Cooking Up the Past: How to Bring New England Succotash, Penny Loaf Pudding, and Oyster Pie into Your Kitchen

Honey, How old is that fish in the fridge?

The cod? I think it’s from 1856.

That’s how I imagine dinnertime conversation in the home of Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald.

The food of colonial America never held a special fascination for me until I stumbled upon their recently published, Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England.

The book, combined with the authors’ blog, serves up a fascinating main course in pre- and post-colonial history, with an equally intriguing side dish of archaic recipes, and modern-day adaptations with step-by-step instructions.

The husband-and-wife team of Stavely and Fitzgerald – librarians turned kitchen sleuths – wisely preserve the sometimes mysterious language of the original recipes, while offering translation and commentary.

Keith Stavely dishes up a plate of colonial America. His new book is full of archaic language, culinary curiosities and fascinating historical footnotes.

They take the same approach to updating the recipes: moving them from the fragile pages of dusty books and the confines of historic preservation museums to the modern kitchen. But they stay true to the spirit of the page. If the recipe says to smother a lamb shoulder with butter, toss oysters into a chicken pot pie, or add lard to the pie crust, by God, that’s what they reach for.

Take Manchet bread, for instance, a 1615 light wheat loaf. Keith and Kathleen provide historical context for the recipe, and a bit of personality about the recipe’s author (in this case, an aristocrat). Incidentally, the scarcity of wheat back then would have made this a rare treat both in England and the newly-settled colonies.

So here we are, exactly 400 years later, and the duo is happy to report that the bread is still worth the effort: “a perfect balance between the lightness of white bread and the firmness of whole wheat…virtually irresistible.”

The blog also scores points for clarity of recipes. Photos illustrate the detailed instructions every step of the way – sufficiently simple even for a baking novice like me. Keith and Kathleen write well (another plus), and provide entertaining translations for such archaic instructions as “scorcht [the dough] about the wast;” that is, lightly cut all around the circumference with a sharp knife.

While every effort is taken to replicate the original recipe, the couple are not strict reenactors; they are not out to duplicate the process down to the smallest detail. They wisely employ their standing mixer to form a “well mowlded” dough, or in the case of roasted scrod, a Weber grill to replace their lack of fireplace and hearth.

The Cambridge transplants, who now live in Jamestown, R.I., were at the Newton Library last week, where they talked colonial cuisine, and generously shared tastes of Amelia Simmons’ Plumb Cake from 1796, topped with fresh whipped cream. Attendance at their fairly frequent speaking gigs is highly recommended (See schedule here).

Kathleen Fitzgerald cuts into a Plumb Cake that first appeared here in 1796. She’s proving that old recipes can teach us plenty about our country’s founders and food habits, as well as be adapted to modern kitchens.

The aforementioned scrode (1850) and bread, along with Marlborough Pudding Pie (1796) and several other dishes, can be found in their delightful Northern Hospitality cookbook, here, as well as at their cookbook blog, here.

More to come on this fascinating project.

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