Soup, Spring, Vegetable

Asparagus Soup

The first recipe in Randolph’s collection is a recipe for Asparagus Soup. This is fitting since asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a perennial flowering plant, is one of the first spring vegetables. Cultivated since ancient times, asparagus traveled to North America with the earliest colonists. In 1685, Pennsylvania colony founder William Penn included asparagus in a comprehensive list of crops that grew well in the colony. However, asparagus was not widespread in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Asparagus frequently appears in both printed and manuscript recipe collections compiled in the eastern U.S. from the first half of the nineteenth century. In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child recommended boiling the vegetable for “fifteen to twenty minutes; half an hour if old.”[1] Eliza Leslie included a recipe for Asparagus Soup very similar to Randolph’s in Directions for Cookery. Based on Leslie’s instructions, it appears a green color to the soup was highly desirable, and Leslie advises adding “a handful of spinach” pounded in a mortar “about a quarter hour before the soup is done boiling.”[2] Catharine Beecher suggested serving boiled asparagus on buttered toast in Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, still an excellent light, spring supper.[3] I like to serve it with hollandaise.

This design drawing shows asparagus spears as well as the ferny growth with red berries that appears after harvesting. Van Wagnener, G. M., Mrs., Artist. Design for Asparagus Set, 1890. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004662404/.

Asparagus season in Virginia lasts from April to June. While these first green vegetables are welcome in the early days of spring, the palate longs for variety by the end of often prolific the season. In 1763, Mary Holyoke of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded the first asparagus harvest in her diary as May 10th. By the end of the season in mid-June, she had harvested “1836 heads in all.”[4] Recipes for asparagus soup are the most common in printed and manuscript recipe collections alike. Perhaps as a respite for boiled asparagus on toast.

This recipe, the first from Randolph’s collection I attempted, we enjoyed last spring when we were thoroughly sick of the asparagus that kept appearing in our farm box. It was a welcome respite from our usual methods of preparing asparagus: steamed, roasted, or baked into a frittata. It makes a satisfying light lunch or supper paired with a salad and a bit of good bread if, as hard as it may be to imagine now, we find ourselves inundated with asparagus in the future.

Asparagus Soup

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 13.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • One bunch of asparagus
  • Slice of bacon
  • Small onion, diced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup water or broth
  • 1 cup chopped or shredded cooked chicken
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • ½  cup milk

Method

1. Peel the outer layer from your asparagus with a vegetable peeler or knife. Cut one inch off the top of each stalk and place the tops in cool water. Chop the reminder of the asparagus into small pieces.

2. Place a slice of bacon in a small sauce pan, once it has started to cook add the diced onion. Cook together until the onion is soft, remove the bacon and add one cup of water or broth and the chopped asparagus. Simmer together until the asparagus is soft.

3. Place the simmered mixture in a blender and blend until combined. Return to the sauce pan and simmer gently with the asparagus tops and chicken.

4. Melt butter in a small saucepan and add the flour. Mix well and cook together for one minute. Add the milk a little at a time stirring well after each addition. After all the milk is added, combine with the asparagus mixture.

5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chop the reserved bacon and use as a garnish.

Serves: 2


[1] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel Wood, 1838), 34.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery (Philadelphia: Cary & Hart, 1840), 35.

[3] Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836), 75.

[4] Mary Holyoke Diary, 58, 59, quoted inSarah F. McMahon, “All Things in Their Proper Season”: Seasonal Rhythms of Diet in Nineteenth Century New England,” Agricultural History, Vol. 63, No. 2, Climate, Agriculture, and History (Spring, 1989), pp. 150.

Sources

https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#asparagus

Baking, Fruit, Winter

To Make Carolina Snow-Balls

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. There is also the Sno-Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and colored coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947. We cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup often topped with marshmallow cream. The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century and today, region determined the form of this dessert.

A pink Hostess Snoballs snack cake. https://www.hostesscakes.com/products/snoballs/pink/

Research into printed and manuscript recipe collections suggests several versions of Snowballs circulated within the Anglo-American world during Mary Randolph’s lifetime. These recipes consisted of apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One of the earliest references to Snow-Balls occurs in Elizabeth Raffald’s classic cookery text, The Experienced English Housekeeper, first published in London in 1760. A particularly sumptuous version from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860, consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[1] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. This recipe’s comparative extravagance is unsurprising considering the middle-class or higher audience for Mackenzie’s recipes.

A Carolina Snow Ball. https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

American versions of this recipe, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, alter the recipe to maintain the appearance but reduce the cost of the dish. These variations consist of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[2] These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1806), 263.

There is no evidence whether Mary Randolph prepared or enjoyed these apple dumplings. However, the recipe circulated widely during her lifetime and she certainly had access to the ingredients and, as a recipe for rice to serve with curry attests, was familiar with preparing rice. Nineteenth-century cooks used rice for a number of innovative purposes, “they molded the rice in tea-cups, making a cavity in the centre and filling it with brightly coloured jelly; they layered individual rice puddings with cooked fruit, they folded custard or stiffly beaten egg whites into rice puddings before baking them; some topped puddings with meringue.”[3] While Randolph did not include a rice-based dessert recipe in her cookbook, she was likely familiar with these dishes.

Carolina Snowballs are a unique variation on apple dumplings. Naturally gluten-free, these intriguing little dumplings are reminiscent of winter-time fun!

