Some of us calm our nerves and relax by watching television while others take a walk or simply sit and think. I(like my father) love to "remember when...". Even though I don't personally remember these dishes, I have made them time and time again(I truly was meant to have been born many generations ago)
I do love to think of how my parentage were huddled in their crude cabins in the middle of Bailey Hill with only the fire from the hearth casting its illumination. I love pondering how meals must have been so comforting and satisfyingly odoriferous. Granted we would snub our noses at homemade, real butter now and using leaf or hogs lard is a serious 'no-no' now, but the flavors and aromas of real food surely calmed the rowdy children and soothed the savage husband.
Let me give you a few old-time dishes you may or may not have heard of. Food that was the energy giver for those hard working folks. People who didn't need to exercise to stay fit, but whose exercise was their daily chores and necessities of living.
Ambrosia, ca 17th century-mid-19th century. When we think of the word ambrosia today, some type of fruit salad mixed with a dairy product and topped with coconut comes to mind. Back a few generations, ambrosia(literally meaning food of the Gods) was simply corn. Generally it was the dried and milled corn that was deemed such.
Hasty Pudding was made with dried corn(henceforth referred to as cornmeal). And although many of us have heard of Hasty or Indian Pudding, not so many knew that it was an absolute sin for it to be the least bit lumpy. My father used to say that it was originally made with milk and eggs and a "trifle of Muscovado sugar or Portorique molasses". Brown sugar sauce was generally made to top it off, which was just melted brown sugar.
Back in the day, Indian pudding wasn't the insipid recipe many chefs use today, but nicely stirred, well-boiled without any two particles sticking together. People, also, don't know to to classically enjoy this dish as well. A spoon should be dipped into milk before it lifts the pudding to the mouth. This keeps it from sticking not only to the spoon, but to the inside of your mouth. It was meant to be enjoyed one spoonful at a time, each bite completely separated from the next.
And do you think the Italians were the first to enjoy polenta? No, no, no, no! Eating hot Indian or Hasty Pudding was just as often seen in our homesteads of old as was cutting it when cold and grilling it in lard the next day. It is often written that when fried in fresh butter of cows who only ate clover, this meal was fit for a king.
Milk Porridge, ca 17th century-late 19th century. First water was boiled. Cornmeal was then added through ones fingers(acting as a type of coarse strainer) and the other hand was gripping a wooden paddle, stirring as the cornmeal was added to the water. When the corn was added, and the lot stirred for a time, fresh milk directly from the cow was very slowly added. It is said that you should not add the milk until you could see your nose reflecting off the surface of the cornmeal/water mixture.
Corn Biscuit, ca 18th century-late 19th century. This was an Indian luxury, and was made with one pound of butter, one pound of sugar, ten eggs and a pint of new milk, with just enough cornmeal to mold it into thin cakes. Sound familiar? It is now known as Pound Cake!
Whitpot, ?-mid-18th century. A very thin Indian Pudding, baked in a very slow oven(low temp) so that the milk, eggs and molasses formed a jelly throughout the entire pudding.
Herring Sticks, ?-late 19th century. From mid-May to mid-June, the herring run was on in all of New England in days gone by. Many old texts referred to Cape Cod herring as an alewife. Often called a "poor mans fish", it was freely gifted each year by the town to each child born within the township limits. Many townships actually enacted legislation ordering just such a gift!
The herring was so plentiful that townships were not able to eat or locally sell them, so they were shipped to larger cities. One older lady, in her journal from New Hampshire, relates "I do relish a nice fresh herring with my breakfast".
Salting and smoking was the norm to help keep a family fed through the lean months. Before salting or smoking, however, they were strung on sticks. The sticks were for the most part whittled from cedar, stripped from the old cedar, split rail fences everyone had around their property. The cedar sticks were passed through the gills of the fish with a dozen or so strung on each. On many New England roads, the lettered signs on the fences used to read, "Herring 10 cents a stick".
Lobster Stew. Now of course many, if not all, of us have heard of Lobster Stew, but would you like to know how to truly make it the old-fashioned way? The correct way? A little trivia first. Lobster Stew was almost always accompanied with a couple of sour pickles.
Begin with the tomalley. Saute it in an equal amount of butter in a thick cast iron skillet for 5 minutes. Add the cooked and picked lobster meat and every bit of juice that came from the cooked lobster as you were shelling it. The ratio between lobster meat and juice should be about 50-50. You don't ever, EVER, add salt or pepper to lobster stew! Old cooks and housewives used to relate that lobsters got plenty of salt and seasoning from the ocean it lived in. I tend to agree!!
Leave this stew on a hot fire for 5 minutes, then push it back to a cooler part of the stove to come down from boiling to a bare simmer for about 15 minutes. While still barely simmering, slowly(and they did mean SLOWLY) add your milk. Housewives say to "trickle" the milk into the stew, while constantly stirring. Add rich cream after the milk has been added. When the stew blossoms out suddenly into a rich salmon pink under your spoon, you can know that the stew has been made properly and is now to remove from all heat sources and let cool for a hours . My father used to say that cooling the stew was just as important as making it. The flavor increases drastically. True lobster stew wasn't meant to be consumed when it is made, but rather cooled for many hours then reheated to enjoy. As if.....
Muslin Toast, 18th century-mid-19th century. This was a favorite supper dish of many Yankee families. Now remember that dinner(or the noontime meal) was the heartiest of all repasts during the day, while supper was just enough food to hold you over until the table was laden for breakfast. Muslin Toast was a type of rye shortcake, the size of the skillet, that was grilled in sweet homemade butter on each side until very crispy. As each side was crispy, it was cut off and set aside. This was repeated until you had about 7-8 thinly crisped slivers of shortcake, with the last slice being grilled. All these crispy slices were then placed in a bowl of hot, thickened and salted milk.
My how times and appetites have changed. I loved looking back and I think I will continue this post within the next few days.