Archive for the '19th century' Category

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The History Dish: Silesian Cheese Cake

silesian3A Silesian Cheese Cake!

The History

When The Practical Cookbook was penned in 1844, Germany wasn’t a unified country: it was a collection a various city states, each with distinct languages, cultures, and foodways.  The recipes is this book are often titled with the region of their creation: “Pork Croquettes in the South Germany Style,” “Frankfurt Sausages,” “Baden-Baden Pudding,” “Westphalian Cake,” and this recipe, Silesian Cheese Cake.  Silesia was a part of Prussia, which today is part of Poland–although when this book was written the area was German-speaking.  The Cheese Cake is a yeast risen dough, topped with a mixture of cheese curds, sugar, and cinnamon.


The Recipe


For the Dough:

2 1/2 cups white flour
1 cup yeast starter (It’s a moist, doughy yeast culture that lives in my fridge.  More on this in a future post.  If you don’t have fresh yeast, use 3 cups flour and 1 packet yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water.)

1/2 cup apples, pared and diced.  (The original recipe calls for raisins.  I hate raisins.  But this dough needed some sweetness, so apples instead!)
1/4 unsalted butter, melted (The recipe calls for half butter and lard; I used schmaltz instead.  Butter will do just fine)
2 cups warm milk
2 tablespoons sour cream (or buttermilk)

Put everything in a bowl and mix it up, stirring in the apples last.  Cover with a clean towel and set somewhere warm to rise for 30 minutes.  Spread into a baking pan, and allow to rise 30 minutes more.

It’s about 10 degrees outside in Queens right now, so finding a warm spot in my house for the dough to rise was difficult.  But I found it by following the cat–she knows best.  She’s been camping out by the steam heat pipe in the bathroom.

silesianMoxy helps the dough rise.

For the topping:

The recipe’s directions confused me in regards to the cheese curds–“…The evening before wanted take 3 quarts of thick milk with the cream, put into a cheese cloth bag, and the next morning use for the cake.”  Okay, so she’s instructing cooks to strain the liquid out…but usually you have to make it curdle first.  Would the cook add salt?  Would the natural bacteria in the milk make it curdle? Would it be more like Greek yogurt? Maybe someone who’s reading this post knows better.

I found a package of “French Yogurt Cheese” in a weird, small grocery store near my house.  It looked, and tasted, like large-curd cottage cheese, which seemed to be about what I needed.

silesian1What is this? I don’t know.

1 cups vaguely defined cheese curds (try cottage cheese)
1/4 cup cream
1/2 stick melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 large egg (I put in two–but the recipe would have used 2 medium eggs, not two large. Ooops.)

Put it in a bowl and mix it up!

silesian2Mixing the Topping.

After the dough had its second rise, I poured the cheese mixture on top, then baked at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.

The Results

I cut a slice of this cake while it was still warm.  It had surprisingly moist, dense, and gummy texture.  I’m not sure if that’s the nature of the recipe, or if my yeast didn’t do much of anything.  Either way, I didn’t really mind.  It kinda worked.

I think this cake could use some technical improvements.  Perhaps the dough should be baked first, then spread with the cheese topping, and put in the broiler a few minutes to melt and brown it.  I think the ultimate incarnation of this recipe would be a slightly sweetened yeast dough, topped with poutine-style cheese curds, and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.  Salty, sweet, and a little gooey–I think it could be a real winner.

 sliesian4Gummy, but decent.



The History Dish: The Photographer’s Cheesecake

photo_cheescake2A cheesecake recipe for a 19th century Photographer.

The History

College was one of the most difficult and demanding times of my life.  I looked for small ways to escape the pressure, like ducking into Attenson’s Antiques on Coventry, a maze of rooms stuffed with treasures.  In the back corner was a bookshelf used as a dumping ground for an ever-growing collection of photographs.  Box after box, picked up at estate sales, ended up in this nook.  If the day was quiet enough, the shop owners would let me spread out on the floor to go through the black and white lives of people long dead.  After an hour or two, I’d have a pile of images set aside.  I’d pay ten or twenty dollars, and take my new friends home.

