If you think of cooking as opening a cardboard box and microwaving a frozen Salisbury steak for three and a half minutes, peeling back the plastic and digging in, what I’m about to say may change the way you think of food.
Today’s modern conveniences like pre-packaged meats and canned vegetables have robbed us of our connection with the food we eat. The majority of us no longer raise, slaughter, butcher, harvest or preserve our foods. So what then happens to the skill and knowledge that our forbearers used to farm, hunt and feed themselves? What foods did they eat and what sacrifices did they make to enjoy them? And most importantly, how can we enrich our own lives and research by studying these skills and recipes?
Dining in the 18th, 19th and even early 20th centuries took more than rudimentary cooking skills. Our ancestors constantly focused on procuring, preserving and preparing food and what they had was never wasted. Scraps of muscle fat that we would toss in the trash without hesitation were used in the preparation of pastry, dried up bread and biscuits were grated and used to thicken soups, pigs hooves were saved to make gelatin and bones were saved to flavor stocks. They used suet, a hard fat found in the loins of beef and sheep for everything from baking to making soap, fueling lamps, making candles, treating leather and even making carbon paper.
While searching for an 18th century recipe for meat pies I stumbled upon the blog Savoring the Past by Jas Townsend and Son, an Indiana purveyor of 18th century style clothing, cookware and ingredients. This site is a goldmine of information about 18th century life, particularly baking. The following video demonstrating how to prepare a meat pie, a typical early American portable meal. All of the clothing and cookware used in the videos is available on the Jas Townsend and Son website and the recipe is available on their blog.
The way our ancestors experienced food depended primarily on their economic status. A look at any will or probate record from the 18th century will tell you how important cooking tools were. It is common to see a household inventory with each pot, cauldron and dutch oven accounted for. These tools were passed from generation to generation the way that crystal, silver or china would be today.
Trying recipes that our ancestors prepared and incorporating details about food, clothing, farming and hunting into family histories will help 21st century people relate to their ancestors and appreciate what life was like 300 years ago. Try using one of the recipes available on Savoring the Past at your next family reunion or holiday meal and it may just become a new old tradition.