Monday, March 17, 2014

Zap! You are in the Mid-19th Century, and You Need To Know the Basics of Cooking - - What Now??

So, here you are, planning to cook a nice chicken dinner for your family. You walk to your fridge, pull out the sealed-in-plastic chicken you purchased from your local grocer, clean out the innards, rinse under the faucet in the sink, salt and pepper, then throw it in your oven and turn the dial to your desired temperature setting.
Oh, you may need to baste it once in a while.
It's as simple as that. 
So off you go to the living room and settle on the sofa while the meal cooks. The timer will let you know when the food is ready.
Suddenly, you find yourself feeling very strange...almost dizzy, the light beginning to fade as you go deeper into the darkness...
And then, like a charge of electricity, you bolt upright, almost in a panic. But, something wasn't right - - - you are not in your living room! Where are you? A dizzying surge of anxiety races through your brain, the light-headedness causing you to nearly pass out. Glancing every which way throughout the room, you see nothing familiar. The furnishings here don’t belong to you, not even the sofa; this one was smaller than the one you were just on. The furniture and accessories are antiquated in style, similar to what would be seen in a historic home museum. But these pieces do not look aged - candle holders, oil lamps, all setting upon marble-top tables and wood-top tables that encircled the room. Hey! Where's the TV? And where did that desk come from? This was definitely not a scene from the twenty-first century. 

You soon come to realize that you have been transported through time...back to the mid-19th century, and pretty much everything you know about everyday life means nothing here.
What to do...?
Just in case this actually does happen to you sometime in the future past, I'm here to help you make the attempt to tackle that basic survival need: the caring and cooking of food.
Just before you were zapped into the past you were cooking a simple chicken dinner. But you're in the mid-19th century now and things aren't quite as simple as you know them to be.
For instance, let's get that chicken meal a-cooking------
The first thing you must do is head out to the coop in your barn, for you no longer purchase chickens from the cooler in your local grocery store. You also no longer have a fridge to keep the meat cold for an extended length of time, for there is no electricity in homes and will not be for decades. Your cellar works OK but, depending on the time of year, cannot be counted on to keep meat for too long. Nor is there running water inside your house to rinse the meat off. You must go to the pump out back, pour water in a bucket, and bring it inside your house. Your stove? A wood or coal burner. But this stove does not have a dial to turn to 350 to get that particular temperature. Instead, you regulate the temp by the type of wood, the size of wood, and how much wood. You test the temperature by the tried and true method of heat on your hand. 
Yes, your hand!

You have a very functional stove for 1864. It can cook whatever you need cookin'.
If you put your hand inside the oven and you can keep it there without too much discomfort, it is not nearly hot enough for anything, if you can keep it in only a short time, maybe to the count of six or seven, well then you have a good baking fire. But, if you cannot keep your hand inside the oven for more than a moment – in and out quickly - now you have a good fire for frying. There are also the flues and dampers to help control the temperature.
Now, remember that chicken you were cooking back in the future? Let's prepare and cook that same chicken dinner in the mid-19th century...

Do not feed poultry the day before killing; cut off the head, hang up by the legs, as the meat will be more white and wholesome if bled freely and quickly. In winter, kill them three days to a week before cooking. Scald well by dipping in and out of a pail or tub of boiling water, being careful not to scald so much as to set the feathers and make them more difficult to pluck; place the fowl on a board with the neck towards you, pull the feathers away from you, which will be in the direction they naturally lie (if pulled in a contrary direction the skin is likely to be torn), be careful to remove all of the pin-feathers with a knife or a pair of tweezers; singe, but not smoke over blazing paper, place on a meat-board, and with a sharp knife cut off the legs a little below the knee to prevent the muscles from shrinking away from the joint, and remove the oil-bag above the tail. Take out the crop, either by making a slit at the back of the neck or in front (the last is better), taking care that everything pertaining to the crop or windpipe is removed, cut the neck-bone off close to the body, leaving the skin a good length if to be stuffed; cut a slit three inches long from the tail upwards, being careful to cut only through the skin, put in a finger at the breast and detach all the intestines, taking care not to burst the gall-bag (situated near the upper part of the breast-bone, and attached to the liver; if broken, no washing can remove the bitter taint left on every spot it touches). Put in the hand at the incision near the tail, and draw out carefully all intestines; trim off the fat from the breast and at the lower incision; split the gizzard and take out the inside and inner lining (throw liver, heart, and gizzard into water, wash well, and lay aside to be cooked and used for the gravy). Wash the fowl thoroughly in several waters (some wipe carefully without washing), hang up to drain, and it is ready to be stuffed, skewered, and placed to roast.