An albumen print of Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia.

An albumen print of General Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia.

If you’ve ever spent time sorting through thrift store images, you’ve certainly come across a type of photography known as albumen printing.  Albumen photographs are characterized by their sepia tone, glossy sheen, and sometimes a metallic shine in the dark parts of the image.  They’re also printed on a thin piece of paper glued to a thicker cardboard stock.

Albumen is made of egg whites.  This sticky substance allowed photographer to adhere photo chemicals to glass plates, allowing for the first commercially viable form of reproducible photography.  Additionally, when painted on paper, albumen created an ultra smooth surface on which to float photosensitive chemicals; the result was a highly detailed image when the photo was printed.

The process was revolutionary and used for much of the second half of the 19th century, and even into the 20th.  However, producing albumen paper used a lot of eggs whites and left a byproduct of a ton of egg yolks.  Some of those yolks could have been used in this recipe for “Photographer’s Cheesecake” published in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of Food Writing.

The Recipe

In 1861, The British Journal of Photography suggested, to the amateur photographer, that he could use his excess egg yolks to make a cheese cake.  One day, after making a meringue, I had a lot of yolks on my hands and decided to give it a try.  It required very few ingredients and took less than ten minutes to assemble.  Problems started to arise when I baked it: the filling was still liquid although I had baked it longer than the recipe suggested.  When I put it in the fridge overnight, it was solid, but liquefied at room temperature. I still ate it, though.

The Photographer’s Cheesecake
Originally printed in The British Journal of Photography, 1861
Reprinted in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy

To convert the yolks of eggs used for albumenizing to useful purposes: Dissolve a quarter of a pound of butter in a basin placed on the hob, stir in a quarter of a pound of pounded sugar, and beat well together; then add the yolks of three eggs that have been previously well-beaten; beat up altogether thoroughly; throw in half a grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt; stir, and lastly add the juice of two fine-flavoured lemons, and the rind of one lemon that has been peeled very thin; beat all up together thoroughly  and pour into a dish lined with puff-paste, and bake for about twenty minutes.  This is a most delicious dish.

1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks, beaten
1/2 of a freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of Salt
Juice of two small lemons
Zest of one lemon
Puff Paste (store bought is ok!)

Beat (using an electric mixer, if you like) butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add egg yolks, one at a time, mixing after each addition.  Add nutmeg and salt; mix.  Add lemon juice and zest; mix.  Pour into a baking dish lined with puff paste, bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

The Results

photo_cheesecake1Out of the oven.

Honestly, it tasted great!  I loved the citrus, which complemented the nutmeg well. At the same time, the technical aspects of the recipe didn’t work.  It was goopy and runny and not at all right–and I don’t think it was my mistake.  perhaps this recipe was originally published as a joke, not as a real recipe?  Which seems silly, because what on earth did those photographers do with all those egg yolks anyway?


Kitchen Histories: Biscuits You Can Beat With a Stick

biscuits3Beaten Biscuits

Over on Etsy, I’ve got an article up about Beaten Biscuits, an old Southern recipe where you smack the heck out of biscuits dough with  a rolling pin.  It’s from one of America’s oldest cookbooks, The Virginia House Wife–read the Etsy article here.

The Virginia House Wife also contains the oldest known written recipe for gazpacho; I’ve made it, and you can read about it here.

The Virginia House Wife can be found on Google books here, or a hard copy can be purchased here.

Living History: Domestic for a Day

7:06 AM: I’m up.  Last night, Temporary Roommate Sarah T stopped by my room and said “I’m going to bed.  I’ve left my boots outside my door to be polished, and I expect hot water in the morning to wash my person.”  I accused her of being way too good at this and added “If you poop in a pot in your room, I’m not cleaning it up.”

My face is washed and I’m dressed in a black dress and white apron. My understanding is servants did not wear uniforms in the 19th century, but I’m not sure when they started.

I’ve got toast with butter and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. Tea to 19thc servants was like spinach to Popeye.

I’m going to finish my shopping list and meal plan for the day, then do dishes–there’s a sink full of them from yesterday, and if I were a good Maid of all Work, I would not have let that happen.


