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New England Cooking
"You never ate sweet punkin and milk? I declare to goodness, if that don't beat all! We think it's a pretty tasty dish in our family."
Mrs. Marsh pushed her steel-bowed spectacles to the customary resting place on the folds of soft snow-white hair topping her wrinkled forehead and gazed at me with pity in her gentian-blue eyes.
Yes, I was forced to admit it, I, a New Hampshire woman, born and bred, and had never tasted that delicacy dear to the palates of my ancestors. I thrust my hand deep down into the stone crock offered me by my hostess, and drew out another crinkly-edged, sugarsprinkled, sour-cream cooky. As I ate that one and still another, I listened to her directions for preparing "sweet punkin and milk."
"You see, dearie, you must wait until the little sugar punkins are rich and ripe. Then you cut a small hole in the top of a punkin and remove the seeds, place it in a pan which has a little water in the bottom and pop it into the oven. I can't say just how long you bake it -just till it's tender. You'll have to try it. When the pulp's soft, drain off any water that's formed and sprinkle it with a little salt and sugar to taste. Fill the punkin pulp and the milk together by the spoonful. You try it, lovey."
Baked pumpkin and milk should, I decided, be immediately added to my list of recipes of foods of old New England. Indian meal pudding baked in a slow oven until rich and "wheyey," "apple pan-dowdy," topped with a crust made of Indian meal and baked in a huge ten-quart pan; hulled corn and milk, New England pumpkin pie, "hasty pudding," of which Joel Barlow humorously sang, and which is so delicious for Sunday night suppers on a cold night, parsnip stew, a dish fit for the proverbial king; codfish and cream (not codfish and milk, mind you, but codfish in its sauce of real Jersey cream); flapjacks and maple honey, beans, sweetened with maple sugar and baked as they are in no place else in the world except New England, real New England doughnuts, sour cream biscuit, "boiled dinner," "red flannel hash," greens cooked with pork, and the potatoes boiled right in with them-these were only a few of the old-time dishes which my neighbors and I used constantly in our own family cooking.
Familiar as I was with our old New Hampshire foods, I was surprised when Mrs. Marsh suggested this one. "I was wonderin', dearie," the old lady asked, "if you'd ever heard of boilin' an apple puddin' right in with your boiled dish,"
I gasped. "What! You don't really mean that!"
"I always do. My mother did and my grandmother did before her! You don't think much of it, do you?"
"You try it next time you have a boiled dish. When you have your piece of corned beef or salt pork and your vegetables all nicely boilin' in the bettle, make your puddin'. Soak a cup and a half of dried apples over night and cook in the same water 'til tender. Then add half a cup of sugar and a teaspoonful of cinnamon and a tablespoonful of butter. You can make the crust anyway you like, but I sift one teaspoonful of creamo'-tartar, and one-half teaspoonful of soda with two cups of pastry flour, and work into it two tablespoonfuls of butter. I mix it with milk until it is thick enough to roll out. Then I place the cooked apple in the center of the rolled out crust, fold it up, and put it in a clean, greased cloth. I tie the puddin' up and an hour before dinner-time, throw it in the kettle with the boiled dish. It'll steam fine! You try one some Thursday when you're havin' boiled dinner."
The Marsh homestead was a delight to me; it had the charm and the atmosphere characteristic of so many of the old New England farmhouses. In its day it was the best known estate of the river valley, and the farm acres were rich with corn, oats, and barley. Old Colonel Marsh had lived in almost feudal splendor-proud of his lands, and proud of the house which he had built before the Revolutionary War for his bride from Boston. Lofty rooms opened from either side of the panelled hall, and upstairs on the front was a long ballroom. But time had brought changes. The ball-room was made over into bedrooms, and the former kitchen was abandoned for a more modern and comfortable one on the south side of the house. The ancient kitchen was to me the most fascinating room in the house. Here was the blackened fireplace that formed the center of the home in years gone by; here was the huge brick oven where the baking was done for the large family and its retainers.