The side door opens up for the oven. Ah, I see you have your chicken in the pot.
This was taken from a facsimile of an original 1877 cook book called 'Tried and Approved: The Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping - Compiled from Original Recipes 1877." Don't let the year fool you - recipes (or receipts, as they were called) didn't change dramatically throughout much of the century. According to the back cover, the Buckeye Cookery was "Ohio's premier cookbook of the 19th century."

Please allow me to take you back a little further in time, to the late 1700s. Things are a bit different here in the colonial era.
Colonial cooking was dominated by fireplace technology; in the kitchen it was the massive fireplace that was the center of it all. And, of course, all of the necessary cooking tools to go with it: "A nest of iron pots of different sizes, a long iron fork to take out articles from boiling water, an iron hook with a handle to lift pots from the crane, a large and small gridiron with grooved bars and a trench to catch the grease, a dutch oven (or bake pan), two skillets of different sizes, a skimmer, skewers, a toasting iron, two tea kettles - one small and one large, a spider (or flat skillet) for frying, a griddle, a waffle iron, tin and iron bake and bread pans, two ladles of different sizes, two brass kettles of different sizes for soap boiling, &c." (From Miss Catherine Beecher).
Most cooking fireplaces were equipped with a suspension system for the large pots and kettles. An iron crane that could be swung out toward the room to check on the contents of the pots and kettles was also mounted inside of the chimney. By raising or lowering the pots to adjust the distance between them and the fire, or by moving the crane forward into the room, cooking temperatures could be adjusted.
One must remember, however, that most young folks did not go into setting up their household with all of this iron cookware. Many would have only the basics - a small kettle, a spider, and a ladle - to begin with, and would accumulate the rest over time.
By the way, what we call pot holders here in the 21st century were originally called  kettle-holders. Pot holders then were the metal stand suspension equipment designed to hold pots off of the ground mentioned above. (Thanks to Stephanie Ann at World Turned Upside Down for this pot/kettle holder information).

No meat in the hearth on this day, but you get the idea.
Written inside the American Cookery cookbook we find a receipt for beef (spelling and punctuation intact, though I wish I could use my colonial font for this portion, but that, unfortunately, is not available for this blog!):
The general rules are, to have a brisk hot fire, to hang down rather than to spit, to baste with salt and water, and one quarter of an hour to every pound of beef, tho' tender beef will require less, while old tough beef will require more roasting; pricking with a fork will determine you whether done or not; rare done is healthiest and the taste of this age.

But most cookbooks weren't just cookbooks, for they usually provided "detailed information on the fundamentals of everything from bread baking to omelets to medicinal remedies - a treasure trove of forgotten knowledge."
For instance, another book, The Good Housekeeper (from 1841), gives a lesson on preserving your meat, for without refrigeration meat would become inedible quickly and thus, preservation was necessary:
Salt is the grand preservative of meats; but in using these, care should be taken to soak them if too salty. It is not healthy to eat our food very salty.
In the summer season particular attention must be observed, lest fresh meat be injured. In the country this care is very necessary.
Be sure to take the kernels out of the round of beef; one in the udder, in the fat, and those about the thick end of the flank.
To salt the meat thoroughly, rub in the salt evenly into every part, and fill the holes where the kernels were taken out.
A pound and a half of salt will be sufficient for twenty-five pounds of beef, if you only want to corn it to be eaten in a few days.
In the summer, the sooner meat is salted, after it is cool, the better. In winter, it is better to be kept a few days before salting.