7:31 AM: In addition to taking cues from Hanna Cullwick’s diary, I’m also going to follow the daily tasks for a Maid-of-all-Work as laid out by Isabella Beeton in her Book of Household Management (first published 1859).  You can preview my day’s work here, and here’s what she says about my role:

The general servant, or maid-of-all-work, is perhaps the only one of her class deserving of commiseration; her life is a solitary one, and in, some places, her work is never done.  She is also subject to rougher treatment than either the house or kitchen-maid, especially in her earlier career: she starts life, probably a girl of thirteen, with some small tradesman’s wife as her mistress, just a step above her in the social scale…she has to do in her own person all the work which in larger establishments is performed by cook, kitchen-maid, and housemaid  and occasionally the part of a footman’s duty, which consists in carrying messages.

I slept in my own bed last night, by the way, but if I were doing this right i should have slept on a cot in the kitchen.

8:15 AM: Dishes are done, cat is fed, and I started coffee brewing at the first sign of stirring in the bedchambers.  Here’s what Beeton says I do next:

The general servant’s duties commence by opening the shutters and windows if the weather permits of all the lower apartments in tho housoe,she should then brush up her kitchen range, light the fire, clear away the ashes, clean the hearth, and polish with a loather the bright parts of the range ;doing all as rapidly and as vigorously as possible that no more time be wasted than is necessary. After putting on the kettle she should then proceed to tho dining room or parlour to get it in order for breakfast.

I haven’t cleaned the stove yet, it may have to wait until after breakfast.  I’m heading into the “dining room” (read: only common room in my apartment) to tidy for breakfast.  Beeton says “Nothing annoys a particular mistress so much as to find, when she comes down stairs, different articles of furniture looking as if they had never been dusted.” Eek. The dusting may have to wait until after breakfast, too.

8:45 AM: Dining room is tidied! I even got in a little dusting.  I’m ditching my apron and putting on a little makeup, and heading out to do the marketing.  I live in New York, so I have to walk and take a basket with me–not much has changed since the Victorian era.

diningroomThe dining room is read for breakfast.

Fiancee Brian just woke up and asked “What’s for breakfast? Is it old timey or is it bacon?”

“Bacon is old timey!” I replied, and is for breakfast.  Beeton’s suggestions for a proper breakfast can be read here.


9:30 AM: Back from the store-it’s about a 1.5 mile round trip.  Getting up breakfast: toast, butter, jam, eggs (scrambled–poached is more period appropriate, but the Master of the House doens’t like the that way), bacon, fruit, coffee, orange juice.


10:30 AM: Breakfast got on the table, hot, at 10 on the dot. I even put on a clean apron to serve.  I left Brian and Sarah T to make idle chit chat, and hit the bedchambers.  Opened the sashes and dusted.  Changed the sheets in the master bedroom; this room will need more work later.  Thus would also be when I would “empty the slops,” meaning the chamber pots, but thankfully it’s 2013 and we have a bathroom.

Next, I’m going to clear and wash the breakfast dishes and sweep and mop the kitchen and dining room floor.

I mentioned to Sarah T that I felt weird that they were talking to me like normal.  She offered to jump in to character, but then hesitated and decided she couldn’t order me around.  I told them if they needed anything, just to let me know.

I was so hungry when I was cooking breakfast.  I’ll have the leftovers–some eggs, a slice of toast with jam, maybe another cup of tea.

In case you were wondering what the rest of the household should be up to while I’m working, here’s a source from 1780–a little early for the Victorian era, but not much would have changed:

I’ll give you an account of one day, and then you will see every day.  (Her day began at 9, with breakfast at 10) And then about 11 I play harpsichord, or draw; at 1 I translate at 2 walk out again, 1 I generally read, 4 we go to dine, after dinner we play backgammon, we drink tea at 7 and I work or play on the piano until 10, when we have our little bit of supper, and 11, we go to bed.


12:00 PM: Clear’d breakfast dishes and washed up.  Swept whole house–kitchen, living room/dining room, bathroom, and hall.  Swept outside hall and welcome mat, too.  Brian complained about trash smelling, so I took trash out.

