November 30, 2010

Boise Rock!

Tony and I recently went up to northern New Hampshire to visit family, and the trip took us through Franconia Notch near Cannon Mountain. Luckily the weather was good, because when it's bad driving through the Notch is miserable.

In the early 1800s, a local man named Thomas Boise found out just how miserable. Boise was heading through the Notch on a horse-drawn sleigh when a howling snowstorm struck. He tried to drive the horse through to the comparative safety on the other side, but his efforts were futile. There was too much snow, and the horse, sleigh and Boise became stuck in Franconia Notch in blizzard conditions.

The foreboding cliffs of Cannon Mountain seen from Franconia Notch.

Fearful that he would freeze to death, Boise devised a gruesome but ingenious plan. He killed and skinned his horse, and then wrapped himself in its warm bloody hide. A convenient overhanging boulder provided extra shelter during the storm.

His plan worked. The next day a rescue party found Boise alive and wrapped in the horse hide under the boulder. The hide had been frozen solid, and the rescuers had to cut him out of it with axes.

Tony under Boise Rock. Just a light dusting of snow!

Luckily these days most travelers don't need to go to such extreme lengths, but the overhanging boulder (now called Boise Rock) is still around in case you need emergency shelter. It's right off Route 93 and there's a sign guiding you right to it. It's not the most exciting tourist attraction in the area, but I like the legend attached to it.

Thomas Boise's story reminds me a little bit of The Empire Strikes Back, where Han Solo saves Luke from freezing by putting his body into the dead body of a steed called a Tauntaun. Maybe this is a recurring theme in folktales? If anyone has more examples I'd be happy to hear about them!

If you like reading about famous New England rocks, you might like my earlier posts about Anawan Rock and Dungeon Rock.

November 21, 2010

Over the River and Through the Woods to Medford!

I'm a big fan of all the Charlie Brown holiday specials, but over the years my appreciation for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has really grown. I used to consider it the least significant of the Peanuts specials, but now it might be my favorite.

It also has a New England connection. As the show ends, after all the complications and emotional traumas have been resolved, the kids ride off to Charlie Brown's grandmother's house singing "Over the River and Through the Woods." Yay! A happy ending. (Then Woodstock and Snoopy eat turkey, which makes Tony wonder if Woodstock is a cannibal of some kind. I think the turkey is just a symbol of restored social order.)

The happy ending wouldn't be possible without Lydia Marie Child (1802- 1880) a novelist, abolitionist and cookbook author who was a native of Medford, Massachusetts. She wrote "Over the River..." for an 1844 book called Flowers for Children Volume II. The poem was originally titled "A Boy's Thanksgiving." You can see the full poem here.

The poem recalls Child's own trip to see her grandfather who lived near the Mystic River in Medford. His house still stands on South Street and is now owned by Tufts.

Grandfather's house image from this Tufts blog.

The tune for "Over the River and Through the Woods" apparently is from an old French folk tune but I'm not sure how it got connected to Child's poem.

These days some people are confused by the lyrics because they sound so wintry. Sleigh rides in November? Snow in Medford for Thanksgiving? Maybe she wrote it remembering one particularly cold year, or maybe the climate was different then. Global warming strikes again!

Because the lyrics are about snow, the song is sometimes associated with Christmas. I also think most people change the word's "grandfather's house" to "grandmother's house." We may be suffering from global warming but at least we have more equality between the sexes.

Have a great Thanksgiving. And as Charlie Brown says,"There's just one problem. My grandmother lives in a condominium!"

November 17, 2010

Cranberry Sauce and an Unusual Cocktail Recipe

Thanksgiving will be here soon, and most people will be eating turkey with cranberry sauce. This now classic combination was first mentioned in American Cookery, our nation's first cookbook.

Published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1798 the book's full title is: American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. That's a mouthful!

Of the author Amelia Simmons nothing is known except she was an orphan. We know this because on the title page of American Cookery etc. it bluntly says "By Amelia Simmons, an American orphan." Prior to Amelia's book, Americans had to make do with cookbooks from England. Her innovation was to write a book with recipes using local ingredients like cornmeal, pumpkins and cranberries.

Some recipes in American Cookery are of interest more for historic purposes than practical. After all, how many of us are making mince pies out of calf's feet or need to dress a turtle?

Similarly, here's a cocktail recipe it's unlikely you'll be trying this holiday season:

To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.
Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.

On the other hand, her recipe for cooking a turkey is one that my carnivorous readers might actually use:

To stuff and roast a Turkey, or Fowl.

One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet majoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up, hand down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, put one third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery.