And how about bacon (from American Cookery with spelling and punctuation, once again, left intact):
To each ham put one ounce saltpeter, one pint bay salt, one pint molasses, shake together 6 or 8 weeks, or when a large quantity is together, bast them with the liquor every day; when taken out to dry, smoke them weeks with cobs or malt fumes.
Preparing a palatable meal in 1760
Though cookbooks were available, most colonial women cooked many dishes without the use of one; they learned from their mothers how to make the everyday foods that the majority of people in their area ate, therefore, unless the dish to be served was for a special occasion or an important guest, it was done by memory as she was taught.
But "(p)reparing colonial food was not simply a matter of making ingredients palatable," Ann Chandonnet writes in her book, Colonial Food, "it also required a staggering range of skills: chopping kindling, keeping a fire burning indefinitely, plucking feathers from fowl, butchering animals large and small, cosseting (caring for) bread yeast, brewing beer, making cheese, adjusting 'burners' of coals on a hearth and gauging the temperature of a bake oven. There were related skills, too, such as milking, grinding corn, fermenting vinegar, pulverizing sugar, drying damp flour, and recycling stale bread."
Chandonnet continues, "The housewife's universe spiraled out from hearth and barnyard to tending a kitchen garden and perhaps a large vegetable garden, as well as assisting with the grain harvest.
Preserving methods were limited to drying, smoking, pickling, and salting, so the cold months of the year saw a more limited diet than warm months."
What people chose to eat and how they cooked their meals was what they considered to be edible and familiar. Colonists cooked many dishes from memory and experience, eventually acquiring an 'American' character, and they certainly encountered new foods which, in some cases, came from the local Indians."

Most rural families had a smokehouse on their land to help preserve their meat, especially ham (and sometimes fish).
After rubbing the ham or bacon with a salt mixture and letting them set for a few weeks, the meat would then be hung from the rafters in the smokehouse. 
Smoke House
The smoke was created directly below the hanging meat by a fire in the floor of the structure and was made from aromatic woods such as hickory or apple and sometimes even corncobs, which flavored the meat and created a crust that prevented its ruin by flies or other pests.
Smoked meat

The Good Housekeeper makes it a point to state to always bear in mind that to eat the blood of animals is as positively forbidden by God as to shed the blood of a brother. In this view, the Scotch black puddings, made of hogs blood, are an abomination, which it is strange a Christian can partake.

As stated above, cookbooks weren't solely about cooking. They also gave advice in housekeeping, and will guide you, room by room, in the how-to's in cleaning your house, as well as the cellar and ice-house. Cleaning of utensils, the fireplace hearth, laundry, furniture, and much more is also usually covered.
One interesting chapter in the Buckeye Cookbook is called "The Management of Help." It's here where one can learn how to hire and keep a domestic servant.
"In all families whose style of living demands help in the household duties, the management of 'girls' is the great American puzzle. 'Girls' come and go like the seasons, sometimes with the weeks. The one who is 'such a treasure' to-day, packs her trunk and leaves her mistress in the lurch to-morrow, or, if she happens to have a conscience and works on faithfully, she becomes the mistress and runs the household in her own way, her employer living in mortal fear of offending and losing her. Too many American women who ought to know better regard work as degrading instead of positively elevating and ennobling when it is well and conscientiously done. 

Is it wonderful that 'girls' catch something of this vicious sentiment, and that it poisons their minds with this false view of life, until they look upon their work as brutal drudgery, and strive to do as little of it as they possibly can and collect their wages?"
My, how times have changed...

Of course, there is so much more than the minute bit of information I have here. Books like the Buckeye Cookery, The Good Housekeeper, and American Cookery really are a treasure-trove collection of "1st person" notions of everyday home life from another era. In my opinion they are a necessity for anyone wanting to go beyond the "how do I look?" attitude and dive into the "my 1860's world and welcome to it" impression.

If you are interested in purchasing these wonderful cookbooks for yourself, please click the following links:
Buckeye Cookery
The Good Housekeeper
American Cookery

If you like what you read here, please check out my other "World of" and "ZAP!" Every Day Life of Days Gone By postings:

The World of a 19th Century Country Doctor
The World of 19th Century Rural Michigan Teachers

Zap! You Are Suddenly in the Mid-19th Century...and It's Winter - What Now?
Zap! You Are Suddenly in the Mid-19th Century, and it's Spring! What Now?

Zap! You Are Suddenly in the Mid-19th Century...and it's Summer - What Now?
Zap! You Are Suddenly in the Mid-19th Century, and it's Autumn - What Now?
Zap! You Are Suddenly in the Mid-19th Century, and it's Thanksgiving! What Now?
Zap! You Are Now in 1850...What the Heck are all These Mills for Anyhow?
Zap! You are Now Living in 1860 - What Now? (The World of a 19th Century Repair Shop)


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