Lancaster farming. (Lancaster, Pa., etc.) 1955-current, November 22, 1975, Image 42

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    42—Uncaatar Farming, Saturday. Nov. 22,1979
Edible hiatory lemon
Colonial foods recall bicentennial days
Colonists were introduced to pumpkins and squash by the Indians. These foods constituted most of the staple diet along with com and fish.
By Sally Bair
Farm Feature Writer
As we begin to celebrate our nation’s 200th birthday, do
you find yourself yeanling to return to those days when
life seemed simpler? Perhaps so, but according to Mrs.
Alletta Scfaadler, extension home economist in Lebanon
County, the life of a colonial homemaker was not so
Consider doing all of your cooking over an open
fireplace in limited space in a room which doubled as
living room, family room, den and sometimes bedroom.
Or consider doing the laundry. As Letie said, “When the
cniwiial housewife wanted to wash, she had to butcher to
get fat to make soap. And to make soap she needed lye
which was made from wood ashes and had to be saved in
advance.” Perhaps this was not an exact sequence of
events, but certain aspects of life today are indeed easier
than the life of the colonial homemaker.
In a program entitled “Colonial Foods - an edible
history lesson” Letie shared with her audience
fascinating tidbits of history which offered real insights
into the preparation of food by the colonial homemaker.
According to Letie, when the Pilgrims first arrived in
the 1600’s they found that Indians all across the country
shared basically the same kind of diet - squash, beans and
Letie pointed out that Indians really practiced an in
tensive form of agriculture, and-were truly farmers as
well as hunters. However, the women did the farming.
They were also important in the governing of the tribe,
because it was the women who selected the council who
ruled their lives.
As for planting, the com was planted on hills, with about
four kernels of com and fish for fertilizer. Beans were
planted so they could grow up the cornstalks and squash
were planted between the hills.
One problem which developed from such intensive
cultivation was that the soil nutrients were rapidly
depleted, but when it was no longer productive the Indians
simply moved their village.
In addition to the staples of beans, squash and com,
there were 34 native berries and fruits harvested by the
Indians, including such things as pigweed and dandelion.
Pumpkin, sweet potatoes and cranberries were among
the native fruits and vegetables found in this land.
Cranberries were once known as bounceberries, Letie
related, because the ripe ones bounce. Try it!
Vegetables such as carrots, peas, radishes, turnips,
cabbage, cauliflower, onions, beets and lettuce were in
troduced by the English between 1610 and 1634. Berries
and melons were native, but apples, pears and quince
were all imported.
Bees, surprisingly, were also brought over by the
English, Letie said.
But what was it like in the kitchen in those early days of
our nation?
Letie stressed that cooking over the fireplace in the
multi-purpose room was not an easy matter. She said, “It
was a hot job and required lots of attention.” Starting the
Ore was this first difficult problem since matches were not
common. So the housewife had the burden of keeping the
fire going continuously.
Die main fire in the fireplace was not used for cooking,
Letie said. Inmost cases, cods were pulled from the main
fire, and kettles or frying pans with legs were placed over
them for cooking/ Ihe colonists used a form of Dutch
oven, which was actually an iron kettle with a lid. Coals
were placed under the kettle and on top of the lid to
facilitate cooking.
There were large supports used to suspend kettles over
the fire, but Letie said these could be dangerous. Before
foundries came into existence, the supports were wooden
and there was always the danger of the wood catching on
fire and dropping the evening meal into the hot fire. And
remember, there was no fast food restaurant down the
cobblestone road!
Utensils too were rather a different matter. Forks did
not come into common usage unto the mid 1800's, ac
cording to Letie, and everyone ate with spoons and knives.
The point of the knife was used to spear things, and then
the colonists simply ate right off the point of the knife.
There were, Letie reminded her audience, two distinct
societies at that time. There were the very wealthy, who
lived in Philadelphia, Boston, Williamsburg and
Jamestown, and the average settler family. The wealthy
Homestead Notes
ate lavishly, with great feasts and an infinite variety of
food and of course were served on fine dishes.
