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"Your kitchen becomes a time machine when you open the pages of Mark Zanger's The American History Cookbook... - Boston Herald, Nov. 12, 2003


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6: EARLY AMERICAN MEALS

SPRING (1792 -1852)

T

he Early American period from the Revolution to the Civil War is where we can document a full range of seasonal menus. Printed cookbooks and surviving kitchen manuscripts give a clear picture of seasonal cooking, as recipes used only once a year had to be written down. Seasonal lines had blurred, as settlers and colonists became more efficient farmers and preservers and as transportation improved. But seasons were still very important for average Americans. (And, incidentally, the unusually cool climate of 1645-1825, sometimes called "the little ice age," also exaggerated the effect of seasons upon early settlers. It was somewhat abating by the Early American period, except for the famous "year without a summer," 1816.)

Most calendars of Early American life begin in winter, the season that defined the activities of the other three. In terms of food, however, early spring was the time of simple meals and scarcity, as stored supplies ran out and natural refrigerators began to fail. Hens stopped laying eggs in the dark of winter, but eggs could be stored for a while. Most farmers stopped milking in late fall or early winter, and slaughtered surplus cattle, so that the remaining cows could be kept more economically. By spring, stored butter

and cheese had run out, or were of very poor quality.

Pigs were the easiest animals to keep through the winter and were slaughtered in midwinter for Christmas roasts. So salt pork or pickled pork were the basis of early spring meals, with the last of the beans and cornmeal. Hunting and trapping supplied what fresh meat could be had. The other activity in rural areas was tapping maple trees for syrup and sugar. Because the climate was colder in Early American times, maple syrup was still being produced in the southern states.

The first spring greens, onions, and asparagus were eagerly awaited, and sometimes eaten in omelets with the first eggs and butter. Americans were beginning to grow rhubarb for spring pies. In coastal areas, fishing and shellfishing resumed once the worst winter storms were over, and spring runs of spawning fish such as smelt, shad, and salmon were still important. By late spring, the salt pork could be stretched around meals of veal and lamb, as farmers culled male calves from dairy herds and male lambs from wool flocks. Veal was one of the cheapest meats and considered food for the poor.

(A very ingenious study of stored foods listed in estate inventories from 1711 to

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Copyright 2003, 2004 by Mark H. Zanger. Remember, there is no copyright on recipes or other common household formulae, but copyright and fair use laws do apply to selection of recipes and cultural-historical commentary.