"Don't seem possible that women ever did their cookin' in a fireplace, does it?" Mrs. Marsh asked as we stood looking into its huge interior. "I often wonder how they handled those heavy pots and kettles. How the poor things must have tugged to hang them on the iron crane! Some different from my nice range and the electric stove my Eulelah has in her apartment, isn't it?"
I thought of the women who had lifted those heavy cooking utensils, who had roasted their meats over a spit before the open fire and cooked their baked dishes in the brick oven. Yet those old-time New England women were splendid cooks and many were the toothsome viands that were concocted with the help of the cumbersome kitchen outfits.
Brick ovens were still in use when Mrs. Marsh was a small girl, she told me, and once, "just to show the folks what real old-time cookin' was like," she had cooked her Thanksgiving dinner in the old brick oven.
"You can't bake beans so well any other way," she said. "Fireless cookers can't compare with the old brick oven for bringin' out flavors. And apple pan-dowdies! I wish that you could have tasted those my mother made! We used to have servin's of them, topped with thick cream for breakfast!"
"Just how did you use the oven?" I asked.
"Folks had a regular bakin' day then. Mother filled the oven with hot coals, and after the sides were heated, she raked them out and put in her dowdies, and beans, or anything that she wanted to bake. She thought nothin' of makin' fifty or seventy-five apple and mince pies just before Thanksgivin'."
I knew of this old New England custom of pie-baking and could remember seeing rows and rows of flaky brown-tinted pies in my grandmother's "cold foodpress."
"Our turnips, parsnips, and carrots are here both bigger and sweeter than is ordinarily to be found in England," quoth Frances Higginson. "Here also are store of pumpions, cowcumbers, and other things of that nature which I know not."
Squashes, which John Josslyn called squontersquoshes, had a number of names. William Wood said, "In summer, when their (Indian) corn is spent, isquoterquashes is their best bread, a fruit much like a pumpkin."
Sarah Kemble Knight, in her diary kept on a trip from Boston to New York in yo˘, tells of a strange bread. "-but the pumpkin and Indian mixed bread had such an aspect, and the bare-legged punch so awkward, or rather awful a sound, that we left both-"
It was Mrs. Marsh who told me how to make bean porridge. I had often eaten it at my grandmother's, but I had not really known how to make it until my hostess gave me the rule she had modernized. "My mother always kept bean porridge out in her food-press through the winter," she said. "I can see now just how it looked! Beats all how we remember things from childhood. Mother used to make the porridge up and let it freeze, and then she'd `hack' off a piece when she wanted to use it. I don't know how people would have lived up here if it hadn't been for bean porridge. My grandmother said that when grandfather had to go to Portsmouth on business in the winter, he'd always carry a frozen cake of porridge with him. When he was hungry, he'd get off his horse, build a fire and thaw a piece of it for his lunch.
"Folks used to make it by boilin' beans in corned beef liquor, but this is the way I do it. The day before I'm going to make bean porridge, I boil about two pounds of shin-bone in a couple of quarts of water. The next mornin', I take out the bones and most of the fat. I forgot to tell you I put a cup of dried beans to soak over night too. I add the beans, a quart of hulled corn, and salt to taste to the stock and boil them all together for at least four hours. Then I add one-half a cup of Indian meal moistened in cold water and cook for half an hour longer. Folks seemed to use corn meal in most every thing in pioneer days," she added.
I agreed with her and told of reading in a book of Mrs. Earle's concerning the importance of meal and samp in the diet of the colonists. The word "samp" set Mrs. Marsh to recalling stories that she had heard.
"My great-grandfather was a Scotch Irishman and was one of the early settlers of Londonderry in this state," she told me.
"Grandmother used to entertain us children with stories he told her. I recall she said that she could remember sittin' on her little stool at meal time and eating her samp and barley broth from a bowl held in her lap. Her mother used to make bannock, too, by turning boilin' water over Indian meal, addin' a little salt, spreadin' it on a clean board, and bakin' it before the open fire."