To Make Carolina Snow-Balls

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1788)

Adapted by R.A. Snell

Ingredients

Pudding:

Half a pound of medium grain rice

Six apples, peeled and cored

Lemon peel

Sauce:

Quarter pound butter, melted

A glass of white wine or apple juice

Nutmeg and cinnamon, to taste

Sugar, to taste

Special equipment:

Six Pudding cloths (a clean piece of unbleached muslin works well)

Method

1. Place a pot of water to boil, be sure there is sufficient room for six apple-sized dumplings.

2. Divide the rice into six equal parts and place each portion of rice in a pudding cloth.

3. Place one apple on top of the rice in each pudding cloth. Placed finely shredded lemon peel in the core of each apple.

4. Wrap the pudding cloth around each apple so that the rice is evenly distributed around the apple. This is the most challenging part! Once the cloth is tied, gently massage the dumpling until the rice surrounds the apple. Be sure the cloth is firmly noted and there is space for the rice to expand.

5. Boil the puddings for 75 minutes.

6. When the puddings are nearly done (after about one hour of boiling), prepare the sauce by boiling all ingredients together.

7. After 75 minutes, carefully remove the puddings from the boiling water. Before unwrapping, dunk the puddings in cold water and squeeze out any excess water.

8. Carefully remove the pudding cloth and serve alongside the sauce.

Yield: six dumplings


Sources

[1] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[1]Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, s. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215. 

[1] Jeri Quinzio, Pudding: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2012), 92.

Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, designed as a supplement to her treatise on domestic economy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857), Library Company of Philadelphia, Am 1857 Beecher 102993.D;

New England Cookbook 1825-1870 and Jane E. Hassler Cookbook, June 1857, Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks, The University of Iowa Libraries.

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1806), 263.

Baking, Vegetable, Winter

Sweet Potato Buns

Each time I attempt a new recipe from Randolph’s collection, I always do a bit of googling to see if anyone has attempted the dish before. The experiences of others help me plan my approach to the recipe. In the case of Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns, I was surprised to find nearly universal disappointing results (please note, I am not maligning my fellow historical recipe testers, this is a summary of their descriptions of the dish). The recipe looks straightforward enough but is deceptively challenging. Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns provide a good example of two of the primary challenges of using historical recipes: format and assumed knowledge. (Of course, there are numerous other challenges and many rewards, I’ve chosen to focus on just two challenges in this post.)

First, format. Anyone who has perused a recipe collection or published cookbook created before 1900 has noted the differing format of the recipes. In the twenty-first century, we are conditioned to expect recipes to appear in a particular format: a list of ingredients with amounts followed by step-by-step instructions to produce the dish. The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook pioneered this format in an effort to write recipes that could be reliably reproduced by anyone, anywhere. As part of the beginning of the home economics movement, the Boston Cooking School and its leaders, Mary Lincoln and Fannie Merritt Farmer, advocated modifications in measuring, recipe format, and standardized ingredients that transformed the process of cookery. Before the late nineteenth century, recipes, including those in published cookbooks and newspaper columns, appeared in a narrative format with ingredients, amounts, and instructions appearing together. This format made Mary Berry’s famed advice absolutely critical.

The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook also popularized level cup measures. Contrary to popular belief, Fannie Farmer did not invent cup and spoon measures.[1] Recipes using cup and spoon measures appear as early as the 1830s, and Catharine Beecher advised readers to convert their recipes because “it saves much trouble to have your receipt book so arranged that you can measure instead of weighing.”[2]  Rather, she created an efficient system for ensuring consistent results by spooning and leveling measured ingredients (of course, all serious bakers realize that weighing ingredients is much more accurate and can be just as efficient). Prior to the widespread acceptance of cup and spoon measures, recipes relied on various methods to convey amounts. A set of scales and weights was a necessary piece of equipment for kitchens, and many recipes relied on weights. Standard units of measure such as pints, gills, bushels, etc. were also common. References to familiar objects such as the size of an egg, a silver dollar, a walnut, or one’s thumb to determine the amount of an ingredient were also common. Finally, many recipes relied on the maker’s experience with instructions to add enough flour, season to taste, and cook until done.

This image of the kitchen in the Telfair Academy, restored to c. 1819, provides a sense of the type of workspace Mary Randolph and her enslaved cooks may have used. The cooks at the Telfair home enjoyed the luxury of a large, raised hearth and a double-oven. The other furnishings are simple, marking this space as a strictly utilitarian area. Courtesy of Telfair Academy.

This assumed knowledge, the ability to know from experience how much seasoning to add, the feel of a sufficiently heated oven, the proper amount of flour, or the appearance of “doneness” is the primary challenge of historical recipes. Before the nineteenth century brought tremendous change to how people lived and worked, most women learned to cook by watching and assisting their mothers and other female relatives. Therefore, an experienced hand taught them the feel of bread dough, what sufficiently risen bread looks like, and how long to bake various items. Randolph’s recipe for Sweet Potato Buns assumes a fair amount of experience working with yeast and making bread.

Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, were among the first producers of commercial yeast in the United States. Source: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-healing-power-of-compressed-yeast

First, Randolph instructs the reader to mix mashed sweet potato with “as much flour as will make it like bread.” This is subjective, to put things mildly, depending on the size of one’s potato and one’s opinion on the texture of bread dough. The instructions to add “a spoonful of yeast” not only does not specify the amount (what size spoonful?) but also obscures the difference between yeast in the past and today. While we purchase our yeast in packages or jars, women carefully saved and cultivated yeast from bread baking and beer brewing in the past. Louis Pasteur’s identification of yeast as living organisms in the 1850s paved the way for commercially produced yeast, with the first cakes of compressed yeast appearing in U.S. markets in the 1860s. Therefore, Randolph does not mean to add a scoop of baker’s yeast but rather a spoonful of a yeast starter. Finally, like nearly all recipes from the period, Randolph does not provide instructions on temperature or length of baking for the practical reason that these measures did not exist. Instead, women relied on their experience to determine how long and in what sort of oven to bake the rolls.