Now it’s time to get dinner up.  It’s the largest meal of the day; for a dinner on a Thursday in January, Beeton suggests: ” 1. Vegetable soup (the bones of the beef ribs should be boiled down with this soup), cold beef, mashed potatoes. 2. Pheasants, gravy,  bread sauce. 3. Macaroni.”  I’m going to sear a beef roast with butter and onions, then cover it up with water, and add half a cabbage, and a butternut squash, salt, pepper, “made mustard” and a slice of toast to thicken it, as per Beeton’s suggested recipe. I’ll simmer low two hours, and when the meat is done, I’ll pull it out and slice it.  Soup will be served first, then meat with potatoes and a scoop of macaroni and cheese–blue box, but 19th-centuried up with a blade of mace in the boiling water, and topped with fresh grated cheese and nutmeg.

On my second cup of tea with milk and sugar.  Did I mention I only slept about 5 hours last night?

So far the cat has been the most demanding member of the household.


12:35 PM: I also have some veal bones to throw in the soup to make it richer.  I’m going to add wine and celery salt. Turns out I have no mustard, or even vinegar, so I put in lemon juice and dried herbs instead.  It’s going to simmer for an hour.

Brian was in the kitchen chatting with me; I could barely respond.  I was both tired, and focused on getting my task done.  I certainly didn’t feel pretty or amorous.  I don’t know how Hanna Cullwick did it.


1:45 PM: I am all kinds of achey so I took two Tylenol.  Sarah T. just asked if we could have bread crumbs on the macaroni, so I guess I really am 19th-centuring it up and doing it casserole style. I’ve been cooking the last hour.  I’m going to sit down and eat at 2; not at the table, but at the kitchen counter.  I think Brian and Sarah were to weirded out this morning when I went to do more work while they ate. I’m about to dish up dinner, and I’ll post some photos afterwards.

Brian: “Why are we eating dinner at two??” Me: “Dinner is in the middle of the day.” Brian: “Well, that’s old-timey and weird!!”


2PM: Brian: “Is there bread”  Me: “Of course, sir! Right away!”  Sarah T: “You have to cut it in front of us, so we know you’re not stealing it.”


3pm: Some photos from dinner.

dinnerMace, for the water to boil the pasta.


dinner1The soup.

dinner2The Table.



 3:30 PM: I cleared the dinner dishes and I’m working on washing up.  I’ve decided to get my cooking done for the rest of the day–tea and supper are served cold, so if I cook now, I can tidy the kitchen and not have to fuss with it the rest of the day.  That involved making a tart for tea, from puff paste I have in the freezer and homemade jam from my mom (here’s Beeton’s recipe) and roasting a chicken to serve cold at tea/supper.  Luckily, I don’t have to pluck and gut it.

dishesNeverending dishes.

 Fowls to be tender should be killed a couple of days before they are dressed when the feathers come out easily then let them be picked and cooked In drawing them be careful not to break the gall lag as wherever it touches it would impart a very bitter taste…(Mrs. Beeton’s roast fowl recipe)

4:30 PM: I have to admit, that at three pm, I wanted to quit.  I am EXHAUSTED.  It is unfortunate I didn’t get a full night’s sleep last night, but at the same time I think it’s more accurate to how I would have felt EVERY DAMN DAY if this were my life.  I just wanted to quit and go take a nap in my bed.

But I didn’t. And I found a second wind.  Chicken and Jelly Tart went in the over.  I took out the recycling. I did all the dishes, again. I wiped down the counters.  I will keep going until 10:30 pm, when my day is done.

Even Brian is sad.  “I don’t like this. You’re my partner–I don’t like you calling me sir.”

I’m even too tired to talk to anyone.  I just don’t have the mental fortitude.


5PM: One of the jobs I was supposed to do this morning was shine the boots.  I don’t even own any shoe polish, so the best I could do was take three pairs of boots out into the hall and waterproof them, which did need to be done.  I also “delivered a message,”by spending a few moments on Facebook inviting a few friends to an Epiphany party on Sunday.