And there in the last sentence is the first mention of cranberry cranberry sauce (or cramberry sauce, as she spells it) as a side dish with turkey. It's exciting to know people have been eating this combination for at least two hundred years! I guess the mangoes didn't catch on with the public, though.

You can find the full text of American Cookery online at this great site.

November 11, 2010

Satan, the Pope and a Cross Dresser: Guy Fawkes Day

This week I have the post Halloween blues, so I'm writing about another raucous holiday. Halloween wasn't really celebrated in New England until the 19th century, when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought it to this area. However, before that people here did have a holiday with costumes, door-to-door begging, and even jack-o-lanterns: Guy Fawkes Day.

Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic who plotted to blow up the predominantly Protestant British parliament on November 5, 1605. Unfortunately for him, he was seen leaving the basement of the Parliament building, and officials soon discovered the gunpowder kegs he hoped to ignite. He and his co-conspirators were executed. November 5 became a holiday in England known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night - it celebrated the foiling of the gunpowder plot.

Guy Fawkes Day didn't become popular in New England until the late 1600s. As I've mentioned many times, the area's Puritan leaders frowned on nearly all holidays, but surprisingly tolerated this one. I think its anti-Catholic tone supported their own theocratic agenda.

To celebrate gangs of boys and men would create one or more effigies, usually of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, and sometimes Satan. Once night fell they'd get drunk, put on costumes and parade around town with their effigies asking for money. At the end of the night they'd burn the effigies and set off fireworks. (It's not expressly documented, but the next morning everyone probably nursed a really bad hangover.)

A 1769 woodcut showing a Boston wagon with Satan and the Pope.

In large cities the celebrations were be quite elaborate. For example, in Boston gangs of lower-class men and boys pulled their effigies around town on large wagons. The gang members also wore matching devil or choirboy costumes and hired musicians to accompany them. Engravings from the 18th century show these wagons topped with large effigies of the Pope and Satan. What they don't show is that one gang member often dressed in drag and danced on the wagon while lasciviously caressing the effigies.

In addition to the anti-Catholic bigotry, Guy Fawkes Day celebrations usually involved violence. Gang members would sometimes abuse people who didn't give them money, and rival gangs often battled to destroy each others effigies. In Boston, the North End and South End gangs were notorious rivals and frequently ended the night clubbing each other senseless. Innocent bystanders often got injured or worse during the festivities - in 1764 an infant in the North End was killed when it fell under the wagon's wheels. That year the constables dispersed the marchers, but they regrouped a few blocks away and continued.

After the American Revolution Guy Fawkes Day celebrations started to fade away. One theory is that New Englanders didn't want to offend their Catholic French allies who helped them in the war against the British, but a more plausible reason is that they no longer wanted to celebrate a holiday commemorating the salvation of the British government.

Guy Fawkes Day was still celebrated as late as 1893 in Newburyport, Massachusetts where boys paraded around an effigy while blowing horns and carrying jack-o-lanterns. (Jack-o-lanterns, which we now associate exclusively with Halloween, were originally used at any autumn party or celebration.) But by this time Halloween was popular in the U.S., and it eventually absorbed the costumes and general mischief of Guy Fawkes Day. The door-to-door begging for money became our modern practice of trick or treat.

I got most of this information and from an essay by Peter Benes in New England Celebrates: Spectacle, Commemoration and Festivity.

November 01, 2010

Election Day Cake!

The Puritans who settled in New England weren't big on holidays. They didn't condone celebrations like Christmas or Halloween, which they thought were pagan and without Biblical validity. (I think some fundamentalist groups feel the same way even today!)

They did celebrate election day, however. Much as we do now, the Puritans would vote for their local officials in the fall, but they didn't take office until the following May. This day in May was celebrated as Election Day. By the mid-18th century parades, parties and athletic contests became part of the celebration.

If only politics were as sweet and tasty as this cake!

One consistent feature of Election Day celebrations since the early 1600s was a special yeasted cake made with nuts, dried fruit and spices. Because these ingredients (and even flour and sugar) were quite expensive the cakes would only be made for special occasions.

I found this information in the 2009 Old Farmer's Almanac, which also had a recipe for the cake. Of course I had to try it! It wasn't too hard to make and was tasty in a mildly sweet way.

But there was something strangely familiar about the taste. It tasted like an Entemann's coffee cake! Maybe the people at Entemann's are using a 400 year old recipe?

If you don't want have last year's almanac lying around and you don't want to buy a coffee cake at the store, you can find recipes for Election Day Cake here and here. But make sure all that baking doesn't keep you from the polls!