Mary Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns were delectable! Sweet and tender with a hint of spice, they are perfect alone for breakfast or tea, as Randolph notes. They would also make a delicious sandwich with Thanksgiving leftovers or with pulled pork (I would use ½ teaspoon of spice for these purposes). I used a recipe for Sweet Potato Rolls from King Arthur Flour to guide my adaptation of this recipe. My keys to success were, I believe, proving the yeast with a small amount of water and sugar and melting the butter and adding at the beginning. With a full cup of sweet potato, these are a delicious way to slip vegetables into your baked goods.

Sweet Potato Buns

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 141.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 sweet potato boiled and mashed (about 1 cup)
  • ½ cup warm water (between 100-110°F, 38-43°C)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons yeast
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon*
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 460 grams (3 2/3 cups) all-purpose flour

* When fresh from the oven, one teaspoon of spice was overpowering. However, the next day the buns were perfectly spiced. If you plan to serve these immediately, I would reduce the spice to ½ teaspoon. If cooling to serve later, use the full teaspoon.

Method

1. Combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Cover and rest for five minutes.

2. To the yeast mixture, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. A stand mixer works ideally for this task, however, the ingredients may also be mixed by hand.

3. If using a stand mixer, beat on low speed with a bread hook for 5-8 minutes until the dough is soft. Or knead by hand until the dough slowly bounces back when poked with the finger.

4. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly greased with olive oil or cooking spray (I like to use the same bowl because I am a firm believer in not creating more dishes than absolutely necessary). Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 60 minutes.

5. Grease a 9×13 baking dish (or other dish that will accommodate your buns). Divide the risen dough into fifteen equal-sized pieces and shape into a ball with your hand. Place the dough into the greased dish, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30-45 minutes.

6. When the rising time is nearly finished, preheat your oven to 350°F.

7. Bake buns until golden brown on top and baked through, about 20 minutes.

Yield: fifteen buns

Consulted recipe: Sweet Potato Rolls, King Arthur Flour


[1] Farmer’s contribution to cup measures was the introduction of the level-cup measure. Her predecessor at the Boston Cooking School, Mary Lincoln, referred to “rounded” and “heaping” spoonfuls and cupfuls. Feeling this method of measure was too open to interpretation and, consequently, could lead to differing results, Farmer instructed her students and readers to use a knife to level-off their cup measures. This, she maintained, allowed students and home cooks to reproduce her recipes.

[2] Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 130.

Sources

Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to the Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1848), 131.

Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896), 28.

Andrew Smith, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 652.

Merril D. Smith, History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2013), 6.

Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Fish & Seafood, Winter

To Dress Cod Fish

Mary Randolph offers a robust collection of seafood dishes in a chapter simply titled, “Fish.” Her recipes include methods to prepare both fresh and salted, ocean and freshwater fish as well as oysters and eels. Unsurprisingly, recipes for preparing codfish appear with great frequency in Randolph’s collection. Eight recipes for fresh and salted cod compose nearly a quarter of the recipes in the chapter. Randolph’s inclusion of several ways of preparing cod, including baked, boiled, fricasseed, and baked in a pie, speaks to the pivotal role played by cod in North American history.


Drawing of an Atlantic Cod. Penobscot Marine Museum.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) has a dense, flaky, white flesh and mild flavor. The fish were spectacularly plentiful in the cold, deep waters of the North American coast from Maine to Newfoundland. John Cabot marveled in a report from his 1497 voyage that

The sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.

John Cabot quoted in Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 11

Attracted by accounts like Cabot’s, fishermen from France, England, Portugal, and Spain established temporary operations to catch, dry, and salt cod for European Catholics. Permanent settlements in New England also prospered from trading salted cod with European markets, West Indies plantations, and the southern colonies. A wood carving of a codfish, known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts, displayed in the State House serves as “a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth,” and has a fascinating history of its own.

This carving of a cod, made of pine, is the third to hang in the House of Representatives chamber at the Massachusetts State House. Yankee Magazine.

Massachusetts was not the only economy beholden to the codfish. Rather, as Canadian historian Harold Innis argued in his 1940 study, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy, the cod fishery produced and relied upon complex international relations. In his work, Innis focused on interrelationships between economics, culture, and technology that marked the codfish industry. First, the large population of observant Catholics in Europe produced a demanding market for fish. References to abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays in recognition of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for humankind begin in the first century C.E. By the Middle Ages, European Christianity had added many meatless days to the calendar. In addition to Fridays, observant Christians abstained from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during the Lent and Advent seasons, and on other holy days. These observances created an enormous market for fish, so much so that the rumor spread that a pope made a secret pact to sell more fish.

This c. 1857-59 French cod fishing station on Newfoundland provides a sense of the process and scale of dried salted cod production in the nineteenth century. Library and Archives Canada.