I’m taking a moment to check in with Cullwick and Beeton to see what I’m supposed to do the rest of the evening:

  • Finish cleaning kitchen: mop, and wipe down stove and clean oven, when it cools.
  • Clean and dust the Parlour
  • Clean Window Sills
  • Clean Pantry
  • Unpack a Hamper
  • Tea & Clean Away
  • Clean the “Passage” – hang up coats in hall
  • Clean “Privy” – Bathroom
  • Supper & Clean away
  • Turn Down Beds
  • Wash sink down

Mrs. Beeton also thinks I should find time to “do a little needlework” but I say screw her.

5:05 PM: I realized I forgot to baste the chicken.  Like, at all. motherfucker.  I hope it’s not too dry…


6:45 PM: Photos of Tea Time: roast chicken, breand and butter, blackberry jam and puff paste tarte.



Have to clear away, strip the chicken carcass and put away; then, into the passage to hang up coats, then clean the privy.


8:30 PM: Clean’d the bathroom on my knees.  My hands are dry and my knuckles and back hurt.

My friend Eva reminded me of this image shot by photographer Hal Hirshorn.  Recreated domestic servant at the Merchant’s House Museum.  Eva is the model.

10 PM: Supper.  Just a little nosh at the end of the day: bread, butter, cheese, cold beef, leftover tart.



10:30 PM:

  • Finish cleaning kitchen: mop, and wipe down stove and clean oven, when it cools.
  • Clean and dust the Parlour
  • Clean Window Sills
  • Clean Pantry
  • Unpack a Hamper
  • Tea & Clean Away
  • Clean “Privy” – Bathroom
  • Supper & Clean away
  • Turn Down Beds
  • Wash sinks down

Bet I could have cleaned that pantry if I wasn’t blogging.

And now, I’m going to end my day just like Hanna Cullwick: “Wash’d in a bath & to bed.”

What have I taken away from this?  I realized what I did today is about the same workload of your average stay-at-home Mom or Dad.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

moxyMoxy Kitty helps me earlier today.

Tomorrow: Living Life as a 19th Century Servant

Hanna(h) Cullwick, scrubbing the floor. (source)

After the Famine struck Ireland in 1847, millions of Irish immigrants landed on America’s shores.  Many of them were women, young and unmarried.  In fact, it was far easier for a single woman to get a job in America than a man–because there was a huge demand for domestic servants.

In England and America in the 19th century, housework was incredibly laborious.  If you could afford it, you got a servant.  A household with just one servant had what was called a “Maid-of-all-Work,” a lone woman that was responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, and general maintenance of the members of the household.  If you had more money, you could get a cook, a housemaid, a lady’s maid, a butler, and a valet.  Some households were even so large there were complex hierarchies among the servants.  Even the servants had servants.

Domestic labor provided an open door to new Irish immigrants–they could get a job almost right after they landed and room and board was included, which allowed them to save money and send it home.  Often, after they married, they would leave service to manage their own households and raise their own families.

But did the next generation, the American born daughters, follow in their mother’s footstep and go into service?

Hell. No.

Because being in service was terrible.

The servant we know the most about is an Englishwoman named Hanna Cullwick.  She entered service at the age of 8, and remained a servant until 65.  She kept a diary of her daily doings from her mid-twenties to her mid-sixties–from about 1853-1893.  A typical entry looks like this.

Opened the shutters & lighted the kitchen fire.  Shook my sooty thing in the dusthole & emptied the soot there.  Swept & dusted the rooms & hall.  Laid the hearth and got breakfast up.  Clean’d 2 pairs of boots.  Made the beds & emptied the slops.  Clean’d and washed the breakfast things up.  Clean’d the plate, clean’d the knives & got dinner up.  Clean’d away.  Clean’d the kitchen up; unpack’d a hamper.  Took two chickens to Mrs Brewer’s & brought the message back.  Made a tart & pick’d and gutted two ducks & roasted them.  Clean’d the steps & flags on my knees.  Blackheaded the scraper in front of the house; clean’d the street flags too on my knees.  Wash’d up in the scullery. Clean’d the pantry on my knees and scour’d the tables.  Scrubbed the flags around the house & clean’d the window sills.  Got tea for the Master and Mrs. Warwick…Clean’d the privy & Passage & scullery floor on my knees.  Wash’s the dog & cleaned the sinks down.  Put the supper ready for Ann to take up, for I was too dirty & tired to go upstairs.  Wash’d in a bath & to bed.

