Sunday, July 31, 2011

History is Served

When you're exploring an unfamiliar land, intrepid travelers will tell you that to experience the food of a country is essential to truly experiencing a country.

The same is true when exploring history - food helps to put you in a time and place.

Food and eating in the mid-19th century is both the same and different than it is today. In the present, we can go to the store and purchase an item like fresh strawberries year round; in 1860's fresh strawberries would have been available for just a brief time - and they would have been both enjoyed as is and also preserved for future use.

I have a group of very good friends in the living history community, this year we've chosen to focus on food - to make it as accurate to the mid-19th century as possible - and it has been fabulous!

At a recent event, I made three different recipes from "The Lady's Receipt Book, A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families" written by Eliza Leslie in 1847.

The first was "Turkey or Chicken Patties":

Take the white part of some cold turkey or chicken, and mince it very fine. Mince also some cold boiled ham or smoked tongue, and then mix the turkey and ham together.

Add the yolks of some hard-boiled eggs, grated or minced; a very little
cayenne; and some powdered mace and nutmeg. Moisten the whole with
cream or fresh butter.

Have ready some puff-paste shells, that have been baked empty in patty-pans. Place them on a large dish, and fill them with the mixture.

Cold fillet of veal minced, and mixed with chopped ham, and grated yolk of egg, and seasoned as above, will make very good patties.

The name must come from the puff-paste shells being bakes in patty-pans, as there's nothing "pattyish" about them - but they sure did taste good and quickly disappeared!

Next was "Lettuce Chicken Salad":

Having skinned a pair of cold fowls, remove the fat, and carve them as if for eating, cut all the flesh entirely from the bones, and either mince it or divide it into small shreds.

Mix with it a little smoked tongue or cold ham, grated rather than chopped.

Have ready one or two fine fresh lettuces, picked, washed, drained, and cut small. Put the cut lettuce on a dish, (spreading it evenly,) or into a large bowl, and place upon it the minced chicken in a close heap in the centre.

For the dressing, mix together the following ingredients, in the proportion of the yolks of four eggs well beaten; a tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar; a salt-spoon of cayenne; (no salt if you have ham or tongue with the chicken;) two tea-spoonfuls of made mustard; two table-spoonfuls of vinegar, and four tablespoonfuls of salad oil. Stir this mixture well: put it into a small sauce-pan, set it over the fire, and set it boil three minutes, (not more,) stirring it all the time. Then set it to cool.

When quite cold, cover with it thickly the heap of chicken in the centre of the salad. To ornament it, have ready half a dozen or more hard-boiled eggs, which after the shell is peeled off, must be thrown directly into a pan of cold water to prevent their turning blue. Cut each egg (white and yolk together) lengthways into four long pieces of equal size and shape; lay the pieces upon the salad all round the heap of chicken, and close to it; placing them so as to follow each other round in a slanting direction, something in the form of a circular wreath of leaves. Have ready, also, some very red cold beet, cut into small cones or points all of equal size; arrange them in a circle upon the lettuce, outside of the circle of cut egg. To be decorated in this manner, the salad should be placed in a dish rather than a bowl. In helping it, give each person a portion of every thing, and they will mix them together on their plates.

This salad should be prepared immediately before dinner or supper, as standing long will injure it. The colder it is the better.

Again, a winner! And pretty too.

Finally, "Columbus Eggs":

Take twelve hard-boiled eggs. Peel off the shells, and cut the eggs into equal halves; cutting off also a little piece from each of the ends to enable them to stand alone, in the form of cups.

Chop the yolks, and with them mix cold ham or smoked tongue, minced as finely as possible. Moisten the mixture with cream, (or a little fresh butter,) and season it with powdered mace or nutmeg.

Fill with it the cups or empty whites of the eggs, (being careful not to break them;) pressing the mixture down, and smoothing it nicely.

Arrange them on a dish; putting two halves close together, and standing them upright, so as to look like whole eggs.

No pictures of these, as they were a visual disaster! I'm told they tasted good (I don't care for deviled eggs) and they certainly all were eaten, but I don't plan on trying these again - too much work and way too messy.

You may have picked up on a trend: lots and lots of eggs! In the middle of summer, hens would be laying well and all those eggs need to be used.

Preserving all matters of produce was an important task for the lady of the house and pickling was a very popular method; the Victorians pickled everything, vegetables, eggs, fruit, even walnuts.

I've wanted to try some pickle receipts, but following the methods published during the period wasn't going to work for me - the quantities are just too large and the techniques not terribly viable in the current world of food production. I was really pleased to find Food in Jars, modern canning methods combined with small batches, just what I needed. I've found that many use the same flavorings as the period recipes, so by choosing carefully I feel comfortable using them for historic meals.

I tried two, pickled cherries and green tomato chutney. I loved the cherries, but not everyone else did; they're just a very different flavor for the modern palate. The chutney (which would be called chow chow in the period) was a definite success; it tasted great with meats and breads.

Choosing foods for an event mindfully, taking seasonality and commonality into consideration has really helped put us in the mindset of the past, truly "History is Served"!

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