January 27, 2013

Rum Shrub

Tony and I had a party this weekend, and as happens at most parties the guests brought bottles of wine to share. But unlike most parties, a lot of the wine remained unopened at the end of the night.

We mentioned this to a friend who attended and he said, "Oh, that's because instead of wine everyone drank the punch. You know, the rum shrub."

Oh, right the rum shrub!

No, it's not a bush. A shrub is an alcoholic drink that was popular in the colonial era. It seems to come in two forms: either a cordial made from liquor and fruit, or a punch-like concoction made from liquor, sugar and fruit juice. Unlike a traditional punch, a punch-like shrub is made days or weeks in advance to let the flavors mellow.

I made my rum shrub from a recipe I found in Yankee Magazine's Lost and Vintage Recipes. The authors say their recipe comes from Newport, Rhode Island, which was once the rum capital of the world. We'll revisit that fact in a minute.

Basically, the recipe involved twelve cups of rum, lemon and lime juice, sugar and some water. Stir it up in a big bowl and let it sit for at least a week. It was really good! I could definitely taste the rum but the citrus and the sugar mellowed out the alcohol flavor. One person at the party said, "It's like a Colonial margarita!"

Add ice. Drink.

Doesn't it seem odd that Newport was the rum capital of the world? Rum is made from sugar products, usually molasses, and even with global warming no one's growing sugar cane in New England. Molasses, despite its omnipresence in New England cookery, is imported from warmer climates like the Caribbean.

Rum was probably first discovered in the 1600s in the Caribbean by plantation slaves, who realized that molasses (which is a by-product of the sugar manufacturing process) could be distilled into a delicious liquor. The Caribbean islands lacked the skilled workforce and lumber needed for a large-scale rum industry, but New England had both. The first rum distillery in New England opened in Boston in 1667.

New England merchants engaged in what is known as the "triangle trade" to make and sell their rum. First, they would buy molasses in the Caribbean. Ships would carry the rum to New England where it was distilled into rum. Ships would then carry the rum to western Africa where it was sold for slaves. The slaves were shipped to the Caribbean where they were sold for more molasses. A profit was made on each point of the triangle, helping to make New England one of the wealthier regions in North America.

As a New Englander I don't usually think much about this region's role in the slave trade. After all, there weren't a lot of large plantations here, and the Abolitionist movement was very strong here, right?

Both true, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people in New England got very rich from the slave trade. So many of the historic dishes from this region, like baked beans, brown bread, Indian pudding, and Joe Froggers get their distinctive molasses flavor from human misery.

I'm not going to stop making these foods or enjoying molasses, but like every part of the world I need to remember that our region's history is very, very complicated.

January 21, 2013

Tuggie Bannock: African Magic in Rhode Island

Most of the witchcraft and magic I write about was practiced by people descended from English settlers. After the Indians were decimated by war and disease, the English became the dominant cultural force for many years in this region - hence the name New England.

However, there were also other ethnic groups present from the early years of colonization, among them the Irish (like the witch Goody Glover), and the French (like Philippe d'Anglois, aka Philip English, a merchant accused of sorcery in the Salem trials).

There were also many people of African descent, both slaves and freemen. It's estimated that by 1799 10% of Boston's population was African-American, and nearly 30% of South Kingston, Rhode Island's.

Although in many ways people of African descent assumed the culture of their English neighbors, they did maintain some traditional folkways, including magic. African magic was much more influential in the American south, where it still lives in traditions like hoodoo and rootwork, but there were many noted African American fortune-tellers, wise men and healers in New England. In fact, by the 19th century African-Americans were considered particularly powerful workers of magic and were sought out specifically by their neighbors of European descent.

Tuggie Bannock was one well-known African-American witch who lived in the early 1800s in the Narragansett area of Rhode Island. Like many women accused of being witches, Tuggie was slightly eccentric. She lived alone in the rear ell of an old ruined house, and her dwelling contained no chairs. According to legend she never even sat on a chair even when she visited a neighbor's home, preferring instead to perch on a table or a dresser.

Tuggie was a bondswoman of Rowland Robinson, a large-scale slave owner, and also worked for various neighbor women performing household and agricultural work. She also actively cultivated a reputation as a witch. Alice Morse Earle wrote the following about Tuggie in her 1898 book In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities,

She conformed her mien and behavior to all that was expected of a witch; and she had been gifted by nature with one feature which, much to her satisfaction, enabled her to exhibit convincing proofs of her pretensions. She had two full rows of double teeth...

