Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Wilder Wednesday: Drinking from the Saucer

Eliza Jane was more bossy than ever. She said Almanzo’s boots made too much noise. She even told Mother that she was mortified because Father drank tea from his saucer.

“My land! how else would he cool it?” Mother asked.

“It isn’t the style to drink out of saucers any more,” Eliza Jane said. “Nice people drink out of the cup.”

“Eliza Jane!” Alice cried. “Be ashamed! I guess Father’s as nice as anybody!”

Mother actually stopped working. She took her hands out of the dishpan and turned round to face Eliza Jane.

“Young lady,” she said, “if you have to show off your fine education, you tell me where saucers come from.”

Eliza Jane opened her mouth, and shut it, and looked foolish.

“They come from China,” Mother said. “Dutch sailors brought them from China, two hundred years ago, the first time sailors ever sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and found China. Up to that time, people drank out of cups; they didn’t have saucers. Ever since they’ve had saucers, they’ve drunk out of them. I guess a thing that folks have done for two hundred years we can keep on doing. We’re not likely to change, for a new-fangled notion that you’ve got in Malone Academy.”

That shut up Eliza Jane.

~From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

 This was the first, and for a long time, only, reference to drinking from a saucer that I’ve ever come across. Mother Wilder’s history was a bit faulty: Europeans first explored China in the 1516, when the Portuguese explorer (and cousin of Columbus) Rafael Perestrello landed on the southern coast of mainland China and traded in Guangzhou. I think what Mother Wilder had in mind was the United East Indian Company, a Dutch-chartered trading company that had a trade monopoly with China in the 1600s.

 Another reference to drinking from the saucer can be found in Tom Brown’s School Days, a British novel written by Thomas Hughes in 1857:

“Well, I wish I were alongside of him,” said Tom. “If I can’t be at Rugby I want to be at work in the world, and not dawdling away three years at Oxford.”

“What do you mean by ‘at work in the world’?” said the master, pausing, with his lips close to his saucerful of tea, and peering at Tom over it.

“Well, I mean real work; one’s profession; whatever one will have really to do, and make one’s living by. I want to be doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world,” answered Tom, rather puzzled to find out himself what he really did mean.

“You are mixing up two very different things in your head, I think, Brown,” said the master, putting down his empty saucer, “and you ought to get clear about them.”

 Cups and saucers have been used since the Middle Ages, and I could find no definitive answer about whether they drank from the saucer as well as the cup, or when that habit began. But it certainly was common in Russia and Scandinavia for many years. In fact, in Sweden, they not only sipped from the saucer after purposely overfilling the cup, but sipped the beverage through a lump of sugar held in the front teeth, a custom called “dricka på bit” or “drink with a lump.” While there are people who remember their elderly, usually rural, ancestors drinking this way, it seems to have fallen out of favor in the 20th century. It was still a common enough practice in 1914 to be portrayed in a painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

 tea-drinking-by-konstantin-makovsky-1914

Drinking from the saucer was not confined to Europe. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson returned from France to find Congress organized into two parts, he asked George Washington why there needed to be a Senate. Washington answered with another question: “Why do you pour tea into your saucer?” Jefferson answered, “To cool it.” “Just so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” See, the Federal Convention felt that the members of the House were too emotional, so the Senate was formed to have “cooler heads” prevail. This story is anecdotal, but does show that using the saucer to cool the tea was a familiar custom here in America.

I’ll leave you with a poem by John Paul Moore:

 Drinking From The Saucer

I’ve never made a fortune,
And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter
‘Cause I’m happy anyhow

As I go along my journey
I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

I don’t have a lot of riches,
And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me
I think I’m rich enough

I thank God for the blessings
That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

He gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for
I’m already blessed enough

May we never be too busy
To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer
When our cups have overflowed

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Wilder Wednesday – How ‘Bout Them Apples

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House series of books.

