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April 21, 2011
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Common-place investigates food in the age of antebellum experiment

Worcester, MA—This special issue of Common-place investigates the production and consumption of food during the age of experiment, the period between 1820 and 1890 that began in response to a soil crisis. Guest editor David Shields explains in the introduction the need to "renovate fields whose fertility had been exhausted by repeated plantings of cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, and corn, led farmers to introduce new cultivars into new rotations employing new manuring schemes."

This led to "the organization of agricultural societies and cooking schools; the integration of farms and households into local, regional, and national food markets; the rise of market growers and seed brokers; the creation and promotion of model farms and plantations; the expansion of the world of competitive exhibitions in fairs and livestock shows, and the shift from hearthside to stove top cookery."

The contents of this special issue are an important link between the past and the present interest in food studies. "For growers, the recovery of the best practices of pre-industrial growers arms those who desire an alternative to our increasingly costly industrial system with knowledge of how to build soil, improve taste, and enhance the productivity of grains and vegetables," Shields writes. "Farming will not be right in the United States until the bees fly above our heads and the earthworms replenish the soil beneath our feet. When science marries with old wisdom and gastronomy encourages agricultural sustainability as well as pleasure, then the new initiatives in food studies will have borne fruit."

Trudy Eden's article, "About that Recipe," shares her attempts "in trying to understand not only what people in the past ate but what, beyond bodily fuel, their food meant to them."

Although people of the past spent a large portion of every day growing, processing, preparing and eating food, they seldom wrote what they thought about the meaning of it all, Eden writes.

Using a recipe from America's first published cookbook, Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, she examines a recipe for stuffing using the interpretive guidelines of Freeman Tilden who developed a philosophy that guides interpreters at national and state parks.

Looking at the recipe as more than a list of ingredients and procedure, Eden illustrates her attempts to develop a complete picture of the times, the cook and even the fowl that was to be stuffed.

"The question is, then, not only what can we learn about meanings in the past, but how can we interpret those meanings to people today and in the future?" Eden asks.

"Favorite Receipts" presents recipes extracted from assorted cookbooks published during the Age of Experiment. Instructions on how to make butter bean soup and squirrel soup, shrimp pie and quails cured in oil provide a fascinating glimpse into history and culture of the times.

An 1870 recipe titled simply, "Frogs", begins: "This ugly, noisy animal is considered equal to young chicken by some epicures" Directions for the preparation of lard include the following: "The clearness of the lard, the brown color of the cracklings, the crystal purity of the bubbles, and the nut-like scent arising, indicate the end of the boiling."

Possum "is considered by many a very great luxury, the flesh, it is said, tastes not unlike roast pig," states an entry from an 1841 cookbook. And finally, a variation on a New England standard, maple sugar candy, from the Canadian Settlers Guide, "Maple Sugar Sweeties": "When sugaring off, take a little of the thickest syrup into a saucer, stir in a very little fine flour, and a small bit of butter, and flavor with essence of lemon, peppermint, or ginger, as you like best; when cold, cut into little bricks about an inch in length. This makes a cheap treat for the little ones. By melting down a piece of maple sugar, and adding a bit of butter, and flavouring, you can always give them sweeties, if you think proper to allow them indulgencies of this sort."

Caroline Sloat's article, "Pigeons," tells how the passenger pigeon went from plentiful to extinction in the United States before the nineteenth century ended.

Pigeons were ubiquitous in antebellum cooking and dining, both a staple of the New England diet and restaurant specialty. Sloat writes that pigeon recipes appear in the first American edition of Carter's The Frugal Housewife (1803) and pigeon appeared on the Bill of Fare for the American Antiquarian Society's semiannual meeting of April 25, 1866, held at Boston's Parker House.

The era's authority on ornithology, John James Audubon, reported in 1830 that pigeons were "so abundant in the markets of New York that piles of them met the eye in every direction." Despite the "immense numbers" killed and the "cruelty in pursuing them," he reported that "no apparent diminution ensues."

Sloat notes that, "Pigeons—like some other breeds of birds—were easy to hunt, indeed, so easy that the hunt couldn't be sustainable."

Bernard L. Herman's article, "On Figs," Bernard Herman discusses the cultivation of the fig and its survival on the landscape despite its minimal circulation through the market system.

Native to Asia, the fig (ficus carica) came to the Americas in 1520, imported by the Spaniards to Hispaniola; by the early eighteenth century the cultivar had gone feral, Herman writes. "The resilience of the fig in warmer environments, its ease of propagation, and its productivity inspired one Southern author to group it in a gazetteer of 'Fruits That Never Fail!'"

Although the fig ultimately achieved the status of a commodity crop in late nineteenth-century California the Southern fig thrived as a dooryard staple for seasonal family tables, never achieving the status of a valued market commodity.

As an ingredient, figs appeared in nineteenth-century desserts like fig cake. Herman offers a recipe from Bessie Gunter's Housekeepers's Companion. " when … the fig was common to the kitchen yards of rich and poor, black and white," Herman writes. "In the summer its bounty provided pleasure for all. Preserved, it evoked the taste of sun and warmth in the dark chill of winter. No longer the cultural privilege of the eighteenth-century landed elites, the fig at the close of the nineteenth century was truly an emblem of hope and plenty in the common landscape."

David Shields' article, "The Roots of Taste," recalls "the heady heyday of the roots and tubers, when experimentalists made a rich variety of cultivars common on American farms and created a diversity of new varieties to better suit the human palate, the diet of livestock, and the replenishment of the soil." Replenishment of the soil became the prime directive in revitalizing American agriculture by 1830.

