Is last week’s turkey history? Did you make turkey soup and lots of turkey sandwiches? To me, it is always amazing how certain foods, like turkey, are associated with a specific part of the country. Yes, turkeys were wild when the Pilgrims arrived and were the center of the first Thanksgiving.
Other parts of the country are also known for specific foods. Ham has been the centerpiece of many Southern meals of celebration, particularly Easter. No, pigs did not originate in the South. They were brought to Florida by Spanish explorers. When the explorers left, the pigs wandered north, many to Virginia.
However, let’s see what became of the Pilgrims after that first Thanksgiving. What foods became traditional with those first settlers?
Game was plentiful, but difficult for the early settlers to obtain, since few knew how to shoot. In England, hunting was a sport for the wealthy. The settlers soon learned, however, and the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys became their principal meat supply. As these types of wild game meat became scarce, the settlers also hunted birds.
After the Pilgrims had passed through a few hard winters, they learned the pattern of the seasons and what the soil and sea would yield in each. They sowed and harvested corn, domesticated the wild turkey and found cod, mackerel, lobster and crabs plentiful along the shore and in the ocean. They raised apples and pears, hybridized the wild grapes and made use of the native cranberry. Dairy and beef cattle, which they imported from Europe, soon provided meat, milk and cheese.
As New England developed, the settlers cut trees and built trading vessels, which brought back exotic ingredients for their cooking. Teas and spices arrived from China. Wine, brandy and raisins were imported from the Mediterranean. Molasses, the staple of New England cooking, came from the West Indies.
Since winters were harsh in New England, the colonists spent time in the summer preserving and storing food for the long winter. Surplus meat was stored in the salt barrel, and salt pork, salt cod and corned beef became the center of colonial New England meals. Some pork also wassmoked. The settlers preserved fruits, as well as meats. These were used in pies, which became staples during long winter months.
Most farms had an icehouse where perishable foods were stored in the summer. Ice was cut from a pond by hand during the winter and stored in the ice house covered with straw.
The dour beliefs of the Puritans, who settled the Boston area in 1628-30, were reflected in their cooking. The Puritans disdained the “French trickery” of rich sauces. Most of their food was roasted, boiled or stewed, a tradition of New England cooking that exists today. Many of the traditional recipes still in use in New England originally came from England or were adaptations of Indian foods.
The kitchen hearth was the heart of the early New England home. During the day, meals were cooked in the 6- to 10-foot fireplace, and at night the family gathered around it for warmth. After the ashes were raked up and the fire was banked, the warmth of the fireplace kept any pots of leftovers hot for breakfast. In the morning, the fire was rekindled before sunup, and breakfast was started. The warmth of the hearth helped raise bread dough in a big wooden trough placed in front of it. A crane suspended in the fireplace held large pots for stews or soups.
Once or twice a week, the brick oven at the side of the fireplace was used for dishes that required slow cooking or baking, such as baked beans, Indian puddings, pies, breads and cakes. Brick ovens in colonial New England were rated as to their pie-baking capacity, typically from 10-pie ovens to 20-pie ovens.
Baking bread in the oven required making yeast to raise the bread, either from hops and potatoes or from the dregs of the empty beer kegs. Ryaninjun was the standard bread for brick-oven baking. No pans were used, and the dome-shaped loaves were baked on the oven floor. The dough was made of equal parts of rye flour and cornmeal mixed with milk, sweetened with stewed pumpkin and raised with homemade yeast. Cornbread was baked in a Dutch oven or skillet in the fireplace.
White flour was scarce in colonial New England and was used only for the finest pastries. If wheat was available, the farmer took it to the local gristmill to be ground. These mills also ground white corn into a fine meal that was almost as white as wheat flour.
Three hundred years ago, New England housewives often baked cakes in large batches, enough to last for three to four months. Sometimes, yeast was used in cake batters, but more frequently the cook laboriously beat air into the batter to produce a light cake. (Baking powder was not invented until the 1800s.) Colonial cooks had no way of testing the oven’s temperature except by hand. If the heat scorched the hand, then the oven was too hot for the cake.
New England women made pound cakes using two old English recipes called Simnel and Nun’s Cake. Simnel was made with raisins, currants and citron, while Nun’s Cake used spices, such as caraway seeds and cinnamon. The settlers served pound cake with tea and often offered this treat to important guests, like the minister. Fruitcakes were made with molasses, spices, raisins, figs and other dried fruits. After baking, the cakes were wrapped in homespun and stored in stone crocks or boxes, because these rich fruitcakes grew more palatable as they aged.
Pies with a suet pastry crust encased both fruit and meat fillings and became a New England specialty. They were eaten at almost every meal, including breakfast. It was not unusual for the housewife to bake enough pies for a week at one time and store them in a pie chest or a cold storage room. In the winter she placed the baked pies in the snow to freeze. They were then thawed in front of the fireplace and warmed for each meal as needed.
One of the standard desserts was apple pie, prepared in many different ways — with thin sliced apples, with applesauce, or with dried apple slices or rings. The most popular spices in apple pies were cinnamon and nutmeg. Cranberries, or other berries, added tartness to the pies when imported lemons were not available. Fresh wild blueberry pie also became a favorite in New England, particularly in Maine.
New England, being one of the first regions to be settled in America, has contributed many dishes to our cuisine. Recipes for New England cooking traveled with settlers from New England to the “new” regions of the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Boiled dinners, stews, baked beans, brown bread, pies and Indian pudding remain New England’s enduring contributions to American cuisine.