“Pie!” said Pa, and, “Apple pie!” said Mr. Boast. “Jumping Jehoshaphat, I wish I’d known this was coming!”
Slowly they each ate a piece of that apple pie, and Pa and Mr. Boast divided the one piece left over.
“I never hope to eat a better Christmas dinner,” said Mr. Boast, with a deep sigh of fullness.
By the Shores of Silver Lake ~Laura Ingalls Wilder

The above pie was made from dried apples found in the surveyor’s house, but did you know that Pa later grew apples and plums on his farm in De Smet? On the 7th of May, 1886, Pa listed “apple trees, bearing; plum tress bearing small fruit in abundance, about 6000 fruit trees” as improvements to his homestead. Fruit trees generally have to be at least four or five years old to begin bearing, so Pa had been raising these trees for a few years.

pa hs proof

Laura and Almanzo had an apple orchard, too, on their farm, Rocky Ridge, in Mansfield. When they purchased the farm, there were “800 apple trees on it growing in nursery rows. Two hundred had been set out the spring before…”*

With lots of work and care, seven years later the Wilders had beautiful, delicious apples. Almanzo said that “my Ben Davis are different from any I have ever seen in being better colored and flavored and in the texture of the flesh.”* Most of the apples grown on Rocky Ridge were the Ben Davis variety; some were Missouri Pippin.

AJ apple

Almanzo in front of one of his apple trees.

At one time, Ben Davis apples were among the most popular grown in the US, but it more for the advantage of growers and sellers than consumers, since they were usually considered to be a dry and flavorless variety. There was even a joke that if you put Ben Davis apples in a cider press, “the Davies would soak up the cider.” However, it was a hardy breed with a long growing season. In addition, they were thick-skinned and did not show bruising as much as other varieties after shipping.

BenDavis

Ben Davis variety of apple

Although Almanzo seemed extra proud of his Ben Davis apples, it was his Pippins that won a prize at the Wright County Fair in 1922.

1922 10 19 pippin

Pippins are a lighter fruit than many other apple varieties. They are crunchy, juicy, and slightly sweet.

apple_missouripippin

Missouri Pippin variety of apple

Almanzo claimed to be a novice orchard man when he acquired the apple orchard on Rocky Ridge, but he evidently had some experience with them. This quote is from Farmer Boy:
The apples were ripe. Almanzo and Royal and Father set ladders against the trees, and climbed into the leafy tops. They picked every perfect apple carefully, and laid it in a basket. Father drove the wagonful of baskets slowly to the house, and Almanzo helped carry the baskets down cellar and lay the apples carefully in the apple-bins. They didn’t bruise one apple, for a bruised apple will rot, and one rotten apple will spoil a whole bin.

Apples were eaten fresh, made into sauce, or baked into pies. Apple pie is something that I loved growing up, when all I had was what my mom made. Since then, I’ve tasted many, many versions of the all-American dessert, but none come close to Mom’s. In honor of Pa and Almanzo, here is her recipe, which has also won at the county fair.

Mom’s Sky-High Apple Pie

For the pastry: Refrigerate all ingredients, and the mixing bowl, pastry cutter, and mixing spoon for at least 2 hours before beginning. (I’ve learned that cold ingredients are key to a light, flaky crust.)
3 c. flour
1 t. salt
1 T. sugar
½ c. shortening (or lard)
½ c. butter
1 egg, beaten and halved
1 T. lemon juice
1/3 c. ice water

Mix the dry ingredients. Cut into shortening and butter until mixture resembles peas. Stir in ½ egg and lemon juice. (Reserve remaining egg for glazing the top crust before baking.) Sprinkle with water, using just enough to cause dough to stick together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill. When ready to use, divide in half and roll out. Line a large pie plate with one crust. (Hint: to prevent a doughy bottom crust, you can pre-bake the bottom for about 5 minutes before filling. This isn’t usually done with fruit pies, but it does make a difference.)

