One of my all time favorite books on the wry, dry and slightly twisted personality of all things New England is the book It's An Old New England Custom. Some day, if ever I have a chance, I would absolutely love to sit down and write a book on the lifestyle, food style and a general reference book on New England. This particular books does great when pinpointing certain
oddities and lifes vocation in Yankee-land, but I think a more substantial book should be written.
Us Yankees are a purebred to say the least. Frugality is part of our DNA, along with a very wry sense of humor. We are said to dislike tourists, yet we are the friendliest bunch of folks anywhere in the world. It is said we don't believe in ghosts, nor tolerate them, because they don't pay rent. (Let's just take that as a brand of humor, shall we?) We are referred to as miserly and just plain cheap! I truly don't know why the negative connotation to that would be, because I am a proud CHEAP Yankee. Certainly, we can rub 2 pennies together to squeeze out a nickel, but that is precisely why comfort food is universally attributed to us.
Our culinary history began with making something out of nothing. More times than naught, our New England forebearers had to eek out a dinner with whatever we were able to grow in the stony ground or kill with our miserably inept flintlocks. But the one saving grace that we were able to learn rather quickly was how to catch the oceans bounty that once teamed our rivers, streams, shoreline and indirectly our lakes.
Springtime brought shad up the rivers from the sea to spawn throughout New England. When we scooped them out by the barrel-full, a huge slab of pork fat went into the two-foot diameter fry pan to render before the fish were to spatter and spit until done. If one family had their barrels full of fish, with some left over, they could simply bring the overflow intown and trade for huge cakes of maple sugar, another necessity of life in Puritan and Colonial New England.
It would take me forever and a day to regale you of our culinary beginnings, but what I can inform you of is our pleasure of feeding, as well as eating. Every single ancient chronicler of New England that trekked our countryside, writing in their journals for publication, has been pleasured by the fact that if they were ever hungry, some family(no matter how remote they lived)would always see to it that food would be offered. And if by chance these same chroniclers of old happened by a log hut late at night, it was a welcome site because they knew the offer of warmth would be extended to them as well. We poor Yankees may not have had much to offer, including precious little room in front of the fireplace in the dead of winter, but making the wanderer as comfortable as possible was akin to throwing on your breeches in the morning, it had to be done.
I am trying not to make this into a long narrative but I do get carried away at times, especially when I am talking about New England. Our comfort food origin has circumnavigated the globe to the point where when one thinks of recipes or food that is comforting to the palate and the soul, our Yankee heritage paints the illumination of a little cabin amongst the trees with snowdrifts preventing escape. Peering through the window, and adjacent to the yellow glow of the candle or fireplace, the family table is seen. Laden with one dish meals and circular pans of bubbling, sweet goodness, it's almost as if Jack Frost himself is delivering the scent of a time-honored meal with the frigid breeze swirling from the frozen door to your inquiring mind.
I truly love the simplicity of our cooking heritage and believe that our culinary knowledge needs to start with the basics, our beginnings. It is only through hard work and knowledge of the trivial factors in cooking can we fully appreciate the wondrous adventures we can begin to enjoy with imagination in the kitchen.
this site is all about simplicity and learning to cook with what you have. Once you have mastered(if ever anyone can)the basics, then you can branch out and truly become someone people will turn to flavor, ingenuity and guidance. The recipes contained herein may seem simple, maybe even too simple, but there truly is no such thing. The days of family gatherings more than just holidays are sadly over for many of us, so cooking has declined as of late as well. And with the decline of cooking, the knowledge and desire has also waned. With that said, let's learn how to prepare simple dishes. Let's learn from the ground floor up how and why certain spices work. Let's become involved in the kitchen, bringing the children on in with you! Let's love, honor and cherish the romance of cooking, dining and family.