The magic Tuggie practiced for her neighbors and herself was strongly influenced by African traditions. For example when she decided one snowy day to put a curse on Sidet Bosum, a tinkerer who accidentally destroyed her teapot, she gathered an assortment of items and boiled them in a pot. Among the ingredients were a piece of the southernwood plant that grew in Bosum's yard, hair from his cow's tail, red flannel, a heart made from bread dough pierced with pins, dirt gathered from a graveyard, and a rabbit's foot.

As William D. Piersen, author of Black Yankees, points out, many of these items are derived from traditional African magic, including graveyard dirt and the rabbit's foot, as is the practice of boiling them. Someone practicing English style magic would have been more likely to create a poppet to curse their neighbor, not boil things in a big pot.

Tuggie's attempt to curse Sidet Bosum didn't work out. Before she started her spell she had turned her petticoats inside out and put a bag of eggshells around her neck to protect herself from evil spirits (another tradition from Africa). However, as she was boiling her spell a large dark object burst through the door of her house, knocking Tuggie face down on the floor and covering her in snow. Tuggie lay there in terror with her eyes shut, convinced that the Devil had come to take her away. She begged him to leave her be, and eventually she heard the creature leave her home. Tuggie took the pot off the stove and went to bed, carrying a Bible and a horseshoe as protection.

Was it really the Devil, or Moonack as Tuggie called it, that had come to take her away? Four local boys had been sledding that day, and later they claimed they had lost control of their sled. It had gone careening down the hill and right through the door of Tuggie's house, knocking her down. The Devil had never visited Tuggie at all.

I'm never a big fan of these Scooby Doo endings, where it turns out the supernatural is all just a big joke, but that's how Alice Morse Earle ends the story. I got the information for this post from Alice Morse Earle's book, and from William D. Piersen's "Black Arts and Black Magic: Yankee Accommodations to African Religion" in Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600 - 1900, which was published by the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.

January 15, 2013

Joe Froggers: A Cookie Fit for Pirates

Who made the first pumpkin pie?

Who made the first baked beans?

These are profound and unanswerable questions. The origins of many regional dishes are lost in the murky mists of the past. Even if I had a time machine I probably wouldn't find clear answers - most dishes have just evolved into their present form.

However, there are some recipes that do a have a clear point of origin like Tollhouse Cookies, Boston cream pie, and Joe Froggers.

Most people know the first two desserts but I don't think many people have eaten Joe Froggers, a molasses style cookie that originated in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

The origin story goes something like this. Joe Brown was an African-American resident of Marblehead in the 1700s. With his wife Lucretia (who was 22 years his junior), Joe ran a tavern on Gingerbread Hill. Gingerbread Hill sounds cozy and charming but like most taverns of the era, particularly in seaports, things were a little seedy at Joe's establishment. Gambling and heavy drinking were the norm, and as Marblehead historian Joseph Robinson wrote, "a more uncouth assemblage of ruffians could not be found anywhere." Locals with nicknames like Eagle Beak, Pie Mouth, and Cork Leg were among the regulars. Joe's tavern still stands in Marblehead.

However, Joe is famous not just for running a tavern that attracted the riffraff, but because of the cookie that bears his name: Joe Froggers. Joe's last name was not Frogger, but his tavern was located next to a frog pond. Another story says that the cookies got their name because when Lucretia poured the batter in her frying pan they formed a vaguely froglike shape. Perhaps the cookies should really be called Lucretia Froggers?

The Joe Froggers people make now are probably a little different than the original recipe. For one thing, in the 1700s they were the size of salad plates. That's a big cookie! Sailors and fishermen would buy them by the barrel for long sea voyages because they kept well. I like the idea of sailing around with a barrel full of cookies. Like Gingerbread Hill, it sounds charming but I'm sure the reality was something else entirely.

Besides their size and strange name, Joe Froggers are distinguished from other molasses cookies and gingersnaps by one key ingredient: rum. It's mixed right into the batter with the butter and sugar, and adds a nice bite to the cookie. It's only fitting for a cookie developed in a raucous seaside tavern. Dark rum is best. Luckily some our family gave us a bottle of Cruzan black strap rum at Christmas. It's probably the darkest rum out there. I felt like a pirate making these cookies!