For the filling:
8 c. apple slices – different apple varieties produce different tastes. Granny Smiths are tart; I prefer McIntosh, Gala, or Pippins (Laura would approve).
1 ½ T. lemon juice
1 c. sugar
½ c. instant oats
1 egg
2 t. cinnamon
¾ t. nutmeg
⅓ c. butter
extra 1 T. milk, sugar and cinnamon
Combine everything but the butter and extras, and pour into the bottom crust you’ve prepared. Dot generously with butter. Top with remaining crust, fluting edges to seal. Slit top crust to vent. Mix the reserved ½ egg with extra 1 T. milk and use to glaze the crust, then sprinkle lightly with extra sugar and cinnamon.
Place pie on a thin, foil-lined baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Let cool at least 10 minutes before slicing. Best with ice cream!

*A.J. Wilder, “My Apple Orchard,” Missouri Ruralist, June 1, 1912. (Note: the byline on this article is A.J. Wilder. Most LIW scholars agree that Laura actually wrote it. I remain unconvinced.)

Wilder Wednesday – Party Time

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series.

The table was set prettily with Ma’s best white cloth and the blue pitcher full of flowers. The benches were drawn up on either side of it. Shiny tin cups were full of cold, creamy milk from the cellar, and the big platter was heaped with honey-colored vanity cakes.
The cakes were not sweet, but they were rich and crisp, and hollow inside. Each one was like a great bubble. The crisp bits of it melted on the tongue.
They ate and ate of those vanity cakes. They said they had never tasted anything so good, and they asked Ma what they were.
“Vanity cakes,” said Ma. “Because they are all puffed up, like vanity, with nothing solid inside.”
There were so many vanity cakes that they ate till they could eat no more, and they drank all the sweet, cold milk they could hold. Then the party was over.   ~On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Do you like a good party? If so, you’re not the only one. Laura Ingalls Wilder did, too. In fact, she was quite imaginative with her party ideas.

Sometimes Laura made a party of regular club meetings. At one such occasion, she held an “international luncheon” and served whale meat sandwiches, home-made cheese, French-style strawberry preserves, candy from Switzerland, bread and butter sandwiches, and coffee.*
I had never heard of “French-style” preserves, so I looked it up online. Evidently, that means no pectin was used; just berries and sugar, and possibly a little water.

jam2
I’m pretty sure the whale meat and Swiss candy were compliments of Rose. Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was an international traveler and writer. I’ll have posts on her in the future.

rose

Rose Wilder Lane

At another meeting, Laura held a gypsy-themed party. The local newspaper reported that “Gypsy costumes and customs prevailed…A gypsy tent and camp fires, fortune tellers, ghosts and ghost stories, and outdoor and indoor sports contributed to the pleasures of the evening.” Of course, “appropriate refreshments were served.”**
I wonder what refreshments would be appropriate to a gypsy-themed party?

Both of those parties were thrown for a meeting of the Justamere Club, a club that Laura helped establish in 1919. They met monthly in members’ homes on a rotating basis and discussed cultural interests such as literature, music, and art. The official song of the club was written by Laura. It was titled “We Are All Good Friends,” and was set to music by Jean Jacques Marquis Du Chatelard Chateau, a friend of Rose’s who had visited Mansfield the previous fall. Laura served as the group’s President in 1921. She was very active in this club, and when it was her turn to host, Laura often made a real party of it.

Another organization Laura belonged to also inspired a party: the Order of the Eastern Star. Here’s the newspaper account of a surprise party Laura held for that group:

1917 oes party

Again, I wonder about the food. (Do you get the feeling that I love good food? You’d be correct!) The colors of the Star are blue, yellow, white, green, and red. Blueberries are the first thing to come to my mind for the blue, but this party was held in January; Laura probably did not have fresh berries. Perhaps she had some preserved, French-style. What foods would you use to fill the bill?

In 1920, Laura threw a birthday party for Rose—even though Rose was in Europe. Other than the guest of honor, it had all the things parties normally have: food, music, fellowship. Photos of Rose placed all around the room constituted the decoration. The main events of the evening were reading letters Rose had written to Laura describing her travels, and writing letters to Rose. Laura packaged all the messages together and sent them as a Christmas gift to her daughter.****
I never would have thought of having a party for someone who wasn’t there, but Laura could always come up with an idea for a party.