Technology also played a role in the ascendency of the cod. The Vikings perfected a method of air-drying fish; Innis argues the English adapted the Viking method to North America’s more humid climate by salting the fish before drying. Consumers preferred salt dried cod to fish packed in brine, allowing the English and then the Americans to dominate and reap monetary rewards from the cod trade. Easy to ship, inexpensive, and tasty (if you knew how to prepare it), dried salted cod perfectly fit the bill for observant Catholic’s tables throughout Europe. Light on the budget, easy to ship, and long-lasting, dried salted cod frequently appeared in enslaved rations on West Indies plantations. In the American South, cod appeared on the tables of all classes. The variety of dishes Randolph offers for the fish suggests it was a staple in her household or she expected it to be in the homes of her audience.

particular recipe presents fresh cod, boiled, and served in a crust of potatoes, onions, and seasonings. At the end of the recipe, Randolph notes, “For change, it may be baked in the form of patties.” I felt my family would be more likely to try and enjoy this recipe in the form of patties. The recipe was simple to make, although I did find it difficult to form and keep the patties in shape. I used a combination of parsnips and potatoes because I didn’t have quite enough potatoes and cut back on the amount of onions because I feared the amount stated in the recipe would be overwhelming. Everyone ate this, from the one-year-old who doesn’t really enjoy fish to the fish-loving five-year-old to my picky husband. My five-year-old declared it “good,” high praise indeed!

To Dress Cod Fish

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 64.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 lb cod fish
  • 1 lb white potatoes or parsnips, peeled and chopped into equal sized pieces*
  • ½ cup diced onion**
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon white wine (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • milk or cream, as needed

* I used half potatoes and half parsnips.

** Randolph’s recipe stipulates an equal quantity of fish, potatoes or parsnips, and onions. I’ve reduced the amount of onion to suit the taste preferences of my family.

Method

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Boil the fish until cooked through and set aside.

2. While the fish is boiling, boil the potatoes and/or parsnips with the onions until the vegetables are soft.

3. Drain the vegetables and mash with butter, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. If your mash is too stiff, add a tablespoon of milk or cream until it can be easily mixed.

4. Break the fish into small pieces and mix into the vegetable mixture. Form the mixture into patties and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 30 minutes, flipping the patties halfway through the cooking time.

Notes:

My patties did not crisp in the oven the way I hoped they would. I had better results cooking for 2-3 minutes per side on a griddle over medium heat.

I did not need to add any additional liquid to the vegetable mash.

Yield: one dozen patties, about 6 servings


Sources

Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).

Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).

Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Beverage, Holiday

Orgeat, A Necessary Refreshment at all Parties

If you are a fan of Mai Tais, you may be familiar with Orgeat syrup, a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose or orange flower water, a key ingredient in Tiki cocktails. Of course, Randolph lived long before the Tiki craze swept the United States after WWII, and her nonalcoholic recipe likely traces back to the drink’s origins as a cooling beverage, much like Randolph’s raspberry vinegar.

Orgeat, pronounced “or-zsa,” like Zsa Zsa Gabor, has ancient origins. Originally a thin drink of barley and warm water prescribed to fever patients by the 6th Century C.E. Byzantine physician, Anthimus, Orgeat evolved into a refreshing drink to enjoy on a warm day flavored with melon, cucumber, or ground sweet almonds. Over time, the almond flavor became dominate, and, eventually, almonds replaced barley entirely in the recipe.

Display of Tiki drinks at the Trader Vic’s in San Francisco, 1956. Chain founder Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. is one of two people credited with inventing the Mai Tai. Photographer- Nat Farbman Time Inc Owned Merlin-1199442

In eighteenth century England, orgeat became an elegant drink for social occasions. Like Randolph’s recipe, the mixture was sweetened and served as a punch. Randolph implies this use by labeling the recipe “a necessary refreshment at all parties.” In her research, C. Anne Wilson identified two versions of orgeat (or ozyat to the English). One, composed of ground almonds, sugar, orange flower water, and citrus fruits, could be the predecessor of the Orgeat syrup used in Tiki drinks. Randolph’s recipe appears to be closely related to “milk ozyat” made from boiled spiced milk, cooled, and mixed with ground almonds. Special ozyat glasses with handles developed to serve the drink. Once again, this custom is referenced by Randolph with her suggestion to serve the beverage “in glasses with handles.”

These glass punch cups with handles from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum could be similar to those used by Randolph to serve orgeat. The Sylmaris Collection, Gift of George Coe Graves, 1930.

As Randolph recommended, we sampled her orgeat cold and lukewarm. Unfortunately, we don’t own “glasses with handles” and settled for port glasses. With a splash of bourbon or rum, it would be reminiscent of a milk punch: sweet and creamy with a hint of cinnamon, almond, and rose. I don’t recommend trying Randolph’s Orgeat in a Mai Tai; however, you can easily make your own orgeat syrup, which could be used to make a tropical tasting drink. I found the drink most enjoyable when used to make an Orgeat latte (see below).

Orgeat

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 70.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 4 cups milk*
  • Cinnamon stick
  • 2 ounces raw almonds
  • 1/8 teaspoon rosewater
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

* This recipe can easily be made dairy-free. Simply substitute the milk with the alternative milk of your choice. If using nut milk, I would avoid anything other than almond milk as the flavor of the milk will compete with the delicate flavor of almond in the final product.

Method

1. Place milk and cinnamon stick in a medium sauce-pan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently to prevent burning until the mixture comes to a boil.

2. Once the mixture had boiled, remove the cinnamon stick and leave the milk to cool to room temperature.

3. When the milk is cool, blanch the almonds by pouring boiling water over them in a small bowl. Leave for one minute, then remove the boiling water and plunge the almonds into an ice water bath.

4. Place the milk mixture, almonds, and rosewater in a blender. Blend enough to break the almonds into small pieces.

5. Pour the resulting mixture into a sauce-pan and add sugar (you may wish to add more or less to taste). Bring to a boil, again stirring frequently, and allow to boil for 2-3 minutes.

6. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a vessel and allow to cool.

