I sit on the screened porch of the Summer kitchen at White Cottage Farm in New Hampshire, looking at Lake Sunapee beneath the gentler hills to the east of Mount Sunapee, which is visible with its summer “striped” ski trails if I look to my right. I sit on one of a half-dozen black café chairs purchased by a family member from some discount chain store. I write on a Macbook Air, perched atop a table that appears to most in the family to be a financially and historically worthless piece that’s to be covered with a checkered oilcloth tablecloth and used for dining—which, I suppose, may have been its original purpose. The table, however, is called a “chair table” and dates from the early 1800s—likely a gift passed down from the older generation from their home in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The sun warms my face and feels so good I don’t mind squinting to see my computer screen. I’m listening to the birdcalls and watching the leaves on the Aspen shimmer in the morning breeze. I’m looking at my husband Charlie’s Great Aunt Avis’s overgrown herb garden, the one that provided the fodder for her cottage industry of selling herbs, jellies, vinegars, and condiments in the 1940s and 50s. I just watched my crow friend soar in and land on the branch of a nearby maple. I’m drinking coffee made in a Mr. Coffee with pre-ground beans purchased at Hannaford and poured into a mug that’s been sitting on the mug shelf for at least thirty years. I’m looking forward to scrambled eggs for breakfast. Had I wanted, I could have ground my own beans in a wall-mounted grinder and boiled my morning necessity in the old percolator. When it’s time to cook the eggs, I could scramble them in the non-stick frying pan on the electric stove, or I could retrieve from the Winter kitchen Aunt Avis’s old egg-cooker with its heavy metal body and ancient brown-speckled fabric cord, complete with Bakelite plug.
I was privileged to make many visits to White Cottage Farm when Aunt Avis was still her vibrant and eccentric self, full of stories of mountaineering all over the world with her brother Charlie, and fond memories of her nephew Bill’s creation of the original Queen Mab’s Fairy Forest in the woods between the farmhouse and the lake. Sadly, I never met Uncle Gerald, a native Vermonter, whose favorite pastime was fishing for trout and perch. Each morning of our visit, Aunt Avis would invite us to her breakfast table in the Winter kitchen where she cooked soft-boiled eggs in her egg-cooker, and offered bacon and weak coffee. After the repast and long conversation, and looking forward to a swim, Charlie and I would hurry to wash the dishes in the kitchen sink that’s still actually housed in the living room closet (one of many unusual aspects of the Winter kitchen that defy logic).
Aunt Avis liked the Winter kitchen and the rest of the original farmhouse the best, but I have always been partial to the summer parts of the house, built in the 1930s along the foundations of the sheds that served the farmhouse. I spend the majority of my time in the Summer kitchen and on its porch. I like the pine paneling on the ceiling and walls that’s aged to a warm golden brown. I like looking at the long strings that criss-cross the ceiling, attached by cup hooks and still holding up dozens of clothespins used for drying herbs long ago. I like the pair of fat mama and papa cookie jars that occupy a high shelf along with the old tins labeled “Leaf Lard” and “Flour,” and the wooden pails and woven baskets and aluminum molds that hang from the walls on nails. I like the faded old drop-leaf table that sits under the window and offers a place for people to sit a piece and visit with whomever is cooking.
This essay started out with the title, “The Old and the New.” I intended to write about the simultaneously conflicting and harmonious aspects of the old and the new at White Cottage Farm, but I got distracted. When I stood in the Summer kitchen to inspire my description of the old and the new there, I found myself looking at the cookbooks stored above a shelf labeled with black marker on a piece of masking tape,“Tumblers.” My interest in old and new gradually honed in on one book, The Yankee Cookbook (1939) by Imogene Wolcott.
In old times, the cooking hearth was a genial gathering place. Even when hearths gave way to wood-fired stoves big enough to bake pies and breads and stews all at once, families and pets would gather there. Though White Cottage Farm’s Summer kitchen lacks an actual hearth or wood-fired stove, it retains the spirit of genial gathering, and I love it. Perhaps because Charlie and I are “kitchen people.”
