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January 9, 2013

Colonial cooking was hard labor

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Cooking in pioneer and colonial Frederick and Carroll County was certainly not the romanticized picture of women wonderfully adorned in long dresses, hovering over large kettles of aromatic delights, cooking over an open fire with a loaf of bread or two strategically placed nearby.


Thankfully, better roads, the railroad and the rise of large mercantile and dry goods stores, along with various improvements associated with the Industrial Revolution, certainly made cooking in the 1900s much easier than day-to-day life in central Maryland in the 1700s and 1800s.


Carol Lee wrote in her history of agriculture in Carroll County, Legacy of the Land: “As far as basic items went, (in the 1700s and much of the 1800s,) the more settlers could provide for themselves the better. While they could rely upon themselves for a great deal, they were by no means the self-sufficient pioneers of popular imagination…”


Carroll County food expert Carrie Knauer noted in an August 8, 2005, article in the Carroll County Times, that according to food historian Joyce White, “Drying, pickling and salting were pretty much the only way they could preserve foods, at least until the 1850s and 1860s… Refrigeration with ice blocks still was unavailable to rural families and the working class people for many years after that…”


I was amused to learn of the use of mangoes in colonial cooking. The fruit is a popular favorite among many of my nieces and nephews – especially the runners, bicyclists and swimmers.


Ms. Knauer reports that according to Ms. White, “Pickled mangoes were a popular dish in India that delighted the taste buds of the European colonists … The mangoes were hollowed out and stuffed with vegetables and spices, then submerged in vinegar. Eventually, some of these pickled mangoes were brought back to Europe but were only available to the very well to do…


“Household cooks started to make their own ‘mangoes’ by replacing the actual mango fruit with everything from peaches to baby melons and green peppers to cucumbers. Pretty much anything that was hollowed out and filled with mustard seed and other spices became known as a mango.”


For an economic historian who loves to eat, there is nothing better than studying food history. Many years ago I used to teach a class, in part, on the history of plants. Yet, other than to be curious – and thoroughly enjoy the cooking demonstrations when visiting Williamsburg or Monticello – I have done very little research on the history of cooking.


So, one of my “resolutions” for the New Year is to further explore the history of foods and cooking. One recent history book acquisition sheds some light on the storied history of canneries in central Maryland.


According to a late-2010 book on Carroll and Frederick County Canneries, by John H. Foertschbeck, Sr., and my longstanding agriculture colleague, Harry Conover, “The canning industry began in Frederick County when Louis McMurray opened a plant in Frederick City in 1868…


Although as noted in Messrs. Foertschbeck and Conover’s book, “Food preservation is as old as civilization, but the canning industry is relatively new… Actually France’s Napoleon Bonaparte can be credited with inspiring the canning industry.


“In 1795, Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc reward to anyone who could develop a method of preserving food. At the time, Napoleon’s armies were spread throughout Europe and keeping them well supplied with food was a major challenge.


“Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner, perfected the methodology for preserving food by sterilization and storing it in glass containers… He received the 12,000-franc reward …in 1810.


“Peter Durand, an Englishman… received a patent … in 1810 for developing a tin-plated steel can as a food container….”


Although mangoes are not mentioned, Messrs. Foertschbeck and Conover noted that “(f)or a hundred year period from the 1870’s to the 1970’s, Carroll and Frederick County farmers, (including my family) switched their cash crops from primarily grain – wheat, barley, rye, corn, hay and straw – to fresh vegetables…”


Local farmers, including my grandfather, William Earl Wright, switched to sweet or sugar corn, peas, string beans, tomatoes…, especially after wormseed had run its course…“in order to supply the local canners with fresh produce…”


“The canning industry in both (Frederick and Carroll) counties began shortly after the Civil War,” report Messrs. Foertschbeck and Conover. “The peak period for the local canning industry was between 1925 and 1950. By the 1980’s, local canning houses had all but disappeared in the Central Maryland area.”


Meanwhile, speaking of hard work, circling-back to colonial cooking, it is worth noting that the good ole’ days were very hard. Much of the day, especially in pioneer central Maryland, was utterly consumed with either food or shelter and survival.


Meals were more often than not cooked in one large kettle. And in spite of what Hollywood would have you believe, cooking over an open fire was darn difficult. The constant bending over and lifting heavy pieces of wood and large kettles took its toll on the woman of the house.


Herbs and spices, unless grown in the garden just outside the outdoor kitchen, were rare. For that matter, flour and sugar were quite expensive and rare. Food usually consisted of local game from hunting and either corn, or corn – or more corn.


And, oh, your food was also flavored with its share of pieces of wood, ashes, and lots of smoke. Making bread often took several days and it was made from cornmeal and animal grease.


It all gives you a new meaning to calling-out to have a pizza delivered. I’ll have a large pizza with mushrooms, onions, and green peppers. Hold the corn mush, pieces of wood and ash – and smoke.


 . . . . .I’m just saying….


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