Randolph recommends to “serve it up either cold or lukewarm, in glasses with handles.” Alternatively, this milk punch makes a delicious latte. Simply steam one cup of Randolph’s Orgeat in place of your usual milk and pour over espresso.


Sources

Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 670.

“Orgeat,” French Country Food: Traditional French Food (accessed 7 Jan. 2021), https://www.frenchcountryfood.com/drinks/orgeat.html.

Marcia Simmons, “Orgeat Recipe,” Serious Eats 11 Nov. 2011 (accessed 7 Jan. 2021), https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/11/how-to-make-orgeat-recipe-almond-syrup-for-cocktails.html.

John F. Mariani, The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 372.

Baking, Holiday, Preserves, Winter

Mincemeat for Pies

Mincemeat, currently firmly associated with the winter holidays, is simultaneously exotic and ordinary. The technique of mincing, chopping food into tiny pieces, has existed since ancient times. Mincing meat was practical on several fronts: it repurposed leftover meat, stretched a potentially limited protein supply, and preserved meat for later consumption. In Britain, mince pie is most often enjoyed around Christmas time and consists of a miniature round pie filled with mincemeat: a mixture of dried fruits, chopped nuts and apples, suet, spices, brandy, and other flavorings.  In North America, mincemeat pie is typically larger, 8-9 inches, and serves a gathering of people. In her 1853 cookbook, Domestic Cookery, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea noted in her recipe for Farmers’ Mince Pies, “Where persons have a large family, and workmen on a farm, these pies are very useful.”[1] Lea’s recipe yield forty pies that could be kept two months in a cold place and placed on the table when the housewife something filling for her family and workers.

Lea’s recipe starts with a beef head and two hog’s heads chopped fine with suet and combined with raisins, chopped apples, molasses, cider, currant wine, brandy, cinnamon, orange peel, mace, and nutmeg. The spices in mincemeat harken to the Crusades when English soldiers encountered the Middle Eastern practice of using spices to produce sweet and savory meat dishes. When they returned home, they brought aspects of this new cuisine with them, including spices. The association between mince pie and Christmas emerged very early as the three spices (typically cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) represented the Magi’s three gifts to the Christ Child. Early mince pies were oblong intended to cradle a representation of the baby Jesus. It was believed lucky to eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas as this 1920 advertisement from Robertson’s, a popular British brand of prepared mincemeat, encourages.

The meat in mincemeat slowly disappeared over time. Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615) called for an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet; however, by 1747, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Easy suggests the meat could be optional. She instructs the reader to blend the sweet components then notes, “If you chuse[sic] meat in your pies parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible and mix with the rest.” As the price of sugar fell during the nineteenth century, sweet mincemeat pies slowly supplanted the savory version. In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provided a meat-filled and a meat-less version. Within a few decades, meat was a rarity in mincemeat.

Today, in the United States, mincemeat pie frequently receives the same derision as fruit cake. However, not too long ago, Americans numbered it among the most popular pies. An editorialist in the Washington Post opined in 1907:

Mince pie is mince pie. There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplifting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust.

While for most Americans, apple pie has deposed mincemeat as an American culinary institution, in Britain, the enjoyment of mince pies remains firmly associated with Christmas celebrations.

Mary Randolph’s recipe is my first serious foray into mincemeat. Growing up, every Thanksgiving, we traveled from Maine to Massachusetts to celebrate at my grandparents’ home. There was always a huge amount and variety of pies. Apple, pumpkin, squash, cherry, and my great aunt would always bring a mincemeat pie. As a child, mincemeat held no allure. I never sought confirmation but, based on the name and appearance, assumed it was comprised of meat and nondescript lumps. Until attempting this recipe, I had been in the vicinity of mincemeat pie but had never actually sampled it. I was pleasantly surprised.

Randolph’s mincemeat pies are spicy, sweet, and, surprisingly, since I lack food memory connecting the two, Christmasy. Randolph’s recipe is a meat-based pie; however, in order to include the pies in our bags of Christmas goodies for friends and neighbors, I opted to leave out the hog’s feet and substitute vegetable suet. The result is a mincemeat pie ready for sharing.

Mincemeat for Pies

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 115-6.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 2 cups apples, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cups dried currants
  • 2 cups raisins, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups suet, finely chopped
  • 2 cups cider
  • 1 cup brandy
  • ½ teaspoon of mace, cloves, and nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt and pepper, divided

Method

1. Combine the apples, raisins, currants, brown sugar, and cider in a saucepan. Simmer gently until the apple is tender.

2. Remove from the heat and add suet, brandy, mace, clove and nutmeg. Mix well (or as Randolph puts, “intimately”).

3. Divide into two quart jars. To each quart jar add ½ teaspoon salt and pepper. Mix well.

4. Store in the refrigerator until ready to make pies. It’s a good idea to let your mincemeat rest for the flavors to combine. At least 24 hours, but the longer the better.

Yield: two quarts of mincemeat filling

Notes

The easiest method for chopping suet is to freeze and grate using a box grater.

Mincemeat Pie

Ingredients

  • Prepared and rested mincemeat
  • Pastry for 36 mini pies ( I used Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe, doubled)
  • Candied citron or lemon peel

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Roll out your pastry and cut 9cm rounds to fill the holes of a muffin tin. Tip: Place strips of parchment paper under the pastry to easily remove the baked pies. If using a metal pan, grease well!

3. Fill pastry with mincemeat. Top each pie with a sprinkle of citron or lemon peel.

4. With the remaining pastry, roll out 7cm lids or top your pies with a star or snowflake shape. If lidded, cut a vent hole before baking.