When we have friends to visit us in our 1781 house, the most socially enjoyable parts of the visits often happen in our tiny kitchen where Charlie has begun preparation of one of the delicious meals he so enjoys serving. At those times, people perch on the two chairs—the most our small table can accommodate—or lean against the counters as the scents of herbs and spices waft around us. A sometimes comical dance occurs as the conversation continues and Charlie reaches for utensils, or butter, or the bottle of wine in the refrigerator, or asks someone, “Can you hand me that spatula?” and everyone shifts places to make room without a break in the conversation. We share drinks and catch up on one another’s news.
An essay by Margaret Carmichael in The Yankee Cookbook, “The Farm Kitchen,” exclaims: “Let the city-folk have their big living-rooms and parlors with their noisy radiators tucked away in corners. What radiator ever baked a crock of beans on a Saturday night, or had an oven door that a man could let down to warm his feet on? In the farm kitchen, where the big black range is, there, also, is the very essence of home.” White Cottage Farm’s kitchen displays a faded antique cross-stich that reads, “Home Sweet Home.” Our kitchen has a framed print that depicts colorful people dancing and the confident statement: “There are things you do because they feel good & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the reason we all are here. To love each other and to eat each others’ cooking & say it was good.” Indeed, some of the old ways, when warmth and love and food and home were interlinked, continue.
So, all that said (in that Yankee way of providing extraordinarily long introductory disquisitions prior to getting to the point), I pulled Wolcott’s book off the shelf. Well-worn, and including Aunt Avis’s notes and page additions tied in with string, the book’s title page reads, “An Anthology of INCOMPARABLE PRECIPES FROM THE SIX NEW ENGLAND STATES and a Little Something about the People whose Tradition for Good Eating is herein permanently recorded BY IMOGENE WOLCOTT.”
I look at the inside cover, illustrated with stage curtains drawn back to reveal each New England state’s insignia. The “stage surround” is decorated with titles of some of the recipes contained within. Instantly, I want to make Maine Molasses Doughnuts, Daniel Webster’s Fish Chowder, Cape Cod Clam Pie and Martha’s Vineyard Quahog Stew. I recoil instinctively at Coot Stew (what is a coot anyway, I wonder?), and I feel compelled to find out what are Holy Pokes, Connecticut Kedegree, Jolly Boys, Scootin’-Long-The-Shore, and Halleluiah. I’m not really a “foodie,” so I have never actually read a cookbook through-and-through, but this one I do.
It’s organized similarly to cookbooks today, divided into chapters on soups and vegetables and types of meats. Yet it also includes a section on the medicinal use of herbs, as well as “beverages” of both the soft and fermented types. Some of these also provide medicinal uses, such as Koumiss which is “made chiefly for convalescents,” and Family Tonic which “Will be found useful in feeble or languid states of the system, colic, hysteria, rheumatism, mortification, and in all violent attacks of disease.” Also different from those in our own kitchen, this one includes ten essays by different people about aspects of New England traditional cooking, a variety of funny little stories and quotes, and photos submitted by contributors. Apparently, there was a contest for best photograph because one of them is labeled, “The Winner!”
Finally, and laughably, given the propensity of Facebook quizzes people so enjoy taking today, each chapter includes a quiz entitled, “R U A Yankee Cook?” Well now, are you? Can you identify the foods crackling, huff juffs, menhaden, or slip-gut? Do you know how to prepare souse, bloaters, bean swagger, and bean-hole beans? Can you describe the purpose of a trencher, piggin, skeel, losset, keeler, and noggin? Can you sing the verse in Yankee Doodle that mentions Hasty Pudding? Can you explain the expressions, “He has too many shingles to the weather,” or “Give her honest measure, but don’t kick the salt?” If this 62-question quiz had been on Facebook, I would likely have been dubbed a “Yankee Cook Imposter” despite my ability to make things like molasses cookies, Indian pudding, and a damned good clam chowdah.
