Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Continuing with Excerpts from It's an Old New England Custom, 1946

Breakfast was not the same everywhere in New England. More fish, for example, was used along the seaboard than in the hinterland, but even on Cape Cod they had pie for breakfast, as is shown by the following bill of fare of the inhabitants of that region from a description of the town of Chatham printed in 1802.
"Food can so easily be procured, either on the shore or in the sea, that, with the profit which arises from their voyages, in which it must be confessed they labor very hard, the people are enabled to cover their tables well with provisions. A breakfast among the inhabitants, and even among those who are called the poorest, for there are none which may be called really poor, consists of tea or coffee, brown bread, generally with butter, sometimes without, salt or fresh fish, fried or broiled. A dinner affords one or more of the following dishes: roots and herbs; salted beef or pork boiled; fresh butcher's meat not more than twelve times a year; wild fowl frequently in the autumn and winter; fresh fish boiled or fried with pork; shell fish; salt fish boiled; Indian pudding; pork baked with beans. Tea or coffee also frequently constitutes part of the dinner. A supper consists of tea or coffee, and fish, as at breakfast; cheese, cakes made of flour, gingerbread, and pies of several sorts. This bill of fare will serve, with little variation, for all the fishing towns in the county. In many families there is no difference between breakfast and supper; cheese, cakes, and pies being common at the one as at the other."
Half a century later when Thoreau and his friend, Ellery Channing, visited Cape Cod, they put up one night with an old oysterman of Wellfleet, who in the morning provided them with substantially the same kind of breakfast. Thoreau's brief account of this meal is interesting and amusing.

"Before sunrise the next morning they let us out again, and I ran over to the beach to see the sun come out of the ocean. The old woman of eighty-four winters was already out in the cold morning wind, bareheaded, tripping about like a young girl, and driving up the cow to milk. She got the breakfast with dispatch, and without noise or bustle; and meanwhile the old man resumed his stories, standing before us, who were sitting, with his back to the chimney, and ejecting his tobacco-juice right and left into the fire behind him, without regard to the dishes that were there preparing. At breakfast we had eels, buttermilk cake, cold bread, green beans, doughnuts, and tea...I ate of the apple-sauce and the doughnuts, which I thought had sustained the least detriment from the old man's shots, but my companion refused the apple-sauce, and ate of the hot cake and green beans, which had appeared to me to occupy the safest part of the hearth. But on comparing notes afterward, I told him that the buttermilk cake was particularly exposed, and I saw how it suffered repeatedly, and therefore I avoided it; but he declared that, however that might be, he witnessed that the apple-sauce was seriously injured, and had therefore declined that."

After breakfast they filled their pockets with doughnuts, which the old oysterman was pleased to find they were called by the same name that he did, and, paying for their entertainment, took their departure. It was perhaps and over sight that they were not offered pie for breakfast, but at least they did have doughnuts, which still happily survive on many New England breakfast tables. The most remarkable thing about the meal was the manner if its preparation. In mid-nineteenth century it was cooked before an open fire.

The memorableness of a breakfast may depend on the circumstances in which it was eaten, or the food it consisted of, or both. A breakfast memorable on both counts was served to an English traveler named John Lambert in a Vermont farmhouse on the shore of Lake Champlain at the beginning of the last century(1800s-jjb). Lambert gives an account of it in his book, Travels in Lower Canada and North America in the Years 1806, and 1808, which was published in London in 1810. On his passage up the lake, Lambert was forced to land early in the morning, after a trying night on the water. Tired, cold, and hungry, he applied at a farmhouse for food. Here is the story of his reception.

A very old image of a fireplace crane used to hang large metal pots from.

"We were nearly two hours before we could get the vessel off the rocks. At length having succeeded, we coasted along the shore, until four o'clock in the morning, when we arrived in a small bay in the township of Shelburne, about sixty miles from St. John's, situated in the widest part of the lake. Here we went ashore at the first farmhouse, at a little distance from the bay. The door was only on the latch, and we entered; but the people were not yet up. Having awakened the master of the house, and told him our situation, he said we were welcome, and that he would get up immediately. In the meantime, we collected some wood, and, putting it upon the live embers in the fire place, soon made a large fire. This was a most comfortable relief, after the cold night we had passed on board our miserable sloop. We found that a considerable quantity of snow had fallen in this part of the lake, though we had not met any during the passage.

"The master of the house, with two of his sons, were soon up, and, having put the kettle on the fire, made preparation for breakfast. About six o'clock, his wife and daughters, two pretty little girls, came into the kitchen, where we were assembled, and in the course of half an hour we had the pleasure of sitting down to a substantial American breakfast, consisting of eggs, fried pork, beefsteaks, appletarts, pickles, cheese, cider, tea, and toast dipped in the melted butter and milk. We were surprised at seeing such a variety of eatables, as it was not a tavern; but the farmer was a man of property, and carried on the farming business to a considerable extent. He showed us a great number of cheeses of his own making; and, for churning butter, he had made a kind of half barrel, with a place for one of his young boys to sit astride as on horseback. This machine moving up and down answered the double purpose of a churn for making butter, and a rocking horse for his children.
"Having made an excellent breakfast, we inquired of our worthy host what we had to pay. He said he should be satisfied with a York shilling(about 7d. sterling); this however we considered too small a sum for the trouble we had given him and his family and the handsome manner in which he had entertained us; we therefore gave him a quarter of a dollar each, that being the tavern price for breakfast. We then took our leave, and went on board our vessel, equally pleased with the interested hospitality of the American farmer, as with the comfortable refreshment we had received at his house."

The oddest item in this Vermont breakfast is the cider, but at that time and for many years thereafter it was drunk at all times of the day in New England, and commonly at breakfast. In ordinary seasons it was worth about a dollar a barrel. It was usually drawn in a mug or bowl, and among farmers it was considered a breach of manners not to offer it to any casual visitor or traveler. It was intoxicating, but was seldom taken in quantities sufficient to intoxicate-at least, not at breakfast. President John Adams was in the habit of tossing off a quart tankard of hard cider before breakfast, and it did not seem to do him harm, as he lived to be ninety.

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