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Foods of Colonial Litchfield County

As Europeans did not populate Litchfield County prior to the early 18th century, we must search the eating habits of the eastern New England Colonists, primarily those in Massachusetts Bay. They, in turn, brought their tastes and techniques with them from the mother country of England.

The small ships of their day, no larger than a modern commercial fishing schooner, could not carry a great deal of cargo other than the belongings of the passengers. Consequently, it became a time-consuming process to bring over the necessary fruit trees, cattle, horse and sheep, as well as tools and cooking utensils.

A list of supplies desired from England in 1645 casts some light on this subject; the writer of this list sent a letter to her sister back in the old country requesting several items. What follows are those that pertain to food and cooking:

“1 brass kettle, 1 warming pan, 1 big iron pot, 6 pewter plates, 2 pewter platters, 3 pewter porringers, 1 small stew pan of copper, 1 drip pan, 1 skillet and a pestle and mortar.”

In the absence of pewter, wooden bowls, trenchers (square or round pieces of wood used as a platter) and noggins (small wooden cups) were considered rather fine, while carefully dried gourds and deep, saucer-like shells of immense quahogs were in general use. Quahogs in Colonial times tended to be much larger than those found today along our coasts, and thus lent themselves as substitutes for dishes.

Houses had deep cellars for storage of winter supplies and for the manufacture and ripening of home-brewed beer, made from recipes brought from the home country. At first, cider had no place in the cellars, but after orchards were grown, there was found room for the barrels of hard cider that eventually displaced the heavier and perhaps more wholesome, certainly less stimulating, beer.

In these cellars were also kept, even from the first, the casks of metheglin (a type of spiced mead, made by fermenting honey of the plentiful native bees and water), which in the autumn filled the cellar with the sound of its working, like the swarming of armies of bees — a sound that was said to be reproduced in the befuddled heads of those who were not extremely moderate in their draughts of this too potent liquor.

Each farm produced or manufactured almost all the items needed in everyday use. Fowl and domestic meats that could not be economically disposed of while fresh were preserved by drying, spicing, salting or smoking for winter use. Several weeks of steady labor were required each autumn to prepare the barrels of salted pork and corned beef, to cure the scores of hams and sides of bacon, to prepare the miles of sausage links and dry out and preserve the many stone jars full of lard so carefully that it would keep sweet for at least a year, and to prepare the pickled products, as well as headcheese.

As nothing was wasted, small scraps and pieces of chopped beef were rolled in tripe and smoked. When needed for the dinner table, the little rolls were boiled and served cold or fried and eaten hot.

Beside all these, each in its own season, were prepared stores of fish of various sorts, pickled, dried or spiced, and great quantities of winter vegetables as well as such fruits as could be kept for winter use by drying or by preserving with sugar.

An Indian recipe called supawn, made from corn meal boiled in water, salted and stirred with a wooden spoon until smooth and thick, took the place of modern cereals, and was served at breakfast any time of year. It could be eaten with butter or molasses, or with milk. Dried fruits that had been soaked overnight could also be added to the supawn, giving it more flavor and nutrition.

Candy was to be found at special events such as weddings. In addition to maple sugar was a confection called “nut-sweet,” made from maple sugar made soft with water, placed in a shallow iron pan over the coals, with a liberal amount of unsalted butter, and slightly scorched. While scorching, the blanched meats of hickory nuts and butternuts were liberally added. When cooled, this became firm and was broken into chunks. It was universally proclaimed to be “equal to anything in England.”

It is no doubt realized by most that certain acts of harvesting crops were important contributors to our social mores. One such event was the corn husking bees held in the fall. The family whose crop was being prepared cleared the center of the barn floor and placed the recently harvested ears of corn in the center, around which the surrounding neighbors positioned themselves, both young and old.

Young people of courting age sought out each other’s company and formed a team. During the War of Independence, with so many heads of families away fighting for the liberties they so desperately desired, it became an unwritten, but never-broken, rule that the harvests of all who were away either in the state militia or on the Continental line were tended to and gotten in before anyone’s who had remained home.

These major crops consisted of hay, Indian corn, wheat, oats, rye and barley. Occasionally “cash crops” such as indigo and flax also had to be tended. By far the most important grains were Indian corn and wheat, with oats being a strong third.

Cornbread was universally served. It was easy to prepare, and yielded a predictable product when made in the Colonial fireplaces. This was not the case with bread made from wheat or rye, which was made in a manner similar to the sourdough bread still made regionally. The lack of ovens in many cases forced the cooks to bake bread either in or, in some cases, under an iron pot set amongst the coals in a big fireplace. If the temperature of the fire was either too hot or too cold, or if the small amount of leaven left over from the previous batch and used as the starter had been subjected to too much heat or cold, the results could be practically inedible. One drawback to cornbread is that it is difficult for some people to digest. It is made from meal, rather than flour, and meal is quite a bit coarser than flour.

Vegetable gardens were generally the domain of women, and probably from the earliest years contained much the same type of plants as the gardens of today. A shipment of seeds to Connecticut from Boston in 1757 contained two types of lettuce, four kinds of cabbage, four kinds of peas, two types of turnip, two of parsnips and two of squash, as well as radish, parsley, beans and asparagus.

Spices were generally available, although rather expensive. During the British blockade of the War of Independence and the War of 1812, spices, and indeed many imported goods, were difficult if not impossible to come by.

Some commodities, such as pepper, were considered nearly indispensable in cooking, and were unavailable on these shores. It was found that the small fruits of the black tupelo (Nyssa silvatica) made an acceptable substitute; consequently it was given the name “pepperidge tree,” by which it is still known. Although not common, these trees are to be found in Colebrook in the Beech Hill area.

Bob Grigg is the town historian in Colebrook.

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