It’s thanks to her tedious diary that we know anything about a typical servant’s daily life.  But the reason she kept this diary at all is quite interesting: for 36 years, she secretly dated then married her employer, Arthur Munby.  The diary was for him.

The marriage wasn’t made public until Munby’s death, when he willed her his fortune and estate (she was already dead by this point, so it’s all a little confusing).  When they were alone, she was the lady of the house.  When guests were visiting, she returned to her role as servant.  As Bill Bryson describes it in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “At his bidding, she called him ‘massa’ and blackened her skin to make herself look like a slave.  The diaries, it transpires, were kept largely so that he could read about her getting dirty.”  Other accounts say she cleaned his chimney naked and licked his boots clean.

Mundy seemed to fetishize servitude, and the work of a housemaid.  They had this sort of dom/sub roleplay relationship that for many years kept them quite happy.  I say good for them. (although there is nothing funny or lighthearted about actual slavery).

All that aside–I’m going to spend tomorrow living the life of a domestic servant of the 19th century.  My day as a Maid-of-all-Work will begin at 6:30 am.  Breakfast will be served at 10 am, Dinner at 2, Tea at 6, and Supper at 10 pm.  And my apartment could use a post holiday scrub, so I’m going to be doing all the cleaning as well.  I’ll be updating the blog all day, so check back frequently to see what I’m up to. I will not be licking anyone’s boots clean.

See you in the morning.


I first read about Hanna Culwick in At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  Her diaries have been published, but are out of print.  Tomorrow, I’ll also be using descriptions of servant life from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (buy it here).


Living History: New Year’s Day, a Thinly Veiled Pub Crawl

Waiting for callers on New Year’s Day. (source)

19th century New Yorkers didn’t do their drinking on New Year’s Eve; instead,  New Year’s Day was the day for revelry, in what the Merchant’s House Museum recently described as “an elegant, albeit thinly masked, pub crawl.”

On New Years Day, it was tradition to travel all around New York and visit the houses of your friends and family.  This was an old Dutch tradition brought to New Amsterdam that was revived in New York in the 19th century, and celebrated by the entire city, not just Dutch immigrants and their descendants.  This custom was known as “calling,” and some people would visit between 30-100 houses in a day.

It was usually the men who would travel from house to house, while the women stayed at home to meet the guests–and they might see 200-300 friends and family in a day.  The days leading up to the occasion were particularly busy, as houses were cleaned top to bottom, sometimes refurnished, and there was a general slew of “baking, brewing, stewing, broiling, and frying” according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life – or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City, a fascinating, often sensationalized, encyclopedia on the city from 1872.

According to Lights and Shadows, women would have a new dress made, and would rely on hairdressers–or “artist of hair”–who would visit their homes.  But because the season was so busy, hairdressers would often have to work through the night, calling on the women at three or four in the morning.  The ladies would spent the rest of the night sleeping sitting up, or in some other Geisha-like sleeping arrangement, so they didn’t  muss their do.

Punchmakers were another set employed throughout the night–but I’ve written about them before, and you can read about them here.

A punch bowl in the collection of the William H. Seward House.

When the great day arrived, the whole city was already in motion by 9am.  If you’ve been doing this a number of years, you knew enough to make a bee-line for the houses with the best food.  Sometimes, as you ran into your friends on the street, you would exchange inside information about who has the best plumb pudding or charlotte russe this year.

