This year I shan’t do much cooking for Thanksgiving. Much more fun to read about it. And eat someone else’s.
There were many pitfalls in assembling the ingredients for an early nineteenth century feast, especially if one lived in an urban environment. Never mind the actual cooking.
For instance, I use Irish butter for baking because it’s so flavorful and seems to produce lighter, flakier biscuits and such. A Regency-era cook would have chosen a different variety:
In examining tub butter, and particularly the Irish, look at and smell to the outside next to the cask, which is often white in appearance like tallow, and quite rank (!) in smell.
But cooks both past and present would agree young turkeys are best for roasting. Mature turkeys (more than eight months old) went into the stew pot or a casserole. It took a knowledgeable housekeeper in Jane Austen’s day to avoid being snookered into purchasing a tough old bird.
“..the toes and bills, if (the bird) be young, will be soft and pliable, but will feel hard and stiff if old.”
One also had to ferret out unscrupulous cheesemongers. These were merchants who stuck brass pins into cheese rounds to create the appearance of blue mold, and thus market the product as aged.
And beware bad eggs:
“If fresh, (the egg) will feel warm when the tongue is applied to the biggest end ; but if stale, it will be cold. An egg, when quite fresh, will sink at once when put into cold water; but if rotten, it will swim.”
Young peas with pearl onions are a Thanksgiving favorite–in our household, at least. But before modern methods of preservation, one had to labor to keep the vegetable green weeks after harvesting. The technique involves boiling them when fresh, then drying them with a cloth.
“..set them once or twice in a cool oven to harden a little; after which put them into paper bags, and hang them up in the kitchen for use. — To prepare them when wanted, they are first to be soaked well for an hour or more, and then put into warm water and boiled with a little butter.”
We drink both white and red wines at Thanksgiving. Sometimes rosé. The array of wines at a Georgian-era dinner table was impressive: gooseberry, strawberry, raspberry, elderberry, mulberry and blackberry. Red, black and white currant. Birch, spruce and juniper. Cherry, morella, peach, apple, orange, lemon, parsnip and quince. From honey: white mead, walnut, cider white and cowslip. Raisin (tastes like sherry!) Ginger, rhubarb, sage, gilliflower and turnip. Barley and sycamore. Rose and fig.
“To make juniper berry wine: Take of cold soft water, 18 gallons; Malaga or Smyrna raisins, 35 lbs.; juniper berries, 9 quarts; red tartar, 4 ounces; wormwood and sweet marjoram, each 2 handfuls; British spirit, two quarts, or more. Ferment for ten or twelve days. — This will make eighteen gallons.”
Nowadays they say the juniper berry will cure that ‘cedar fever’ wintertime allergy.
Pies, of course, are a traditional part of the Thanksgiving feast. I serve
store-bought pecan and pumpkin. Meat pie recipes attributed to favorite Pride and Prejudice characters abound on the internet. A fruit pie would not ordinarily grace Mr. Darcy’s table but I did find a recipe from his time period for a lemon pie. It is neither meringue nor pudding, but a tart embellished with icing.
It takes two weeks to make:
Over the course of a fortnight, soak six lemons (oranges may be substituted) initially in salt water, to be changed out for fresh. Afterwards, boil and cut the fruit into thin slices. Add the liquor of six pippins (dessert apples pared, cored and quartered, boiled in a pint of water) to the lemon or orange juice. Boil the mixture in a pound of sugar for fifteen minutes.
“…then put them into a pot and squeeze in two spoonsful of the juice of either orange or lemon, according to the kind of tart; put puff paste, very thin, into shallow patty-pans. Take a brush, and rub them over with melted butter, sift double refined sugar over them, which will form a pretty iceing, and bake them.”
Quotes taken from: The Complete Servant, being a Practical Guide to the peculiar Duties and Business of all descriptions of Servants.., by Samuel and Sarah Adams (1825)
The authors state they served various well-to-do families for a combined total of fifty years.