I couldn’t help myself doubting that Coot Stew, Squirrel Pie, and Muskrat Stew were actually popular enough to share pages with recipes from Boston’s famous Parker House, and Godey’s Lady’s Book. Though Boston’s Parker House is now an Omni restaurant and undoubtedly boasts a dramatically different menu, I was delighted to find the recipe for the famous Parker House Rolls my own Yankee Great Aunts ecstatically described. (I actually have in my possession an individual coffee server engraved with the Parker House crest that my impossibly naughty Aunt Bessie nicked from the hotel sometime in the 1930s and gave me when I was in high school!) All these recipes are real. The first instruction for Coot Stew is, “Skin 2 coots (do not pick),” and readers are told that the first step to making Squirrel Pie is to “Dress and cut 4 squirrels into suitable pieces to serve.” Oh my. I shall spare you the gory details of how to dress a squirrel, one suggestion of which involves using a bicycle pump.
The recipe for Squirrel Pie came from Norma Roberts (Bristol, NH), but Laura E. Richards (Gardiner, ME) also offers a simple, three-step squirrel dish called Seminole Soup: “Take a squirrel, cut it up, and put it on to boil. When the soup is nearly done, add to it one pint of picked hickory-nuts and a spoonful of parched and powdered sassafras leaves—or the tender top of a pine tree, which gives a very aromatic flavor to the soup.” Somehow this recipe, along with Bean-Hole Beans (prepared by digging a hole in the ground, building a fire, and placing the beanpot in the hot ashes to cook overnight) offers me the dubious security that I could survive in the wild if necessary and I have with me a good supply of dried beans and a beanpot (don’t all adventurers carry these?). I suppose maybe I could eat a squirrel if I were starving. Mrs. Richards also offers instructions for preparing Muskrat Stew that begin with the warning, “When dressing the muskrat, one must be very careful not to burst the musk bag.” She kindly attributes this recipe to “my good friend, Princess Watawaso, whose father was long Chief of our Penobscot Indians, at their reservation at Oldtown, Maine, and who is herself an admirable and devoted worker with and for her people.” Oh my, again.
In addition to the delicacies already mentioned, I have pocketed the recipes for Fannie Daddies, Boat Steerers, Popdoodle Cake, Hasty Pudding, Rocks, Tipsy Parson, Sea Moss Blanc Mange (yes, made with actual sea moss) and the Brown Bread I grew up eating (though I suspect the homemade kind tastes far better than the canned version my mother bought). I can make a Frozen Bean Porridge to set outside in the winter to freeze, then slice down to cook as needed. I have added to my repertoire, Portable Soup for Travelers, Etc. which is to be “boiled down until it looks thick like glue” and dried into small cakes which supposedly are better the longer they are kept, especially if made in “frosty weather.” I also now know how to make Vermont Scripture Cake whose recipe matches a different bible verse for each ingredient and ends with the instruction, “Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys, Proverbs 23:14”—“Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”—I believe this verse refers to what the cook is meant to do with the listed ingredients, as it is the only actual cooking instruction provided. What leaves me uncertain is whether Mrs. Charles E. Woods was just having some fun when she wrote the recipe, or whether she was the sort of woman no boy would want for a mother!
From this book, I learned that tomatoes were introduced to New England gardens in the late 1700s when they were called “love apples.” I learned that Anadama bread gained its name, supposedly, by a fisherman who had a lazy wife and often had to do is own cooking. He experimented with this result, which he named after his wife, “Anna, damn her.” (Wolcott informs us that “polite society” later modified the name.) And, I finally found out that a coot is a water bird found commonly in Maine. In addition to the Coot Stew recipe offered by Mr. Edward Baily (Hanover, MA), an alternate recipe has been fondly passed on from Mainer to Mainer. “Place the coot in a kettle of water with a red building brick free of mortar and blemishes. Parboil the coot and brick together for 3 hours. Pour off the water, refill the kettle, and again boil for 3 hours. Once more, throw off the water, fill the kettle, and let the coot and brick simmer together overnight. In the morning, throw away the coot and eat the brick.”