5. Bake until the mincemeat is bubbling and the pastry is golden, about 40-45 minutes.

Yield: 36 miniature pies


Sources

[1] Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1859, reprint 2008), 86-7.

Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Hannah Glasse, Art of Cookery Made Easy (1747)

Gervase Markham, The English Huswife (1615)

 Cliff Doerksen, “The Real American Pie,” Chicago Reader, 17 Dec. 2009 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/mince-pie-the-real-american-pie/Content?oid=1267308.

Food History Timeline: Mincemeat

Veronique Greenwood, “The strange and twisted history of mince pies,” Taste of Tomorrow: BBC, 8 Dec. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20171208-the-strange-and-twisted-history-of-mince-pies.

Ben Panko, “The History of Mincemeat Pies, from the Crusades to Christmas,” Smithsonian Magazine 22 Oct. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/crusades-christmas-history-mincemeat-pies-180966981/.

Linda Stradley,“Mincemeat Pie History,” What’s Cooking America (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/PieHistory/MincemeatPie.htm.

Fall, Vegetable

Winter Squash

Randolph’s scant two recipes for squash, one for summer and one for winter squash, conceals how essential the family Cucurbita was for early American diets. An excellent source of vitamin C, winter squashes, those members of the Cucurbita family allowed to mature on the vine, were an important crop for Native Americans before contact with Europeans. Southeastern Native American tribes grew winter crooknecks (the squash Randolph refers to in her recipe), cushaws, and sweet potato squashes. Anyone who has grown squash knows these plants are prolific.  A 50-foot row of winter squash can yield 80 pounds or more. Native Americans enjoyed squash broiled and roasted as wells as preserving the flesh in syrup. Winter squash’s tough outer rind allowed the vegetables to be stored, providing an essential store of vitamins in the lean winter months. Native Americans enjoyed squash broiled and roasted as wells as preserving the flesh in syrup.

This variety of winter squash includes a winter crookneck squash in the foreground. MOFGA.

Newly arrived Europeans were initially lukewarm about squashes. However, once they experienced a harsh winter, the hardy and prolific squashes won them over. Early Americans enjoyed squashes stewed, baked with animal fat, honey, or maple syrup, and incorporated into European-style dishes.

A girl poses with a display of winter squash at the Custer County Fair in Broken Bow, Nebraska in 1886. Library of Congress.

Randolph’s recipe for cooking winter squash is a straightforward preparation of a dietary staple and bares some similarities to her instructions for preparing summer squash. Her instructions refer specifically to winter crookneck squash, “the crooked neck of this squash is the best part.” Since I couldn’t source a crookneck, I substituted butternut and followed the instructions for stewing the large part containing the seeds. Randolph notes the squash is “excellent when stewed with pork chops,” however, I noticed no change in flavor from adding the meat.

Winter Squash

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 110.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • ½ winter crooked neck or butternut squash
  • 1 – ½ bone-in pork chop
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Method

1. Peel and cube your squash. Save half for another time in the freezer or double the recipe to use an entire squash.

2. Place the squash in a saucepan with the pork chop. Add water to cover and simmer until squash is soft, about 25 minutes.

3. Remove pork chop (remove the bone and this would be an excellent treat for your dog!) and drain the squash. Mash thoroughly or run through a food mill.

4. Return the squash to the pot and add the butter, salt, and pepper. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is cooked away. Take care that the squash does not burn.


Sources

Sarah Dickert, “From the Victory Garden: American history told through squash,” Oh Say Can You See?: Stories from the Museum, National Museum of American History, 3 Nov. 2011 (Accessed 5 Dec. 2020) https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2011/11/from-the-victory-garden-american-history-told-through-squash.html.

Jean English and Eric Sideman, “Winter Squash: Big Yields From Spectacular Plants,” Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, May 2009 (Accessed 5 Dec. 2020) https://www.mofga.org/Publications/Articles-for-Reprinting/Winter-Squash-Big-Yields-From-Spectacular-Plants.

“How did the squash get its name?” Every Day Mysteries, Library of Congress (Accessed 5 Dec. 2020) https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/item/how-did-squash-get-its-name/.

Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 10, 60-61.

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 110, 267.

Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 561.

Images:

Squash image by Jean English: https://www.mofga.org/Publications/Articles-for-Reprinting/Winter-Squash-Big-Yields-From-Spectacular-Plants

Small girl standing by vegetable exhibit at Custer County fair, Broken Bow, Nebraska. Solomon D. Butcher, photographer, 1886. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Baking, Fall, Vegetable

Pumpkin Pudding

As with Sweet Potato Pudding, Pumpkin Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of Thanksgiving classics Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Pie from English baked puddings. As I’ve argued before, a more accurate expression for something quintessentially American would be “as American as pumpkin or sweet potato” pie rather than apple. Despite its prominent place in American food culture, there is very little uniquely “American” about apple pie. The popular dessert relies upon the English cookery technique of baking a filling between two crusts as a means of preserving food for a short time. While the sugar is New World, the other ingredients and the means of combining them are traditionally Old World: apples, lemon, and various combinations of spices. The 1852 edition of Sarah J. Hale’s The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery included two recipes for apple pie, one marked as English and the other as American. The two versions are, unsurprisingly, remarkably similar. Differences emerge on the next page, where Hale provides two recipes for pumpkin pie.

American and English Pumpkin Pie Recipes, The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery, Sarah J. Hale, H. Long & Brother, New York, 1852.

