Ah, the good old days! But were they, really? The holidays induce nostalgia like no other season, but as we try to out-Currier-and-Ives each other with celebrations out of Norman Rockwell’s wet dreams, are we just kidding ourselves? Are we romanticizing the past, especially when it comes to food?
We decided to find out, by recreating three historically accurate recipes for dishes that would traditionally be served during the holidays in centuries past. I enlisted the aid of two friends who are excellent cooks and commandeered the astonishingly well-appointed kitchen of one of them to conduct our experiment. My friend Janet has worked as a professional chef and can resuscitate a deflated soufflé, while my friend Liz is a walking Pinterest board who makes Martha Stewart look like an amateur blogger.
For expert guidance, I turned to three food historians. From chef Sherry Pocknett of the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, Connecticut, I received a recipe for stuffed pumpkin. A descendant of the Wampanoags who saved the Pilgrims’ bacon that first winter 400 years ago, Pocknett points out, “Indigenous people never celebrated what we now call ‘Thanksgiving’ that happens in November. We did, however, celebrate many thanksgivings throughout the year, such as green corn thanksgiving in August, strawberry thanksgiving in May, herring thanksgiving at the end of March, et cetera.”
From Kathleen Wall, the Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, I received a recipe for minced pie, although she pointed out that in Plimoth in 1621, Gov. William Bradford told everyone to get back to work instead of observing the holiday, and that back then, Christmas was a season, not just a day. “Twelfth Night was the big one. But in any case, this recipe is really more of a ‘Meanwhile, back in England…’ ”
Ryan Beckman, food historian at Old Sturbridge Village, forwarded a recipe for potted pigeon, pointing out, “The pigeon receipt [sic] is something that would be common in early 19th-century Boston. It could be interesting, due to the difficulty of finding passenger pigeons (they’re extinct). But even cooking and eating whole squab is a strange thing nowadays, and there’s a gross-out factor, as well as it being just outright inconvenient.”
Armed with ambiguous directions, written in vague and arcane language, I went about sourcing the ingredients, some of which necessitated 21st-century substitutes—squab for pigeon, lamb for mutton. Thankfully, though, I didn’t have to hunt, forage, grow, trap, skin, pluck or gut anything. As ugly as the Whole Foods parking lot gets, it had most of what I needed, and gourmet food purveyor Savenor’s provided game that matched my requirements as closely as anything in this day and age could.
“Ungapatchka” is the Yiddish term for something overly ornate, laborious and fussy, and I’m not sure if the Wampanoags had an equivalent term, but their recipe for stuffed pumpkin certainly qualifies. The 14 major ingredients—onion, garlic, cubed venison, wild rice, brown rice, white rice, whole kernel corn, kidney beans, butternut squash, sunchokes, dried cranberries, whole cranberries, scallions and maple syrup—have to be prepped separately and then assembled into a stew, then stuffed into a roasted pumpkin. It sounded like a lot of work. But it also sounded delicious.
With 51 Halloweens under my belt, it takes me no time to gut a pumpkin, but when I arrayed the remaining ingredients before me and reviewed the steps it would take to combine them, I was gob-smacked by the idea that any 17th-century indigenous person had that much counter space. The venison, cubed for a stew, leaked blood in Liz’s refrigerator, causing a 10-minute delay, during which her 9-year-old daughter, Isabelle, asked, “What time will you be done?” It was 3 pm. Optimistically, I said, “Seven.”
Then I tried to figure out which of the other ingredients should be cooked first. I roasted the sunchokes and squash while boiling the three different types of rice, as well as the kidney beans. Then the pumpkins went into the oven. Because fresh cranberries and corn weren’t available, I used frozen and set those out to thaw while Janet chopped garlic and onion, browned them and began sauteing the venison, then letting it simmer in beef broth. The process was both time-consuming and labor-intensive, claiming no fewer than five pots on three burners, plus two ovens.
With those ingredients under way, we turned our attention to the minced pie and potted pigeons, but it was the stuffed pumpkin that took the longest. When it was finished, it looked absolutely gorgeous and smelled superb. There was little direction in the recipe as to seasoning, and I’m guessing the Wampanoags didn’t have Liz’s encyclopedic and alphabetized spice rack, so I didn’t want to make any assumptions. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I wish I’d heeded the advice of all my chef friends who constantly instruct me to taste as I go along, and seasoned it more.
The verdict, from my husband, Sam: “It’s bland, but it would be a great dinner party dish. The presentation is gorgeous. We just need to tweak the ratio of ingredients and rethink the seasoning.”
And for the record: When I looked at my watch, it was 7 pm on the dot.
Minced meat pie was my grandfather’s favorite dessert, but by the 20th century, the filling—generally canned—didn’t contain any actual meat.
We had two recipes courtesy of Plimoth Plantation, one from A Propre new booke of Cokery, published in 1545, and one from the 1623 edition of Gervase Markham’s English Huswife. Both called for mutton (which we replaced with lamb loin) and suet (rendered fat, which is now used most often in bird feeders during winter). Markham suggested that the meat be parboiled well, which seemed like an unforgivable thing to do to a perfectly good cut of lamb, so instead, we decided to pan sear and then roast it.
Next, it needed to be minced, as did the suet, an unappetizing brick of congealed white tallow that none of us wanted to touch, let alone cook with. The lamb loin came out of the oven smelling heavenly, and it was heartbreaking to think we had to shred it somehow.
“I need a knife and cutting board to mince this,” I bravely told Liz, who countered, “Please. That’s what the Cuisinart is for.”
