“A Fashionably Sweet Dinner”

Over at the Journal of the American Revolution, they have posted what looks like a delicious dinner using old recipes with a few changes.  I know that I want to try some of these foods!

Over the course of time, many fashions change.  The hem lines on women’s skirts rise and fall, folks give up hula-hooping for jogging, and emus replace llamas as the trendy exotic livestock to raise.

So it is with food fashions, as well.  Reading “receipt books” – cookbooks – of the Revolutionary era, one is struck by the many changing trends in cooking.  Puddings are often savory main-course dishes, and are frequently tied up in a cloth and steamed.  In meats, much of what we today grind up and use in dog food or bologna was routinely used in the kitchen.  The spices called for in these recipes are, for the most part, familiar, although they’re used in unfamiliar ways and sometimes called by unfamiliar names.

For example, “Jamaica pepper” (allspice) does, indeed, look like peppercorns (“Siam pepper”), although, of course, allspice has a completely different flavor from black pepper – and you wouldn’t want to confuse the two in a recipe!  More importantly, the ways in which these spices are used has seen some change over the past couple of hundred years, and today’s menu reflects some of those changes.

We’re going to explore how sweet and savory have shifted from being part of a continuum of flavors as used on the Revolutionary table, to having pretty strictly-defined roles today.  Where sweet spices and sweetened dishes are largely confined to the dessert menu today, they were used throughout the meal then.

Furthermore, sugar was quite dear, and much more difficult to use, as it was generally supplied in hard loaves of white sugar or very large cones of brown sugar, from which the cook had to carve the appropriately-sized chunk, hand-grinding it to powder in order to make it usable in a recipe.  Molasses and maple syrup were widely used, but these have distinctive flavors of their own, and so are not simply substitutes for the cheap, easily-used granulated white sugar in your countertop canister.

So our main course will use somewhat more sweet spicing than a modern palate expects, and the dessert course will be somewhat less sugared.  The side dish gets a sweetness boost from being made from sweet potatoes, and dessert uses barley in a dish where we would not today expect to see it.

Read the recipes here.

-Phil

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Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Historical Finds, Thoughts from Other Historians

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