The average family however probably owned no more
than one pewter plate. And when they left their home
country to settle here they brought only essential tools -
iron kettles and utensils, not fine dishes. So for eating, the
usual vessel was a “wooden trench” which was really a
rectangular hoUowed-out board. Two persons normally
shared this vessel, and ate the meal from the hollowed out
portion, turning it'over for dessert.
But what the housewife use for cooking? There were
many staples in the colonial kitchen. Commeal and flour
played a large part in the food preparation. Salt was
expensive, but was considered a necessity so colonists
either bought it or traded for it.
Spices were extremely important in the kitchen,
primarily because there was no way to preserve food. So
they often disguised off-flavors in food. Nutmeg, mace,
pepper, cloves, ginger and cinnamon were common
spices. Herbs and flowers were also used extensively in
cooking, Letie said.
Sweetening agents were considered important, and
such things as maple syrup, molasses, honey and
sorghum were used. “White sugar was quite a delicacy,”
Letie explained. It was sold in cone shape and the colonial
housewife bought just the amount she could afford. The
blue wrapper in which it came was often cooked and the
indigo used fbr dye by the frugal housewife. The sugar had
to be ground or grated before it could be used. Indians
harvested maple syrup, according to Letie, and molasses
was very inexpensive since it was imported for
distillation of rum.
Yeast was another kitchen staple but not in the nice,
pre-measured form we know today. Wild yeast, brewer’s
yeast, and sour milk were used extensively. Saleratos and
pearlasb were chemicals used in place of baking powder
and baking soda. But they were alkaline and very inexact
and undependable. Accordingly, often there was no
leavening used in colonial recipes.
Gelatin, another staple, was derived from calves feet or
isinglass. “The ladies loved fancy molded desserts,” Letie
said, “but lots of apices were needed to kill the taste of the
gelatin agent."
Another popular item with the colonial housewife was
steamed or boiled puddings. “They were very popular,"
Letie said, “because baking was a real chore."
Frequently the mixtures were put in a “pudding sack”
which was made wet and floured and then put in a
colander in water.
Letie reminded her audience frequently that “cooking
in those days was not all that fussy.”
Meat did not play nearly the large partin the colonial
diet we have come to expect today. Letie said, “They ate
lots of fresh meat when they butchered.” About the only
safe method of preservation was smoking meat. There
was no refrigeration, although in some parts of the
colonies the weather was sufficiently cold for freezing
food at least part of the year.
Another problem with the meat supply is that most
animals served a purpose other than providing meat for
the table. The beef were raised to work and to provide
milk to make cheese. They were also used for hides, Letie
said, and their last use was for food. That meant the meat
was very old and very tough before it reached the table.
Sheep was raised primarily for wool, so mutton was the
only dish prepared from that animal, Letie said.
Chickens were kept mainly to provide eggs and when
they stopped laying they became food for the table. Of
course, a hen that wasn’t laying any longer was good only
for stewing.
Pigs were the one animal used primarily for meat, but
they served some very important other functions in the
colonial household. They provided fat for cooking and for
soap making and also sausage casings.
What the colonists did have in abundance was game and
fish. The Indians taught the early settlers how to fish and
they even had to teach them to hunt since most of the
settlers were of peasant stock and only the wealthy could
hunt in Europe. Turkeys were quickly overharvested,
Letie said, and by 1700 there were noticeably fewer, wild
Baking in the colonial home, Letie said, was probably
done no more than once a week. One reason is that baking
was a rather ponderous task. A beehive oven was used,
and a fire was built early to heat up the oven. When the
stones or bricks were hot the ashes and fire were swept
out and the bread was put in. K sufficient heat was left
after the essential baking, sometimes cookies would be
baked. Sometimes the edges of the doors were sealed with
mud to keep the heat in longer, Letie said.