American farmers embraced all of the European root crops, Shields writes, "amalgamating the various national farming traditions: the carrot culture of Flanders, the beet (and particularly the sugar beet) farming of France, the turnip culture of Germany, the rutabaga farming of Sweden, the potato culture of Ireland."

Carrots were used almost exclusively as feed for livestock, parsnips fed to cows for sweeter milk and pigs for sweeter meat. The power of the turnip to fix nutrients in the soil as well as extract them made them valuable in rotations. Beets were embraced for sugar and animal feed.

"These experiments, and the investigations of the edibility of the greens of these vegetables as silage, gradually generated a literature, and, one might say, an elaborated empirical understanding of certain differences of taste between humankind and ruminants," Shields writes. "In the twentieth century this knowledge would drive the creation of flavoring agents that would make cheap feed palatable."

"Recipe for a Culinary Archive" presents 40 items from the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive of American culinary history. The collection is housed at Clements Library for American history at the University of Michigan, which last year announced plans to establish culinary history as a scholarly research specialty. Author Jan Longone explains that the collection includes 25,000 items, about one-third of which are cookbooks,

This archive, Longone notes, "is part of a larger story about the vitality and visibility of food studies. Culinary history classes and programs are increasingly reaching more students at all levels as well as interested amateurs throughout the United States and elsewhere.

Items from the collection include: a 1606 map cartouche of one of the Western Hemisphere's earliest recipes—for beer; a map showing how thickly strewn were butter and cheese factories in New York state in 1899; The House Servant's Directory, 1827, how to run an upperclass New England household. It was the first book by an African-American to be published by a commercial publisher.

The archive's menu collection is represented by an 1893 menu from an American maize banquet served in Copenhagen. The archive's 10,000 pieces of culinary advertising ephemera are represented by a brochure on the history of the banana published in 1904 by the American Fruit Company.

In "The Unbearable Taste," Michael Twitty, an interpreter, researcher and educator in the subject area of enslaved people's lives and foodways, explains that there is"no better way to encourage people to understand and empathize with the enslaved than through food. The smell, sound, feeling, and unbearable taste of being black and enslaved…"

For the past decade Twitty has spoken to over 100 groups on the foodways of enslaved African Americans, including work with the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. In his presentations Twitty makes real the fear of snakes in a Carolina rice paddy, the blindness that the sun casts on cotton on a hot early autumn day.

He has learned firsthand that "Tobacco stains the hand and tasseling corn numbs them. The lower back and feet ache from hours on brick kitchen floors. You learn the wisdom of the recipes for salves and cures listed in the same receipt books that provide inspiration for menus. Your arms will teach you about the heft needed to carry 40- and 60-pound pots and the stamina it takes to cook a large meal by the standard dinner hour of two or three p.m."

In recreating and preserving these traditions, Twitty writes, "my ultimate mission is to give humanity and dignity to my ancestors." Twitty's goals are to "use this platform to reconnect my people with the culinary heritage many left behind in the transition from agrarian to urban realities. I believe these stories have the power to connect people across racial and ethnic lines, and to create a table where we are all at once welcome to finally sit and partake of the fruits of our ancestors."

In "Old School," David Shields interview Glenn Roberts, CEO of Anson Mills and president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, who has been in the forefront of efforts to preserve the agricultural and culinary legacies of North America since 1998.

Roberts tells how and why these ancient crops have become imperiled and what is being done to keep them in cultivation. He explains that landraces are pre-industrial domesticated plants or animals that are distinct and maintained agriculturally in contrast to modern cultivars/breeds that are distinct and maintained by scientific breeding with modern farming methods. Landrace cereals, legumes and oil seeds have been maintained by farmers over hundreds and mostly thousands of years.

"As I moved into rice production, I noticed better flavors in rice when planted after field peas than after soy beans.…" Roberts said. "When I looked into the anecdotal histories of field peas on the Sea Islands, I discovered planting methods no one was using anymore … sequencing particular crops without repeating any crop back to back over seventeen years. … This is known as a sun cycle rotation and it is the most elegant farming system on our planet."

Roberts surveyed social club and church archives and collected oral histories from local cooks, farmers who were also cooks, and the community of commercial Sea Island fisherman, to document the cooking methods and classic local recipes of Carolina rice

"The interaction of cuisine, history and genetics is a relatively recent focus here in America, but, in order to redevelop landrace farming systems here in the South, our target continues to be, for want of a better title, Landrace Cuisine … the complete seasonally driven compliment of local landrace foods at table," Roberts said.

He notes that Anson Mills provides support for foodways research and culinary research, both historic and modern. "I set out to make something totally arcane relevant because that mission made sense to me. I knew chefs would get it if we focused upon flavor and made everything else peripheral," Roberts said.

In the Department of Poetic Research Bronwen Tate's collection of poems was inspired by her grandmother's copy of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, copyright 1950. In her statement of poetic research Tate notes that the book "is a fascinating portrait of a 1950s imagining of an American past," and "The origin stories we tell during the shared activity of preparing food take on mythic status in a nation or in a family."

Writing the poems, Tate notes, "gave me a way to explore these stories and why they stay with us." She also recounts the baking of a delicious butterscotch pie from her grandmother's recipe.

The current issue of Common-place also includes the following book reviews: Ken Albala's review of: Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America's First Food by Andrew Warnes; Walter Hawthorne's review of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World by Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff ; Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor's review of Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake by Sarah Hand Meacham and Peter C. Herman's review of Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Chocolate and Tobacco in the Atlantic World by Marcy Norton.


Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features in the comments sections at the end of the articles. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University Of Oklahoma Department Of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world.

The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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