My favorite recipe of all is for Old Bachelor’s Doughnuts. Though Wolcott translates for the modern cook and includes molasses (Yes, I can now make Maine Molasses Doughnuts!), the original old Maine recipe for these is also included: “Pour hog’s lard in an old-fashioned iron fry pan, heated ‘til she sputters will do the trick. Then take a deep yellow dish and put in one cup of sugar, and if eggs don’t cost over 2 cents each, put in one and the yolk of another, and put the white away until eggs are worth more. Then add one cup of cow’s milk without anything in it except about a big spoonful of cream and a little salt and nutmeg, then add two teaspoons of tartar and one and a little over of soda in some flour. Then take a big spoon and give her hail Columbia for about 20 seconds. Next find a good clean place to roll them out. Fry one at a time, cut out with a four-quart pail cover and cut the hole with a pint dipper with handle busted, and if you are looking for a housekeeper, take one of the doughnuts, hold it up to the window and call in the first maiden lady who comes in sight and kiss her through the hole and she is yours.” LOL.
It’s time I end this essay, as my friends who occasionally read my blog have been known to comment on their length. Perhaps in another post, I shall reveal to you the secrets of the quiz, and the true nature of some of the oddly named dishes I mention (Let me know if you’re interested).
Before I end, though, (yes, another Yankee habit of extending disquisition from ending to ending, interminably), I want to share one story Wolcott included in the book. At a Rotary Club luncheon, “There was a conversation between a Westerner and a New Englander. In the course of their talk, the Yankee had occasion to use the expression, ‘New England conscience” several times and finally the Westerner, somewhat puzzled, asked him to define it. ‘Well,’ said the Yankee, ‘the way I see it, a New England conscience doesn’t prevent your doing anything, but it does prevent you enjoying it.’”
I suppose, after all, I am a New England imposter (I was raised in Pennsylvania, I admit, in spite of—or because of—my Yankee roots). I have to say that this book gave me extraordinary pleasure to peruse. Yes, I enjoyed it! Each maple-based recipe brought to mind the year I taught my kids to make maple taffy after we’d patiently sugared a tree at their grandparents’ house in Vermont, the times I introduced them to snow mush (the old-fashioned equivalent of today’s sno-cone, except made with new-fallen snow and flavored with maple syrup), the summer Charlie and I dug quahogs in Maine and made our own version of Quahog stew in my Uncle’s Kennebunk Beach kitchen, and the many meals shared with my Yankee relatives. The “kitchen hearth,” whether it be a literal or metaphorical one, remains the center of home for our family. We are “kitchen people.”
Thank you for the experience, Imogene Wolcott!
11 thoughts on “Kitchen People”
Thoroughly delightful! So see another wonderful side of you come through in this heart-felt, fun essay. I really had rustic imagery and a feeling that goes with that (hard to describe) going through my mind as I read your piece. Bravo!
Wow! Thank you so much! I had a good time writing it, so maybe that came through :).
Your posts consistently amaze me. In picking up a cookbook I would never expect to find such inspiration. Your blog posts are always a joy to read.
Thanks for reading them, and for your comments! Look out because you may be eating some weird food when you come home. No muskrats or squirrels though!
Definitely Johnny Cakes.
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This is amazing! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a story with the excerpts about food. I looked up coot, mortification, and Hail Columbia. There were many more words/expressions I could have and should have looked up. Yes, I would be interested in the secrets of the quiz and the true nature of the oddly named dishes you mention. I have decided introductory and extending disquisitions and the New England conscious are ancestral burdens and something I do all the time. I am assuming noggin is the head or brain since noggin was used often by my mother as in “When are you going to use your noggin?”. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story and for giving me a peek into that old kitchen. I kept thinking that this story could have been a great addition in Yankee Magazine. The history you’ve discovered is unbelievable. You have such a gift for the written word.
Thank you for this! I can’t begin to tell you how much your generous comments mean to me and motivate me to get back to writing. I have so many essays in various stages of completion…
Perhaps, one day you will write a book of short stories to pass on to your kids and hopefully publish so the rest of us can enjoy them. The history you write about in all your writing is so unique I would imagine that would be quite a story in itself.
Can I hire you as my muse?
I’m tickled that you’re interested in the answers to the quiz. I shall post them soon 🙂