I got the information about Joe Brown from this article in Marblehead Magazine. The actual cookies I made from a recipe in Yankee Magazine's Lost and Vintage Recipes, which is actually on sale at news stands right now. It has some interesting recipes beyond the Joe Froggers and is worth picking up.

January 06, 2013

Bringing Up Baby - Magic for Your Infant

People are often critical of parents these days, saying they spend too much time and money trying to guarantee their children a good future with dance lessons, tutors, soccer practice, and forced community service. "Why oh why," these critics say, "can't we let children be children and raise them like they were in the past?"

Well, surprise surprise. Parents in past also wanted what was best for their children and did what they could to give them a good future. Sometimes they would even use a little magic. They probably wouldn't have used the word magic, but I think that's the modern category the following folk practices best fit into.

Folk painting by Sheldon Peck (1797 - 1868)
For example, to ensure that your newborn will grow up to be smart, be sure to take him/her up a flight of stairs before you ever bring him/her down a flight of stairs. Ideally you should bring your baby all the way up to the attic and bump his head (gently) against the ceiling.

This folklore is from the 19th century, when most women still give birth at home. The assumption is that if you gave birth on the ground floor you would bring your baby up to the second floor or even higher. If you gave birth on the second floor you could bring him up to the attic. The symbolism is obvious - you want your baby to rise in the world.

Of course there is the possibility that you might give birth in the attic or in a house that has only one floor. Does this mean that your baby is destined to a low-achieving dunderhead? No! Simply bring in a small stepladder and walk up it with your baby. You will have done the symbolic moving up in the world, and your baby can now be carried down a flight of stairs without concern for its future.

Conversely, within the first eleven months of your baby's life you want it to fall out of bed at least once. This is a sign that s/he is intelligent and will do well in life. I guess it is also a sign that carrying the baby up stairs to the attic really worked.

While these charms and omens seem kind of cute others are a little more serious. Infant mortality was quite high in the past and most families feared losing a child. Carrying the baby up the stepladder was supposed to ensure she lived through her first year. You should also leave at least one article of clothing unmade or unpurchased before a child is born to make sure it is healthy the first twelve months. To have a full wardrobe for an unborn child is tempting fate. You don't want to look too confident to those powers that control a baby's health.

As I mentioned in a post several years ago, you also shouldn't allow your baby to see its reflection before it is a year old. To do so indicates the child will die.

I don't want to end on a particularly dour note. After all, life is full of second chances. A mother who loses her baby should sell all the deceased child's clothing. It's said this will bring more children to her in the future.

I found this information in Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions. Collected from the Oral Tradition of English Speaking Folk (1896).

January 01, 2013

Bar Harbor Indian Pudding

As long-time readers of this blog may know, I am a huge Indian pudding fan. I've written about it several times in the past and will definitely write about it again in the future. I've even written about Indian pudding possessed by Satan. It's an endlessly fertile topic.

I don't think I'm the only person fascinated by this sweet (but slightly salty) cornmeal mush. You can still find it on the menu at Boston's Durgin Park restaurant, and a recent article on Saveur mentioned some chefs outside New England who have added it to their restaurant menus. Maybe if I am lucky Indian pudding will become the new hipster fad and I'll be able to find it at lots of trendy local restaurants.

Until that happy day comes I'll have to either make my own or buy it canned. When I was a kid (many years ago now) I seem to remember having canned Indian pudding made by the One Pie company in Maine, but now it seems One Pie focuses mostly on canned pumpkin and canned squash.

However, you can still buy canned Indian pudding from Bar Harbor Foods. I've seen it at Whole Foods, and the Stop and Shop in my neighborhood sold it this year starting around Thanksgiving. After Christmas it went on sale which gave me a perfect excuse to try it.

This is what I saw when I opened the can. Bar Harbor's recipe doesn't include any eggs, which is fine by me but might explain why it looked so dense when I opened the can. It was really solid.

The label said "Good hot or cold!" so I decided to try some right out of the can. It wasn't bad (there's no such thing as bad Indian pudding) but it was pretty dense. I put some in the microwave for about a minute and then tasted it again.

It was great! Heating it up really help blend the flavors, while the texture became much softer and more pudding-like. I didn't have any whipped cream or ice cream, but if I had it would have been a perfect Indian pudding experience. If you want some New England flavor at your meal but are rushed for time I think the Bar Harbor Indian pudding will do the trick.

Happy New Year!