There has been so much said, and debated, about whether or not Puritans and Colonists alike built log homes when first settling New England. Many prominent historians even go a step further and claim that us Yankees never built log homes even into the 18th and 19th centuries. I have completely stopped reading these foolish beliefs and supposed facts simply because it makes not one iota of sense. OF COURSE we built log homes and many more homes were log made than stick built (i.e. wood slats). When you consider that a man and his family (and they were sizeable families through the 19th centuries)had to clear just enough land to put up shelter first, it all becomes clear. Of course the logs weren't cut into slats first, then nailed or even mortised and tenoned together. A home with a stone chimney needed to be erected forthwith upon claiming there land. So the easiest and quickest way was to slap logs together by mortise and tenon and chink it with gool ol' earth, moss and boughs. It's just that simple and I would absolutely LOVE to discuss this matter with any historian that thinks otherwise.
The walls inside would have been very roughly hewn and the earth as a floor. Believe it or not, this chinked, birch bark and sapling lined roofed house was well equipped to house the family rather comfortably during the warmer months but when winter came, more chinking and layering was needed. There are so many written accounts of snow blowing through the cracks between the logs and children waking up in the morning with snow dusting their blankets, even next to the fire!
The chimney of the home was huge. It was pivotal in the center of life, for it cooked meals, warmed water for clothes, made soap, baked sweets and warmed the body. It was usually made with the stones that were dug out of the ground when clearing the land where the house was standing. Laid in clay, these stones withheld heat so even when the fire died during the night, the radiant heat worked to, at least, take a little chill out of the air.
It was easy to consume between 8-10 cord of wood a year, and whom do you think that task fell on? The children of the house, actually the boys. Now remember that firewood was not like what we know today. With many chimneys at least 6 feet across, and many more than that, firewood was the same length. No splitting, just logs. This fire was constantly going. And if by chance it ever did go out, one of the children were sent out post haste in the morning with a tinder box in order to borrow some coal from a neighbor. Many times, the steel and flint were used if you lived rurally.
Cooking In The Behemoth
It is generally thought that cooking was done over an open fire but this was more often not the case. Coals provided much more heat, the incidence of burning yourself was much less prevalent and one could control the part of the fire where you would hang your enormous pots. These great pots were suspended by a chain and hook which always hung from a 'green' wooden bar. To the side of the rock fireplace was a 'cubby', where the indirect heat would induce the best baking of bread, pies or cakes. this baking was done but once a week mind you. There were other chores that needed to be done besides standing at the fireplace for hours a day.
Inside the fire and/or coals was always the Dutch oven. This was a shallow, heavy iron pot with a tight-fitting lid, much like what we see today. When whatever needed to be cooked was placed inside, the lid was put on top with a mound of coals and away you go.
Meats were roasted at the front of this fire, either skewered with a spit or with a hook hanging from the underside of the mantel. A dripping pan was placed below to catch any and all juices, making a great beginning to bean porridge the next day. In this fire, our forefathers and mothers enjoyed fowl of every kind, venison, bear, beans, squashes, pumpkins and other garden vegetables that were easy to grow and hearty to eat.
The most sought after treat children clamored for the colonial era? While most pumpkin was sliced and dried for pies, taking a small sweet pumpkin, cutting a hole in the stem end and pulling out the fibrous matter along with the seeds, it was placed among the coals for 15-20 minutes until it was soft inside but still held up firmly on the outside. After being taken out to cool somewhat, some warm milk from the cow was added and that was the equivalent of candy today.
When early spring harkened families from their homes, the maple tree beckoned the men in the family forth. Going from tree to tree, a cut was made with an axe and a small wooden chip guided the sap from the tree into a bucket. This "sweet water" from dozens of trees were brought together and boiled in one of mothers great pots and reduced to the consistency of syrup as we know today. Father would inevitably throw a ladle of this hot syrup onto any patch of snow that may be lingering about, transforming this maple syrup into a type of colonial "Jolly Rancher". Maple sugar was the only sugar many rural families could afford to sweeten food with, until they could get back into the nearest town to trade shingles, handmade cloth or vegetables for molasses.
As night drew on, and, from the crest
Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,
The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank
From sight beneath the smothering bank,
We piled with care our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back, —
The oaken log, green, huge and thick,
And on its top the stout backstick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
The crane and pendent trammels showed,
The Turk’s heads on the andirons glowed.
JOHN G. WHITTIER, “Snow-Bound.”
The Yankee Chef™
..........It's Just That Simple!