By the time the Howard family lived in what we now call the Strong-Howard House, colonial “cuisine” had moved far beyond those early staples Indian pudding and Sally Lunn bread. Initially, American cookery reflected what the colonists knew and brought with them from England. Out of necessity and experimentation, housewives began to incorporate native vegetables and herbs into their daily preparations. A sign of this evolution was the publication of the first American cookbook, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons. Published in Hartford in 1796, it largely copied (often verbatim) earlier works, but it added some of the unique foods found in this country, like turkey, cranberries and corn, and excluded some that were not available here. Although it seems likely that Mrs. Howard would have worked from established English cookbooks by Hannah Glasse, Eliza Smith and Susanna Carter, her daughters-in-law may have embraced Simmons’ book as their own.
So, what did the Howards and their friends have to eat? And how did they manage without refrigeration in summer and sources of fresh goods in the winter?
Even if the head of the household had a profession, every household was to some degree a farm. A doctor, lawyer, shopkeeper or blacksmith still needed food, and with no grocery stores and limited access to imported products, each household had to grow most of its own.
A typical household farm included chickens, sheep, pigs, and cows; some had goats as well. The eggs and dairy products needed for daily consumption were only as far away as the barn. Much of the meat came from the livestock raised by the family. For example, the 1810 tax list shows that the Howards had 2 cows and a horse; an 1819 inventory reflects 2 pigs, valued at $15 and 2 cows, valued at $30. To supplement what was grown, game was readily available, and Windsor’s two rivers provided fish.
Early cookbooks contain recipes (called “receipts”) for beef, pork and poultry, and added to the list of edibles: rabbits, deer, elk, turkey, quail, duck, goose, pigeon, turtles (sea turtles) and almost any other game that could be shot or trapped, including some we now find distasteful, like beaver, possum and raccoon. In some areas, even crow and eagle were on also on the menu.
Many kinds of seafood are featured in period receipt books. Included at the table were many of the ones we enjoy today: mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams, lobsters, oysters, crab, salmon, trout, haddock, shad, cod, and turbot. Not typically eaten now, but once commonly consumed were: eels, lampreys, carp, mackerel, and pike.
Almost every part of the animal was used in some way, even parts that we now consider unappetizing. One noted early cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747) provides instructions for boiling cod’s heads, frying tripe and baking the heads of sheep and oxen. Mrs. Glasse also has receipts to make a “ragoo” of hog’s feet and ears, and puddings of blood, marrow or suet.
Butter and cheese were staples then, just as they are today. Soft and hard cheeses were made routinely in the home kitchen; cream cheeses, cottage/farmer’s cheese and some aged cheeses were made year round. Butter churning was part of the daily routine for the youngest children in the household.
Happily, Windsor’s soil is rich and fairly free of the rocks that plague much of New England, so many crops flourished in the herb and vegetable (or “kitchen”) gardens. Vegetables were part of the daily main meal, which took place in the early afternoon, and often resembled our Sunday dinners. A partial list of kitchen garden vegetables includes: peppers, cucumbers, peas, beans, cauliflower, asparagus, cabbage, lettuces, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and onions. The Howards also enjoyed root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, parsnips and radishes.
Baked goods were part of every meal, and wheat, rye and corn were field crops that most households grew. The Howards received these supplies as barter payment for items from Mr. Howard’s fancy goods store. Mrs. Howard relied on her bake oven to make breads, biscuits, tarts and sweets year round. Dessert and meat pies were served often; meat pies in particular were a perfect way to create substantial meals out of scraps of meat and leftover vegetables.
Desserts of all kinds were among the favorite foods. No fine meal was complete without a pie, cake or tart; Martha Washington, a noted hostess, had an entire cookbook devoted to receipts for them. Receipts for using fruits are as plentiful as the fruits themselves. Peaches, cherries, plums, grapes, apples, pears and quinces all had their place in family plantings. Berries of all kinds were eagerly devoured as they came into season; they were cooked with a variety of toppings and given names like “Fool” and “Slump.” Spicy chutneys and relishes complemented the main daily meal.
The Howards and other early Americans had no artificial refrigeration. The primary storage method was below ground. Some cold-storage areas were built in the cellars of houses, others were dug into nearby hillsides or banks, where the temperature remains fairly constant year-round. Extended storage of cold-hardy vegetables was possible in these dark, cool locations. In New England, late season crops like cabbages and root vegetables could be dug up and replanted in the dirt floor of the root cellar where they would keep for many weeks.
In the summer, fresh meat in particular could go bad quickly, so it was cooked and eaten as soon as possible. The root cellar helped here, and so did wells and spring houses. Wells were shafts dug down into the ground to a source of water. Between the depth of the well in the ground, and the presence of the water, a cool moist environment was created that helped keep meats, milk, butter, and cheeses for a day or two. Some houses had spring houses covering over the water source that trapped the cool air and improved its refrigerating quality. To date, the only well that has been discovered at the Strong-Howard house is beside the door in the courtyard. There is no documentation that it had a covering over it, but its position would have made it very convenient for cool food storage.
Winter posed different challenges. Gone were the days of plentiful fresh produce and meats. Many pages of the period cookbooks are devoted to preserving this goodness for later consumption. The household drew on its stores of preserved foods for daily sustenance. Mrs. Howard and her daughters-in-law spent large portions of their time ensuring that there would be adequate supplies to last until the first green shoots appeared in the spring. Visitors to Mrs. Howard’s kitchen undoubtedly saw strings of vegetables and fruits hanging to dry. All kinds of foods were pickled, in both sweet and “sour” solutions; Eliza Smith’s book, The Complete Housewife (1727) includes receipts for pickling melon, walnuts, cucumbers, mushrooms, oysters, radishes, beans, cabbage, onions, and artichokes. Mrs. Glasse adds peppers, beets, asparagus, peaches, cauliflower and grapes to the list.
Meats and fish could be smoked or brined, then later reconstituted for stews and meat pies. Potting was a common method of preservation, not often used today. Cooked foods will keep for some time if, after cooking, they are put in a crock and covered with melted clarified butter or another fatty liquid to act as a sealant. Receipts exist for potting beef, cheese, pigeon and other game birds, various kinds of fish and vegetables. Susannah Carter’s receipt “To keep green peas until Christmas” (The Frugal Housewife, 1772 and 1802) instructs the housewife to clean the peas, dry them well and put them in bottles, then fill the bottles with melted mutton fat. The bottles are then corked, a bladder is put over the top, and they are ready to be stored in a cool dry place.
Although we do not have specific records about food storage at the Strong-Howard House, the cellar was the most likely place for it. By the end of the growing season, the shelves would have been lined with jellies and jams, potted meat, pickles and dried fruits and vegetables. We can only imagine the Howard ladies’ satisfaction and relief at having their preparations completed for the winter.
By Liz Henderson, administrative assistant, 2015