,” found on page 116 of the work edited by Michael Best:

“To make conserve of any fruit you please, you shall take the fruit you intend to make conserve of; and if it be stone fruit you shall take out the stones; if other fruit, take away the paring and core, and then boil them in fair running water to a reasonable height; then drain them from thence, and put them into a fresh vessel with claret wine, or white wine, according to the colour of the fruit: and so boil them to a thick pap all to mashing, breaking, and stirring them together; then to every pound of pap put to a pound of sugar, and so stir them all well together, and, being very hot, strain them through fair strainers, and so pot it up.”

This recipe is a slight departure from my normal method of jam production, in that it includes wine, which I typically don’t add. I chose this particular recipe because it works for “any fruit you please,” and strawberries happened to be on sale at the grocery store. I used red wine in order to stay true to Markham’s recommendation for red fruit with red wine. We have some tasty wines that are made here in Iowa, so I picked up a Cabernet Sauvignon from Cedar Ridge Vineyards.

I tend to make jams that are boiled and reduced down to the finished product, rather than jams that are strained. I’ve looked at several different jams from Markham’s time period, and the method described in the recipe above seems fairly typical.

While modern strawberry hybrids come from species native to the Americas, strawberries would have been available in Europe at this time too. The species was called ‘fraises de bois’ (literally ‘strawberries of wood’ or wild strawberries), and was found around Europe. For centuries, the only ones available in Europe were wild varieties growing in the edges of wooded areas, and were known by a variety of names in countries all over western Europe. The term ‘strawberry’ came from the English practice of placing straw under the fruits to keep the off the damp soil. They were not cultivated until the 15th century, in part because of the amount of room they took up and the fact that they drained the soil of nutrients so had to be moved occasionally (Toussaint-Samat, 652). Thanks to Ken Albala for telling me about this variety

Dr. Albala also mentioned that more tart fruits are usually used for jams, and that is definitely true of Markham’s book. Quinces were very popular (see Best, pg 112, for ‘Marmalade of quinces red’) but so are oranges. Markham also has a recipe (on Best, pg 117) for a ‘conserve of flowers,’ which is not a cooked jam in the way fruit jam is, but would be very interesting to try.

This recipe and the others of its time are not written using the measurements we use today (cups, tablespoons, teaspoons, etc.) Cookery manuals of the time were more of a guide rather than a specific set of instructions, so many of the recipes use weights (if they provide any specific measure at all) and guide you by how the food looks or feels during cooking rather than using times and temperatures (cooking temperatures were not as exact as a thermometer in a modern oven, so time and temp aren’t as useful for someone using this technique).

I’ve been in the process of moving, so I had packed my kitchen scale and thus could not measure out equal weights of sugar and fruit pulp. I had initially considered doing a 1:1 ratio, but worried that would make it too sweet. I planned on adding sugar in ¼ cup increments, but ended up not needing any more than one addition. Markham doesn’t specify what ratio of wine to other ingredients one should use, so I had to guess on that as well. ¼ cup seemed like the magic number in this recipe!

After straining the jam one last time, I finally got to taste the finished product. I had been worried that all that boiling and straining might result in a bland jam, but that was not the case at all. The wine added a more complex, deeper flavor to the jam, and the limited amount of sugar I added made the jam tasty (but not overly sweet). I bought some Delice de Borgogne cheese, and I think dinner tonight will consist of cheese and baguette topped by this jam, accompanied by the rest of that bottle of wine.

The recipe:

4 c strawberries, sliced

¼ c Cabernet Sauvignon

¼ c sugar

-In a medium saucepan, place the strawberries in the bottom and add enough water to cover them. Bring to boil, and cook until very soft (about 20 minutes).

-Using a fine strainer, strain the liquid from the strawberries and add to a high-sided skillet. Add the wine, and bring to a boil.

-While the mixture is boiling, use a potato masher to mash the fruit into a pulp.

-Turn off the heat and add the sugar, stir until dissolved.

-Using a fine strainer, strain excess liquid from the mixture and place into a heat-proof container.

 

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