Pumpkin pie possibly emerged from early American cooks making do with the ingredients available to them. Since pumpkins have a similar consistency to apples, some food historians have suggested cooks substituted them in traditional apple dishes.[1] In Hale’s cookbook, the English version is reminiscent of the earliest versions of pumpkin pie composed of sweetened and flavored pumpkin baked in a single pie shell. The American version is closer to the item that traditionally graces the Thanksgiving dessert table, a pumpkin custard flavored with molasses, cinnamon, and ginger. In The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, Catherine Parr Traill discussed the differences between English and North American versions of pumpkin pie, “Now I must tell you, that an English pumpkin-pie, and a Canadian one, are very differently made, and I must give preference, most decidedly, to the American dish; which is something between a custard and a cheese-cake in taste and appearance.”[2]

This 1903 cover of Puck magazine shows a women preparing a pie, possibly a pumpkin pie as there is a pumpkin on the floor by her feet. Library of Congress.

The pumpkin pie described by Traill was not merely the adaptation of American ingredients to an English dish. It also benefited from the culinary melting pot that brought together numerous world cuisines in North American kitchens. The waves of immigrants of the nineteenth century brought new culinary influences to the United States, and recipes reflected these increasingly multinational influences. The influence of German and French immigrants transformed North American pie making from a pragmatic means of food preservation to the decadent desserts enjoyed today. These immigrants revolutionized pie fillings with their use of spices, sweeteners, and native ingredients to create fillings of fruit, preserves, and custards. French practices notably transformed the dense suet and flour crust of English pies by introducing butter into piecrusts. The pumpkin pie, featuring a New World crop, prized by Native cultures, prepared in an Old World manner influenced by several national cuisines, makes a better candidate for an iconic North American dessert. Further, the inclusion of exotic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and mace in the filling connects pumpkin pie to the commonly recognized discovery of the Americas, the abortive search for a western route to the East Indies.[3]

Pies wait on the sideboard as a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in Ledyard, Connecticut in 1940.

Food and cultural identity are inextricably linked. We are not only what we eat, but how, where, when, and why we eat it. In creating national culture, as many scholars have argued, cookbooks play an essential role in transforming regionalized cuisines and peoples into a unified whole.[4] These texts, compilations of practical receipts, special occasion cooking, and housekeeping advice, “are an expression of the values and aspirations of the people who produced them.”[5] What appears on your Thanksgiving table says a great deal about your family’s identity. As the ongoing pandemic forces us to gather in smaller groups this year, many find ourselves preparing the Thanksgiving feast solo for the first time. While the task of preparing family favorites like mom or grandma is a daunting one, this is also a priceless opportunity to record those recipes and a reminder of all we have to be thankful for this year.

Randolph’s Pumpkin Pudding is a close cousin to present-day recipes. While I prefer brown sugar or molasses in pumpkin pie, granulated white sugar preserves the color of the pumpkin – in my case a deep yellow. The ginger and nutmeg complement the pumpkin flavor but I did miss the usual cinnamon and cloves. Slightly less milk than current recipes results in a texture that preserves the texture of the pumpkin puree (as a opposed to a present-day pumpkin pie that has a more custardy texture). My son gobbled it up and my husband reported he liked it better than my usual recipe.

Pumpkin Pudding

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 127.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 pie pumpkin (can substitute one can of pureed pumpkin, skip to step 3)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brandy, optional
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • Pastry for one 9-inch one crust pie

Method

1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds, and peel. Slice the pumpkin into equal sized pieces and place in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover the pumpkin and boil gently, stirring occasionally, for 1.5-2 hours until the water is cooked off and the pumpkin is fully cooked. For the last thirty minutes, be sure to keep a close eye on the pumpkin and stir more frequently to prevent burning.

2. Run the cooked pumpkin through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor. Place the pureed pumpkin in a fine mesh strainer and allow the liquid to drain for about thirty minutes or until the pumpkin is sufficiently dry (it should resemble canned pumpkin).

3. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and prepare the pastry and place in a 9

4. Add the remaining ingredients except for the eggs. Taste the mixture to ensure it is sweetened and spiced to your taste. Mix in the eggs.

5. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the prepared pie shell. If desired, decorate with strips of twisted pastry across the top.

6. Bake 30-35 minutes until the pumpkin mixture is set and the crust is golden brown.


Sources

[1] Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 17; Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 23.

[2] Catharine Parr Traill, The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (Toronto: MacLear and Co., 1854), 127-8.

[3] Pat Willard, “Pies and Tarts” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 272-3; Carroll, Three Squares, 43.

[4] Arjun Appadurai, “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988): 5; James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating Habits: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 8-9; Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 278.

[5] Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), xxix.

Baking, Fall, Vegetable

Sweet Potato Pudding

Last week’s recipe for Baked Apple Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of American favorites pumpkin and sweet potato pie. These dishes, frequently enjoyed at Thanksgiving, combine New World ingredients with Old World culinary techniques. Food historians theorize pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie developed when innovative cooks used these ingredients in dishes that typically relied on apples or root vegetables.[1] Pie, defined as a sweet or savory filling encased between pastry, descended from an English cookery practice of baking a filling between two crusts to preserve it for a short time. Also called coffins, these somewhat edible storage containers were a dense combination of suet or lard and flour. Over time, influences from other cuisines transformed pastry into the flaky encasement we enjoy today. Randolph generally uses the term “pudding” in her recipes (except for an apple pie recipe). Still, we would define her dishes as pies today.

Sweet Potato from John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). Library of Congress.