"And my grandfather told me," I said, not to be outdone, "that he could remember his father, who was one of the early settlers of Gilmanton, making a mortar for pounding the corn, out of the trunk of an oak tree."
"How people had to work in those days!" Mrs. Marsh answered. "Would you like to shoulder a bag of corn and tramp off miles to mill, and come home to find three of your neighbors waitin' to borrow most of it, as I heard of one man doin'?"
I decided that this might be a little unfair, and then I asked her if she had ever heard of the great famine which had swept over New Hampshire? I had read of it in an early history. Men had tramped through the forest for miles, or paddled up the Connecticut River in dugouts to barter their treasures, including cherished silver shoe-buckles, with the farmers on the Oxbow, who had succeeded in raising some crops.
"Those were hard days, dearie," Mrs. Marsh shook her head. "But almost always there was plenty of game.
Daniel Webster's father, judge Ebenezer Webster, once had eight barrels of moose meat in his cellar at one time. The brooks and rivers were full of fish. Grandmother used to say her father and uncles caught eels in the spring by the hundreds and her mother would salt them down in tubs. Speakin' of eels-you wait a minute-I've got a copy of some verses somewhere that were read at the centennial in Derryfield in 1851"
She trotted off to return in a few minutes with a yellowed bit of paper. Then putting on her spectacles she read the spidery writing to me.
"I'm goin' to omit some of it," she said, "and just read you about the eels. Um-um-here it is. Now listen and see if it isn't funny.
"`From the eels they formed their food in chief, And eels were called the `Derryfield beef!' Such a mighty power did the squirmers wield O'er the goodly men of old Derryfield, It was often said that their only care And their only wish and their only prayer, For the present world and the world to come, Was a string of eels and a jug of rum! "'
I laughed heartily as Mrs. Marsh completed the ditty. Then I took out my notebook and pencil.
"Oh, Mrs. Marsh, before I forget it, you must tell me just how you make that delicious hard gingerbread of yours."
"My Muster Day Gingerbread you mean? I call it that just because such a thing as a New Hampshire Muster without its gingerbread was never known. We boys and girls used to save and save our pennies for months ahead to buy it. We looked forward to those hard black slabs of gingerbread with as much gusto as we did to seein' the militia and light infantry march on the parade grounds. Of course my recipe is not really like that, but it was my mother's and we always called it Muster Gingerbread."
She took my pencil and wrote out the recipe for me. Then she began to talk about 'Lection Day, that unique institution of old New England. The famous 'Lection Cake, Mrs. Marsh informed me was simply sweetened yeast bread, filled with raisins, and topped with a coating of egg and molasses.
At the mid-day meal my hostess served me with delicious brook trout dipped in "Injun" meal and fried in tried-out pork fat.
"Yes, salt pork certainly does give a flavor to things," Mrs. Marsh beamed upon me as I complimented her upon the dish. "I always place slices over my roast chicken and baked fish. Then my folks are especially fond of sliced boiled or roasted beef warmed up in pork fat, and salt codfish cooked the same way."
"Yes, and dandelion greens boiled in pork, and peas and string beans can't be beaten!" I volunteered. "My cousin who visited me last summer was astonished when I served peas and potatoes boiled with salt pork as my main dish. But she thought that she had never tasted anything so good."
"It's queer how people in various parts of the country cook," my hostess said. "You don't realize it unless somebody who lives down south or out west or even in New York comes to visit you. Of course you and I are used to our ways of makin' things, but visitors think some of our customs quite unusual. Certain ways of cookin' become traditions with us. Why, I wouldn't any more think of not havin' custard pie with Saturday night baked beans and brown bread than nothin' at all!"
"Anyway," she added, "there's one thing to it, New England cookin' can't be beaten, whether it's field strawberry shortcake, or blue-berry biscuit, or rice with maple honey for dessert. You and I and most everybody we know are still cookin' in real old New Hampshire style, and I find that our own folks as, well as the guests who come to see us like it mighty well."