The 18th century isn't called the Age of Reason for nothing: It was a time people invented things because they reasoned a need for them, from the steam engine to the aerial balloon. It was conversation's heyday, when everybody had a lot to say about art, science, love, the natural order and the celestial spheres -- and they usually said it at the dinner table.
Whether the table was shining mahogany in the Tidewater or scrubbed, hand-hewn pine in a little cabin on the Allegheny, the rule was the same: Good food to share with kin and stranger, and plenty of it; spices and herbs to brighten the taste. Everything from the garden, forest, farm or field that could be used, and everything cooked but the squeal of the pig. I'm not sure I could face a spirited debate over the Existence of Electricity or the Nature of the Deity while gazing steadily at a stuffed sheepshead, but it was a less squeamish age.
When I consider how much work went into putting the meal on the table, I am staggered. Want hot rolls? Get up a week ahead and make some yeast. Want a nice jellied aspic? Go to work boiling the gelatin out of the calves' hooves, first separating them from the calf.
Because refrigeration was primitive at best, people perforce served food that had been cackling or growing that morning. Cookbooks of the time caution cooks to wring the chicken's neck no more than four hours before its intended consumption. That must have meant some pretty lively stepping when a big crowd came for supper -- and is no doubt where we get the expression, "the feathers flew!"
The big plantations kept ice through the summer in brick-lined underground chambers. Farm households often had ice houses near the stock ponds, from which ice was cut in the winter to last as long as possible into the summer. And you can still see springhouses all over the country parts of Maryland -- beautiful, small, square stone buildings, built near a natural spring of cold water. Here butter and cream were kept cold by the constantly flowing water laving the crocks in which they were stored. Here thirsty children could sip the icy water, or drink homemade grape juice from stoneware pitchers.
And in 1803, prompted no doubt by the sultry summers Chesapeake dwellers know so well, a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore patented the icebox. This glorious invention meant ice cream, snow cones and jellied summer salads for the suffering city dwellers whose cool source was the iceman, and not an icy spring.
There's no better tribute to Thomas than to gather five friends for lively discourse on the meteor showers of August, or the nature of love, or what you will, while partaking of the cool supper below.
Saffron chicken salad Serves six.
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breast, skinned
5-6 cups water
2 cubes chicken bouillon
pinch of saffron threads
1 large shallot, peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 teaspoon cracked pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 medium garden tomatoes
1 small head escarole lettuce, washed and dried
Wash and drain the chicken. Put the water in a saucepan; add the bouillon cubes, the saffron, shallot, spices and lemon juice. Heat until small bubbles rise up the sides. Add the chicken and simmer until the chicken is firm, white and plump -- about 25 minutes. Take out the chicken, cool it, and slice it thinly. Reduce the stock to 1 1/2 cups by boiling it down. Strain it, cool it, and return the chicken slices to it. Refrigerate overnight, covered. To finish the salad: Lay the escarole leaves down as a bed, and alternate 1/2 -inch slices of very ripe tomato, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with slices of chicken on the fan shape of the escarole leaves. Set the remaining stock out for dipping cheese rolls (recipe below) in.
Cheese rolls Serves six.
2 loaves frozen bread dough
1 cup grated extra sharp Cheddar, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup cornmeal
a pizza stone
Defrost two loaves of frozen bread dough on two oiled baking sheets; brush a little oil over the dough as it thaws to keep it from drying out. When the dough is soft and pliable, divide each loaf into six pieces. Toss the Cheddar, paprika, and Parmesan gently together and lay the cheese mixture in a thin layer on a piece of waxed paper. Stretch and pull each of the pieces of dough into a thin circle about 5 inches in diameter. Mash it gently into the cheese, fold the dough, and pinch the edges of the "pocket" you've just made shut. Gently tease the cheese-filled dough back into a flat circle, without breaking the surface and exposing the cheese mixture. Put it back on the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each roll.
Let the rolls rise, covered lightly with oiled waxed paper, until they are fat 5-inch circles again -- about an hour in a warm room. Heat the oven, with the pizza stone in it, to 375 degrees. Just before you put them into the oven, slash a cross in the top crust of each roll, very lightly, with a sharp knife, so a little of the cheese shows. Sprinkle a little cornmeal on the stone. Slide the rolls onto the hot stone and bake about 15 minutes, or until they are a glorious golden brown with little cheese bubbles in the cross slash.
Since you'll have to bake them in relays -- you can get only three rolls this size on the pizza stone at a time -- set them on racks to cool. They're good cold, but if you want to reheat them do so in a low-temperature oven, so they won't dry out.
This wonderful word really refers to any mixed dish.
1 small, firm purple cabbage, cut in 1/2 -inch rounds
18 baby carrots, cut into long slivers
2 green bell peppers, seeded and cut into slivers
12 red radishes, cut in thin slices
6 plums, washed and cut into slices
4 navel oranges, peeled and cut into slices
Arrange these ingredients in shallow individual salad bowls with the cabbage as a base. Dot them with dressing made by mixing the following:
1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 cup softened cream cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 teaspoons fresh oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Note: This is a very sharp dressing. Those who don't care for vinegar may wish to dilute it a bit.
Peas and ham in lemon-tomato aspic Serves six.
1/2 cup country ham, cooked, diced fine
2 cups fresh or thawed (but not cooked) frozen peas
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup drained sliced baby mushrooms
1 envelope Knox gelatin
1 1/2 cups tomato juice, V-8 or bloody Mary mix
1/2 cup tomato juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon dill weed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper
Tabasco to taste
Sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 cup of tomato juice at room temperature, and let it stand until the gelatin dissolves. Bring the remaining 1 1/2 cups of juice, lemon juice, herbs and seasonings to a boil. Add the hot juice to the gelatin mixture. Cool to room temperature. Stir in the ham, vegetables. Chill. You can mold this salad, but it's also very nice as a part of a summer refrigerator larder. A batch in a covered jar makes tasty, low-cal snacking for several days.
Brandied peaches and vanilla cream Serves six.
6 large or 12 small ripe peaches
2 cups whipping cream
4 tablespoons bar sugar (extra fine granulated) (divided use)
1/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/4 cup good brandy
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Mix the cinnamon with two tablespoons of the sugar. Peel the peaches, and slice them into thin slivers. Divide them into 6 pretty serving bowls. Sprinkle them with brandy, and dust the cinnamon sugar over them lightly. Smooth plastic wrap over them, to keep them from discoloring. Let them stand at room temperature for about one hour. Chill the bowl and beaters of an electric mixer. When they are quite cold, beat the heaviest whipping cream you can find until it holds peaks. Reduce the speed, and drizzle in the remaining two tablespoons of bar sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla. Serve the cold cream over the peaches, which should be at room temperature.