There is considerable regional variation in the flavors of pie enjoyed by Americans. Of the many divides between North and South is a preference for pumpkin or sweet potato pie. While both groups appreciate pumpkin pie (Randolph includes a recipe for Pumpkin Pudding), sweet potato is a rare ingredient in northern cookbooks. Sweet potatoes, native to Central and South America, were among the first New World crops embraced in Europe. One reason for the enthusiasm was the purported aphrodisiac qualities of the tuber. Sweet potatoes were grown commercially in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia beginning in the mid-1600s. Sweet potatoes appeared on the tables of white southerners in various forms; Randolph includes recipes for broiled, stewed, boiled sweet potatoes. However, they were also a vital source of nutrition for enslaved black Americans. The tuber was a typical food and frequently appeared on the tables of the less well-off in the south. The vegetable was a luxury item in the North before 1830. With just a few decades to become a part of northern diets before the establishment of the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s unsurprising the more familiar (and more easily grown) flavors of apple, pumpkin, and squash dominated the dessert table for northerners.

The similarities between Randolph’s Baked Apple Pudding and Sweet Potato Pudding suggest how the tuber was incorporated into Anglo-Southern diets. The recipes are nearly identical. The most significant differences are the pureed sweet potatoes in place of the pureed apples and the addition of a spice, nutmeg. The sweet potato-based pudding also includes more sugar than the apple. In addition to apple pudding, British cuisine imported to North America with the colonists included a variety of root vegetable puddings. Cooks produced these dishes by boiling and mashing the vegetable, mixing it with butter, eggs, sugar, and spices, and baking in an open-faced pie shell. Before the introduction of New World ingredients, English cooks prepared parsnips, carrots, and other root vegetables this way. One interpretation is that lacking apples and familiar with root vegetable puddings cooks substituted sweet potatoes in the recipe and liked the results enough to adapt the seasoning to highlight the tuber’s sweet flavor. Further experimentation produced satisfactory results with pumpkins and sweet potatoes. However, Randolph notes in a postscript to the recipe, “Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner, but is not so good.”

Enslaved workers plant sweet potatoes at Hopkinson’s plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina, c. 1862. Library of Congress.

An alternative explanation for the origins of sweet potato pie focuses on the similarities between yams and sweet potatoes. Yams, often mistaken for the sweet potato and vice-versa, are an edible, starchy tuber native to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania. Enslaved cooks, familiar with yams from African culinary traditions, may have incorporated sweet potatoes into dishes requested for the master’s table. When cooking for themselves and their families, the sweet potato could serve as a stand-in for the unavailable tropical yam. Adrian Miller, James Beard award-winning author, chronicles the history of the sweet potato and other soul food staples in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.  Miller argues the earliest desserts enjoyed by enslaved people were

Roasted sweet potatoes cooked in the embers of the fire or they started eating mashed up sweet potatoes that were spiced. As [they] got access to cooking technology and equipment, like ovens, that’s when they started to add pie shells.

Adrian Miller quoted in Ryan Shepard, “For many African-Americans, sweet potato pie isn’t just a dessert, it’s about family,” Southern Kitchen (October, 29, 2018), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/african-american-history-sweet-potato-pie.

From these simple origins, sweet potato pie became an essential part of soul food cuisine. From its roots as a mixing pot of American, European, African, and even Asian (source of the nutmeg) culinary techniques and ingredients, the sweet potato pie is a fixture in southern cuisine. With a New England background stretching back generations, I had never sampled sweet potato pie. Although my partner has Southern roots, his dislike of sweet potatoes prevented him from ever digging into a slice. Through preparing Randolph’s recipe, we both discovered sweet potato pie is delicious! My partner even asserted a preference for sweet potato over pumpkin pie (sacrilege!). While I still prefer pumpkin, we’re looking forward to adding a sweet potato pie to our Thanksgiving dessert table this year.

Sweet Potato Pudding

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 120-1.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 lb sweet potatoes
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¾ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon brandy, optional

Method

1. Peel and cube sweet potatoes into roughly equal pieces. Boil until tender.

2. While hot, pass the sweet potatoes through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor.

3. Add sugar, butter, nutmeg, lemon zest, and brandy. This is a good moment to taste the puree and make any adjustments to the seasoning.

4. Cover a 9-inch pie plate with a crust. While preparing the pie crust, allow the apple mixture to cool and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

5. Add the beaten eggs to the sweet potato mixture and mix well. Pour into the prepared pie crust.

6. Bake 45 minutes. I recommend covering your pie with aluminum foil for the first thirty minutes of baking to prevent burning your pastry.

Serve warm or cold. Whipped cream is an excellent addition!

Note: a can of sweet potatoes may be substituted for the whole sweet potatoes. Skip to step 2 and be sure to have about two cups of pureed sweet potatoes before moving on with the recipe.


Sources

[1] Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 17; Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 23.

Food History Timeline

Adrian Miller, “How sweet potato pie became African Americans’ Thanksgiving dessert” The Washington Post (Nov. 24, 2015), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/how-sweet-potato-pie-became-african-americans-favorite-dessert/2015/11/23/11da4216-9201-11e5-b5e4-279b4501e8a6_story.html.

Ryan Shepard, “For many African-Americans, sweet potato pie isn’t just a dessert, it’s about family,” Southern Kitchen (October, 29, 2018), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/african-american-history-sweet-potato-pie.

Andrew F. Smith, “Sweet Potatoes,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 574-5.

Pat Willard, “Pies and Tarts” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 272-3

Images

Moore, Henry P, photographer. Sweet potato planting, Hopkinson’s Plantation. Edisto Island South Carolina, 1862. [April 8] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010651644/.

https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2010/11/a-sweet-potato-history/