A typical visit would consist of  giving the greetings of the season, accepting refreshments and then moving on to the next house.  The men would keep a list, and check off names or each family they visited.  The list was a necessity, for as the day rolled on, you’d accept a drink at every house.  According to Lights and Shadows

“At the outset, of course, everything is conducted with the utmost propriety, but, as the day wears on, the generous liquors they have imbibed begin to ‘tell’ upon the callers…Towards the close of the day, everything is in confusion–the door-bell is never silent.  Crowds of young men, in various stages of intoxication, rush into the lighted parlous, leer at the hostess in the vain effort to offer their respects, call for liquor  drink it, and stagger out, to repeat the scene at some other house…Strange as it may seem, it is no disgrace to get drunk on New Year’s Day.”

I’ve always loved this tradition  and have often sought to recreate it.  After the hubbub of the holidays, I can’t imagine anything more lovely that calling on all of my friends, and having a few quiet hours to enjoy their company.  I intended to make my rounds today, but after following the normal 21st century pattern of revelry, I woke up with a hangover so nasty that I haven’t done much of anything today.  I will leave in about an hour, to see two friends I haven’t got a chance to talk to since Thanksgiving, and to cut their silhouettes for their belated Christmas present.  I don’t think I’ll be drinking any punch, though.

Updated 11pm: My visit was wonderful! Will (originally of Manchester, England) and Sarah (of Kentucky!) presented my fiancee and I with a cheese platter, hot milky tea, and a real English Christmas pudding! They doused it in brandy and set it ablaze. It was the most perfect New Year’s visit.



You can read Lights and Shadows of New York Life here, or purchase it here
I’d also recommend The Battle for Christmas, a wonderful book on the development on the holiday season in America.  The author focuses a lot on New York life and tells some great stories about visiting on New Year’s Day.

Menus: A Dollar Christmas Dinner

This menu comes from Fifteen Cent Dinners for Families of Six, a pamphlet released during one of the nation’s worst depressions, the Panic of 1873.  The author, Juliet Corson, strives to lay out decent meals for families on a restricted budget (I once spent a week eating her suggested diet, read about it here).  She allows for a bit of holiday joy with this Christmas dinner for a dollar, which is the almost the exact same Christmas dinner the Cratchits ate in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Notice the special attention paid to the price of ingredients, which she says are based on the prices at Washington Market; the 5-lb turkey, and the last line: “After you have eaten it, think if I have kept my promise to tell you how to get comfortable meals at low prices.”

The Gallery: Washington Market, Thanksgiving Eve 1885

From Harper’s Weekly, November 28th, 1885.


The Washington Market of to-day is not the Washington Market of old.  It is a much fresher and more healthy-looking place than the old ramshackle affair of former years.  The Thanksgiving Eve surroundings of Washington market are, however, the same now as they have ever been.  The busy buyers of turkeys and other Thanksgiving Day edibles swarm about it like bees around a hive, and jostle one another in its narrow passageways.  Big turkeys and little turkeys hang, cold in death, from rows upon rows of cruel hooks, their plump or skinny, white or pinkish breasts decorated with little bright-colored rosettes, in mockery of the pitiless fate that has already befallen them, and the cruel mutilation which is to overtake them on the morrow.  Ducks and geese and chickens are piled in mounds on the zinc covered countered, and the carcasses of fallen deer hand from hooks, while banks of green-topped celery and rosy-cheeked apples lend color to the scene.  Small tradesmen fill up the spaces between the regular market stalls with appetizing stores of hares, rabbits, and other small game, and big butchers in iron-starched white or checked aprons move around like jolly warders at a fair.  At the street corners outside of the market little rosy-cheeked girls, and old women whose cheeks are no longer rosy, sit behind huge baskets of oranges and apples.

[In this image] The evening rush has not yet set in.  A few hours later, and the passageway will be almost impassable, and there will be an indescribable confusion of sounds, as shrill-voiced women clamor for Thanksgiving bargains, and the vendors in the market cry forth the excellence of their wholesome wares.

If FDR had not declared Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month instead of the last, November 28th would be Thanksgiving eve this year, too!

A Coffin Filled with Pepper

This is what black pepper looks like just after it’s harvested. Who knew?

There is the gradeschool myth that Far East spices, including pepper, were used to cover the taste of rotting meat. But recent scholarship suggests that if a family could afford spices from the Far East, they could also afford freshly slaughtered meat–which logically, makes sense.