I opened this post with a quote from On the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura was asked many times about vanity cakes, but she said she never learned how to make them. Never fear, however; some kind soul in De Smet concocted a recipe for us to try. I haven’t attempted these; have you?

vanitycake

If you could go to one of Laura’s parties, which one would it be? Does it inspire you to have a party of your own?

*1-12-1922 issue of the Mansfield Mirror, Mansfield MO
** 9-29-1921 issue of the Mansfield Mirror, Mansfield MO
***1-11-1917 issue of the Mansfield Mirror, Mansfield MO
****12-2-1920 issue of the Mansfield Mirror, Mansfield MO

Wilder Wednesday – Venison

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book series.

Pa had shot the deer the day before and Laura had been asleep when he brought them home at night and hung them high in the trees so the wolves could not get the meat.
That day Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary had fresh venison for dinner. It was so good that Laura wished they could eat it all. But most of the meat must be salted and smoked and packed away to be eaten in the winter.
~Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

I don’t think I’ve met anyone who read the Little House books that didn’t remember all the food. With the exception of Farmer Boy (which is more like a food orgy), it was often in short supply, but even then life revolved around it. Growing it, hunting it, canning or drying it or otherwise preserving it, cooking or baking it, and eating it: these occupations took up much of the Ingalls family’s time.

The very first food mentioned in the books is venison (above). I grew up on venison, and love it. But I’ve found that if someone is not familiar with cooking it, it often turns out tough and/or gamey; then, that someone decides that venison is nasty. And, sadly, what they cooked was.

When properly prepared, venison is tender and tasty. It has about one third the fat, cholesterol, and calories of beef, equivalent protein, and higher vitamin content.

So how should you prepare venison so that it is as good as Laura said? As with beef—or any other meat, for that matter—it depends on the cut.

The best cut of venison is the backstrap. That’s the muscle that runs down each side of the spine. It should be sliced cross-grain into pieces about a centimeter thick (a little less than half an inch). Place the slices in a shallow pan and cover with buttermilk (whole milk will also work). Refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to overnight. The fat in the milk absorbs the gamey odors, and the lactic acid and calcium both act as tenderizers by breaking down the proteins and softening the collagen.

Some people marinate venison & other meats in vinegar. I do not like this for two reasons. One is that vinegar is a different and stronger type of acid, which oxidizes the myoglobin in the meat. Oxidation is unhealthy (which is why we all try to take antioxidants). It can also cause oxidation in the fat (although there’s not much fat in venison), which turns it rancid. And two, the flavor of venison soaked in milk is much nicer than venison in vinegar, since it’s less gamey.

Some people also season the milk, but personally I find that unnecessary.

So, you’ve sliced and soaked the venison. Now give the slices a quick rinse and lay them on paper towels. Cover with another paper towel and let it sit out for about an hour. This is because cold meat doesn’t sear as well. Throw the milk out, of course.

Now sprinkle the venison slices with seasoned flour (salt & pepper only!) and pan fry in a bit of oil.

meatuse
That’s all there is to it. Fried backstrap with fried eggs & potatoes and fresh homegrown tomatoes. Yum! That’s my all-time favorite meal in the world.
meal
Of course, we often had it with vegetables for dinner, too. Sometimes, Mom would batter it like chicken before frying. That was really good also, especially with gravy.

My second favorite way to have venison is smoked. Laura describes how her family cut the meat into strips, seasoned them, and hung them in a “smokehouse”(hollow tree onto which Pa had built a roof). We did the same thing when I was growing up. Once, the smokehouse caught on fire. That was a terrible year: we had no jerky or dried sausage.

Little House in the Big Woods

from Little House in the Big Woods

We also had roasted venison, ground venison, and venison sausage (made with the addition of pork, since venison is too lean on its own).

Now I’m really hungry.

Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories discusses venison, and all the other wonderful foods of the Little House books.

Have you ever had venison? How do you prepare it?