Foodways: The Culinary History of Wethersfield
In the mid 1990’s many long-settled communities along the Eastern seaboard – Plymouth, Williamsburg, St. Mary’s City, to name a few – established programs called “Foodways”, exploring the history, and in some cases, re-creating the foods used throughout the years in these communities.
Culinary Historian Paul Courchaine began Wethersfield’s own “Foodways” with a series of columns that he wrote in 1995 and 1996 for the then newly created Wethersfield Life newspaper. Following is one of these columns. The entire series is available in back issues of Wethersfield Life at the Wethersfield Public Library.
Saints in the Wilderness: The English Arrive in Wethersfield
A band of English “Adventurers” numbering ten men and their families arrived in 1634 on the Connecticut River to establish a settlement which they called Watertown. It is now Wethersfield.
The English settlers divided the land they acquired in trade from the Native Americans into “homelots”, usually three acres in size. Such a lot would provide for a dwelling house, cattle barn, orchard, cornfield, and “herb” or “sallett” garden.
The settlement extended from an area next to the then river, used for communal pasturage known as the “common” (Cove Park launch). It continued along a path called “High Street”, now Main Street. A triangular-shaped fort was used for defense. It stood where Main Street now bends into State Street, at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
What kinds of foods provided sustenance to these early settlers? The necessities of survival in the New World had caused a generation of immigrants to adapt to, and adopt, many Native American foodstuffs like corn, beans, squash, and venison. But the English brought with them a rich culinary tradition. The stereotypical view used to be that this was one of simple, one dish, boil-in-a-kettle meals. Nothing could be further from reality.
British dining habits represented an evolution from medieval banquets to late Tudor and early Stuart dishes. Meat, fish and bread were the mainstays of this tradition. It was a diet that called for food enriched with spices, for foods which combined sweet and sour tastes in the same bowl, and, above all else, for meat. Early cattle herds were small, but by the mid-seventeenth century they were large enough to provide beef and veal. Lamb and kid were common. Pigs and chickens thrived unattended in the New World. Waterfowl of all types – ducks, geese, cormorants, herons – went into the stew pot. Mention is made of dining on eagles! Not very adept in the forest, English settlers, traded with the Native Americans for venison, bear, and wild turkey. Elizabethan legislation, aimed at protecting the fishing industry, resulted in a large-scale consumption of such foods as salt cod, mussels, clams, shad, and the not highly esteemed lobster.
Vegetables, which were called ‘herbes” or “potherbs” were just returning to popularity. A wide variety was grown, including onions, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, lettuces, Jerusalem artichokes, skirrets, salsify, and cabbages. Preference in preparing vegetables was for “sallets,” a recipe for which is given below. They could be made of one ingredient (“simple”) or multiple (“compound”), and include both raw and boiled ingredients.
An amazing amount of alcohol was consumed with these meals. Hard cider and “small” (weak) beer were favorite beverages, especially at breakfast. Also available for wealthier people were German wines and “claret” (Bordeaux). Madeira and port were popular as were West Indies rum and Dutch gin.
The settlers ate and drank well. Although tastes changed somewhat by the end of the 17th century, English food tastes and dining habits remained very much unchanged until the New England agrarian tradition died out in the early 20th century.
Sauce for a hen or pullet
2 cups English ale
2 cups English ale
? cup dry, course breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons salt
4 hard-boiled egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
? cup strained fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1 orange, peeled and sliced
6 cups chopped cooked chicken
In a saucepan, boil together the ale, breadcrumbs, and salt. Crumble the egg yolks, and add them to the ale mixture. Add the butter, and boil all together for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
Add the orange juice, lemon rind, and orange slices to the mixture. Continue to simmer it. If the mixture is too thick, thin it with more beer or orange juice.
Stir the chicken meat into the sauce, and continue simmering until the meat is heated through. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.
A Grand Sallet
8 small beets
? pound fresh spinach
? pound sorrel
2/3 cup dried currants
6 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 lemon, seeded and thinly sliced
Trim and scrub the beets. Place them in a one-quart saucepan with water to cover. Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the beets until they are tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and peel the beets, and cut into thin slices.
While the beets are cooking, wash and pick over the spinach and sorrel leaves, shake them dry and mix them together in a medium salad bowl.
Add the currants and the slices from six beets to the greens and mix well.
Mix the olive oil and vinegar well, pour it over the salad and toss the salad to mix it.
Garnish the salad with the remaining two sliced beets and the sliced lemon. Serves 6 to 8
About the Author: Paul Courchaine