However, the old legend may not have been entirely wrong, just misinterpreted. A 1998 study by Cornell showed that black pepper, as well as many other spices, have antimicrobial qualities. Ground white and black pepper kill up 25% of bacteria they come in contact with, although pepper doesn’t hold a candle to garlic, onion, allspice and oregano, which kill 100% of bacteria. So, perhaps meats of the Middle Ages weren’t highly spiced to hide the flavor of rotten meat, but to actually stop the meat from rotting.

Pepper, therefore, acts as a preservative by keeping microorganisms at bay. Early Americans seemed to be aware of pepper’s preservative properties. There’s a bizarre story recounted in the 1949 book Pepper and Pirates of a seafaring man who died far from home in the early 19th century, and he “was shipped back to Salem in a coffin filled with pepper.” Apparently, his body made it back little worse for the wear.

Gathering up the Fragments: Recipe Poems by Emily Dickinson

Recipe or poem? Emily Dickinson’s recipe for “Cocoa Nut” cake. 445B: courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections by permission of the Trustees of Amherst College.

We’ve got a guest post this week from Aife Murray, author of  Maid as Muse: how servants changed Emily Dickinson’s life and language— and I want to let you jump right into it.  Read on for a story about Dickinson the poet/cook who would give you the recipe to make a prairie just as soon as she would her recipe for cocoanut cake.  

Aife recently spoke about Dickinson at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  The video of this event is here.  

“Waste not, want not” was a maxim in Emily Dickinson’s kitchen. Her family’s well-thumbed housekeeping manual, The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child, from 1844, begins this way: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time as well as materials.”

Emily Dickinson grabbed every conceivable scrap of paper for her stationary. She wrote poems on the backs of party invitations, bills, recipes, shopping lists, food wrappers(think the chocolate bar wrapper made famous by Joseph Cornell) — the kinds of paper that seem to

“grow” on any kitchen counter. She’d use these scraps to capture a poetic idea that had skidded into the imagination. When my hands are busy grating nutmeg or scrubbing the stove my mind roams broadly and I receive what feel like “gifts” of ideas (Buddhists would call that “naturally occurring wisdom”). In Emily’s case, what rose up might be a great poem. So she gathered up even those fragments of ideas for poems and jotted them on the backs of those fragments of paper collecting by her pantry board.

Emily Dickinson (source)

Another frugal idea, adopted by prize-winning baker Emily Dickinson, came from the sewing room. In order to keep her kitchen-writing life in place she pinned recipes into her cookbook. I’m a tactile learner too. Among the cookbooks on my bookshelf I tuck recipes I’ve torn from magazines or jotted on the back of an envelope when talking food with a friend. Of course those papers are at risk every time I grab a cookbook (but they remind me, as I pick them up, about a dish to try). Perhaps Emily Dickinson had a better idea. She used a simple straight pin to hold these various slips of paper into her family cookbook. She not only pinned recipes but she pinned her poems together.

Emily’s original of the coconut cake recipe, below, has two small pin holes in it. On the reverse of the recipe she began writing the poem “The things that never can come back” but then the poem got longer and she grabbed another sheet of paper to finish it. And so, as she might pin a recipe together in her “receipt book,” she took a straight pin to keep the pieces of the poem together. Look at the dashes in this recipe – she’s famous for using dashes (which came first? The recipe dash or the poem dash?):

1 Pound Sugar –
½ Pound Butter –
½ Pound Flour –
6  –  Eggs –
1  grated Cocoa Nut –

It turns out inspired writing is a lot like inspired cooking. And Emily Dickinson easily adapted kitchen practices to her writing. Recipes — a simple list with proportions — are as concise as poetry. I think recipes were a suggestive form for Emily Dickinson, just as much as sonnets or haiku. Doesn’t her coconut cake recipe look an awful lot like this “recipe” for mixing up a prairie?

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

©Aífe Murray, San Francisco, September 2-10, 2012

Read More!


Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language (Revisiting New England) 

The American Frugal Housewife