An 18th Century Meal
I don’t know about the rest of you, perhaps my imagination isn’t as good as it could be, but I learn best by doing, through experience. For this reason, I have recently decided that it is imperative that I actually prepare some of the recipes that I read all the time in the cookbooks that I use in my research. A perfect opportunity to do just that presented itself this past weekend when my sister came to visit for the first time since I moved to Philly almost five years ago. What better way to welcome her to city and to introduce her to my friends, than to throw a party with an 18th century theme to the menu? I was a bit hesitant to suggest it to her since she is not known for being the most adventurous of eaters, but when I did she said full steam ahead, and I jumped into party-planning mode. I was definitely pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends were ready and willing to attend a meal that they knew so little about, but then they’re all pretty adventurous and certainly very tolerant, after all they put up with me.
Planning a menu was certainly a bit of a stretch for me, first because there were so many dishes that I wanted to make I didn’t know where to start, second because we had a few vegetarians in the group, so I had to make sure that they were sufficiently fed (despite the main course, which I’ll get to in a second), and third because I’d never entertained for such a large crowd before and I absolutely didn’t want people to leave hungry. To address the first problem I turned to a couple of my favorite historical sources for the recipes that I ended up making. All of the recipes I chose would have been made in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states in the past. Not all were specifically regional foods, but they would have appeared on the tables of people who lived in this region, whether or not they also appeared elsewhere in the country. The first cookbook I is one published by the Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts entitled The Pennsylvania Housewife: English Household Receipts of the Middle Colonies. This book was written by a group of individuals who actually cook these historic recipes in period kitchens using period kitchen implements or reproductions. Knowing several members of the group, I can comment that they are a reliable source for tips on the best ways to prepare these foods, for they are the ones who have made them the most recently and accurately and have given the receipts (recipes) the most scrutiny. In the cookbook each recipe starts with the original as copied from the 18th century cookbook and then is followed by more modern instructions, including measurements of ingredients (which didn’t become popular until the 19th century) and step-by-step instructions as to how to prepare the dish. Because members of Past Masters typically prepare these recipes on the hearth, they do not include oven temperatures or exact cooking times, but any relatively well-informed or logical cook can figure these out. Two other cookbooks I utilized in preparing the menu for this meal were both compiled by William Woys Weaver, a well-known culinary historian of the Pennsylvania Dutch and author of a number of books on their cuisine and history in this area. They included Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (1993) and Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways (2002).
The main course was a big question because not only was it necessary to feed a large number of people, but it was also an opportunity to potentially add to the collections in the zooarchaeology lab, something I’m always trying to work into my meals. In the end my advisor and I decided that a suckling pig was the way to go. I have archaeological examples of suckling pig and therefore wanted some comparative materials to know what size and age range I’m dealing with, besides the fact that it’s also an extremely impressive meal to present on the table. A meal that would have been a community-wide celebration during the 18th century, something that was highly appreciated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and something that many people in the modern world do not have much exposure to. You’ve seen me comment before on this blog about the ever-expanding distance between modern consumers and our meat sources, how the animals that our protein is derived from are becoming less and less recognizable in the cuts they purchase in the supermarkets as more and more become boneless, skinless cuts. Having a whole roasted suckling pig at this party would bring people to the absolute other side of the spectrum and force them to literally come face to face with their meal, to own up to the fact that they were eating part of an animal, and even a cute young one at that. These are all lessons we should consider and, I think, test ourselves on if we are to continue to eat meat and to support modern animal agribusiness which focuses on meat production above all else. If we cannot face the prospect of eating meat when we can see exactly where it comes from, then can we really justify eating it? On top of this fact, the 18th century fully embraced the display of heads and other very recognizable body parts on the table. Not everything was served up in smaller cuts cleansed of their animalistic qualities. People in the 18th century took pride in their ability to serve an entire animal on the table, it demonstrated wealth and prosperity, generosity and bounty. Yes, to serve a truly 18th century meal, I did feel that a whole pig was, in fact, the perfect main-course to serve.
As far as the vegetarians at the meal were concerned, this was not a problem per se, but it did take some careful consideration. If you look at printed menus in cookbooks from the 18th century, you’ll see that meat was always the star of the meal, it appeared in almost all of the dishes on the table, and vegetables were served as sides to or garnish on these more prominent dishes. In order to prepare a meal to appeal to the modern sensibilities where vegetables are the healthier and more desirable aspects of the meal for many, I needed to switch around the focus of the meal from the meat dishes to the sides. This is not to suggest that the number of sides prepared for the meal was more than typical during the 18th century, simply that they played a larger role in the overall proportion of the meal than did the meat dishes. If I had been preparing a strictly 18th century meal, there would likely have been several meat dishes on the table in addition to the suckling pig, and on top of the sides.
The final menu for the meal was as follows:
Johny Cakes – the middling sort
Winter Squash Pudding
Spinach with Eggs
Whole Suckling Pig
Dried Cherry Pie
Recipes for most of the dishes will appear on the side bar. The asparagus recipe has been omitted because we simply steamed them and added kosher salt and cracked black pepper. The Whole suckling pig we did not end up cooking ourselves because the animal was too large to fit into my oven, a smaller than standard little affair measuring only 16” wide and deep and 14” tall. With the pig being 18 pounds and longer than 16” even when folded in half (we measured it at the butcher’s), I thought it best all around to allow the butcher to roast it for me, he offered after all. So the pig was roasted in the oven at the butcher’s shop with sage, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper on a spit in the oven for about 4 hours, basting it with butter. Apparently, for those who are interested, this animal was likely between 12 and 15 weeks (3-4 months) old. Animals of this age do not have a whole lot of fat in their bodies yet, so though he saved the pan juices for us, the butcher also included a couple of tubs of pork (as in full grown animal) drippings, to make gravy from. We purchased the pig from the Hollywood Meat Market (1039 S. 9th St.) and actually carried it back to my apartment tied down to a big piece of plywood and covered over in aluminum foil, though apparently this didn’t fool too many people as we got a lot of looks and comments on the street, as well as a couple of car honks. The Hollywood Meat Market specializes in roast pig, so if you’re looking for something similar for an event you’d like to host, I can recommend them as very helpful and accommodating. Ask for Pete if you want something pig-related, he’s the go-to man there.
As for the other dishes, I think the biggest favorites were the pretzel soup and the dried cherry pie. The soup is more like an apple cider soup, thickened with pretzels and served with peanut butter, the flavor combination is unbeatable and it’s amazingly and surprisingly filling (also super easy to make). The dried cherry pie was also delicious and the filling was quite unique, starting with dried fruit rather than canned cherries or fresh. It gave the interior of the pie a very chewy and sweet consistency that was different than any other I’ve tasted, but really fantastic, more like a chewy candy bar than a pie filling (you can play around with the degree of stickiness by altering how much you cook down the filling). I was also very intrigued by the winter squash pudding which had only a few tablespoons of rose water in it, but the flavor became infused throughout the dish and provided a different set of taste sensations than you typically get, especially with squash. I hope you’ll try out a few of these recipes on your own and see if you can incorporate some historic food into your modern life. Until the next food adventure, happy eating!
Oh, and check out some photos from the meal in the slideshow below.