While Liz shredded the meat and suet and made dough from scratch (for pies, she’s partial to Martha Stewart’s recipe for classic French pâte brisée), Janet chopped up the raisins, dates and prunes. The recipe called for “orange pills,” prompting Janet to say “Klonopin is kind of orange,” and she was disappointed to learn that “pills” meant “peel,” or zest. Fearing that the filling would be too dry, she decided to macerate the fruit in a very healthy dose of rum, mumbling, “Puritans, be damned!”
After assembling the pie, Sam gave the top an egg wash, and we put it in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour. It emerged looking delicious, but opinions were divided. Sam liked it; Janet loved it. Liz abstained, while Peter, her husband, and I both found it too bitter and too sweet. One thing we could all agree on, though, was that a single slice would be enough to get anyone wasted, because the rum didn’t really cook off, and it was difficult to limit Isabelle and her sister Zoe to a single bite.
Janet took what was left of it home.
The least appealing-sounding recipe was the potted pigeons, which came courtesy of The American Frugal Housewife, an 1833 cookbook by Bostonian Lydia Maria Child. It was also the simplest. I stuffed each squab with a slice of salt pork and stuffing made from oyster crackers, butter, eggs and sweet marjoram. Then I doused them with flour, placed them in a pot, covered them in water, threw in some more butter and set them to simmer on the stove for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Not long after the squabs started cooking, they started to give off a heavenly aroma.
“They’d better be good,” I said. “Each one of those damned birds cost $23.”
When they were done, Janet looked at them with a shudder and said, “They look so disgustingly fetal. They’re like little homunculi.”
Despite the less-than-appealing visuals and the shockingly bland recipe, they were quite delicious. “The stuffing tastes like matzo balls,” Isabelle declared, which prompted Sam to opine, “They’re perfect for Hanukkah!”
Meanwhile, it was Taco Tuesday, and the girls’ au pair was trying to get them to sit down and eat.
“You need to eat your dinner,” Liz said sternly.
“But, Momma,” Zoe protested, “I didn’t know there was gonna be squab!”
Zoe ate three wings, and the rest of us picked the birds clean, but perhaps most telling of all: The potted pigeon was the only dish that Monty, the black lab, tried to get at.
So what did we learn from all this? That the good old days weren’t too bad, at least when it came to cooking, and never to judge a “receipt” by its cover. But I’ll bet if you dropped a Cuisinart into the hands of a pilgrim, they’d first curse it as a tool of Satan and then wonder how they’d ever lived without it.
1 8- to 10-pound pumpkin
2 tablespoons sunflower oil or olive oil
2 pounds of cubed venison stew meat
1 large onion roughly chopped
4 chopped garlic cloves
11/2 cup wild rice, cooked
11/2 cup brown rice, cooked
11/2 cup white rice, cooked
1 cup whole kernel corn
1 cup kidney beans
1 cup cubed butternut squash, cooked
1 cup diced sunchokes, cooked
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup whole cranberries
1 cup minced scallion
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Optional: 1/2 cup toasted and salted pumpkin seeds
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut top from the pumpkin, remove the strings and set aside the seeds.
Place the pumpkin on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for 25 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let stand.
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the venison cubes, onion and garlic to the skillet, stirring occasionally for 1-2 minutes until browned. Add enough water to cover the meat, onions and garlic and turn the heat to low. Place a cover on the skillet and let simmer for approximately 45-60 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
In a large bowl combine the following: all the rices, corn, beans, squash, sunchokes, both cranberries and maple syrup.
In a separate small skillet add 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil and saute scallions for 1-2 minutes.
Mix all the ingredients together and stuff them back into the pumpkin and serve. Use the toasted and salted pumpkin seeds as an optional garnish. Serves 10 to 12 people.
Rather leave the cooking to a pro? Try chef Sherry Pocknett’s turtle soup, venison burgers and other fare inspired by Native American culinary traditions at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum’s Pequot Cafe. 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, Connecticut (800-411-9671) pequotmuseum.org
Take a Leg of Mutton, and cut the best of the best flesh from the bone, and parboyle it well: then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet, and shred it very small: then spred it abroad, and season it with pepper and salt, cloues and mace: then put in good store of currants, great raysons and prunes cleane washt and pickt, a few dates slic’t, and some orange pills slic’t: then being all well mixt together, put into a coffin, or into diuers coffins, and so bake them: and when they are serued vp open the liddes, and strow store of suger on the top of the meat, and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also bake Beefe or Veale; onely the Beefe would not be parboyled, and the Veale will aske a double quantitie of suet.
From Gervase Markham’s English Huswife, 1623
Rather leave the cooking to a pro? Party like it’s 1627 at a Harvest Dinner with the Pilgrims, held on several dates in November at Plimoth Plantation. 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth (508-746-1622) plimoth.org
Pigeons may be either roasted, potted, or stewed. Potting is the best, and the least trouble. After they are thoroughly picked and cleaned, put a small slice of salt pork and a little ball of stuffing into the body of every pigeon. The stuffing should be made of one egg to one cracker, an equal quantity of suet, or butter, seasoned with sweet marjoram, or sage, if marjoram cannot be procured. Flour the pigeons well, lay them close together in the bottom of the pot, just cover them with water, throw in a bit of butter, and let them stew an hour and a quarter, if young; an hour and three quarters, if old. Some people turn off the liquor just before they are done, and brown the pigeons on the bottom of the pot; but this is very troublesome, as they are apt to break to pieces.
From Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife, 1833
Rather leave the cooking to a pro? Tuck into a 19th-century tavern meal, complete with a lesson on old-timey table manners, at one of Old Sturbridge Village’s Hearthside Bounty dinners. 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge (800-733-1830) osv.org