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.
The Middle Passage: African Americans
In 1619, just a few short years after the founding of Jamestown in Virginia, a Dutch man-of-war arrived in the colony looking to sell its spoils of war. Among them were were numbered 20 black slaves seized from Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. These slaves were resold to Virginia planters who were eagerly looking for workers for their tobacco plantations. They were an alternate source to the more expensive practice of hiring indentured servants from England, who were released from their servitude after a period of seven years.
By the end of the century, some 6,000 settlers of African origin inhabited the colony of Virginia. Many came on ships which participated in the ‘three corner trade”. Vessels built and manned by New Englanders sailed to ports like London and Bristol with products from the New World – sugar, run, molasses, and timber. In England, they traded for manufactured goods, cheap whiskey, and firearms. They then sailed to the west coast of Africa, the “Guinea Coast.” There, they exchanged their goods for gold, ivory, and black slaves captured in inter-tribal wars which the guns helped perpetuate. The merchants then headed for the sugar islands in the Caribbean and for Virginia, where the slaves were sold.
One of these merchants was a Wethersfield resident named Captain John Blackleach. He and a partner owned rights to have the only vessels chartered to bring trade goods from the West Indies up the Connecticut River to Hartford. He resided in what was then considered a large “manor house” on property, which now constitutes the lots at # 471, 481, and 491 Main Street in Old Wethersfield. Upon his death in 1703, an inventory of his property, which still resides in the State Library, was taken. Listed in the inventory was the entry “A Negro woman (named Maria) and child sold for 36 (pounds) cash.”
Slaves in Connecticut were more prevalent than we Northerners would like to believe. The practice continued well into the 19th Century, when the abolitionist movement made slave ownership undesirable. The majority of slaves freed throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries were assimilated into the white and Native American communities. It was only in the mid-19th Century that a sizable, recognizable black community was established in Hartford.
It is difficult to discern through the intervening centuries what influence the original African-American population had on the foodways of Connecticut. That they greatly influence the Creole cuisine of the Caribbean (and thereby New Orleans), as well as that of the Southern plantation houses is obvious. Many foodstuffs now considered “Southern” were introduced by the Africans who labored in plantation kitchens. Among these foods are watermelon, okra, black-eyed peas, “benne” (sesame) seed cookies, praline, and hot pepper sauce. African cooking techniques, especially the practice of deep-frying food in hot oil, were incorporated into Southern cuisine.
This cuisine later traveled to the West with chuck wagon cooks and the “buffalo soldiers” of the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and North in the dining cars of the early 20th Century railroads. With the great exodus of blacks to the Northern cities during the depression, ‘soul” food made its way into the culinary mainstream of New England. Greens, stewed black-eyed peas, ham and biscuits, and the best fried chicken were introduced throughout the North, in local restaurants and roadside diners.
Below are detailed two such dishes, one of which owes its heritage to the planation homes along the James River in Virginia, and the other which derives from the combination of French, Spanish, and black culinary traditions which blended in the West Indies, and arrived in the United States via New Orleans.
Mary Randolph’s Fried Chicken
3 to 3 1/2 pound frying chicken
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley
Lard for frying
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon softened butter
1. Serves 4-6. Cut chicken into serving pieces. Sprinkle all over with salt and pepper.
2. 2. Dip chicken pieces in flour covering all sides.
3. Oil may be used in place of lard. Heat oil or lard to moderate temperature and fry chicken on both sides until lightly browned. Cover chicken and cook over moderately low heat until juices from chicken run clear when pierced with a fork. Remove chicken from oil, drain on paper towels, and keep warm while preparing sauce.
4. Sauce: Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of lard. Set frying pan back over hot coals. Stir in milk, butter, salt, pepper, and minced parsley. Simmer and stir about 5 minutes until sauce is slightly reduced.
5. Place chicken on serving platter. Pour half of sauce over chicken and garnish with fried parsley. Pour remaining sauce in sauce boat to pass at table.
1 pound medium shrimp, raw
dash of Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/2 bay leaf
1/4 cup green pepper, diced
2 teaspoons salt
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons gumbo file powder
1/4 cup butter, divided
2 cups canned tomatoes
1/2 cup regular crab meat
1/2 cup tomato puree
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cups scallops, quartered
1/2 cup whole oysters
1/2 cup okra, chopped (see note)
1 cup rice, cooked (optional)
Peel the shrimp, saving the hulls, and dice.
Put the shrimp hulls and a few celery tops into 2 quarts of water and boil for 30 minutes; strain.
Sautee the celery, onion, green pepper, and garlic in 2 teaspoons of the butter until tender but not brown. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, and 1 quart of the strained stock to the sauteed vegetables.
Let simmer 25 minutes.
Make a roux by melting 2 tablespoons of the butter and stirring in the flour. Mix thoroughly and cook 3 to 4 minutes but do not brown. Stir the roux into the stock and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the diced shrimp, scallops, okra, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf, and salt to the stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.
Remove ? cup of liquid from the pot, sprinkle the file powder over it, and beat until smooth. Return it to the stock and simmer but do not boil, for 5 mins. Remove from heat, add crab and oysters. Serve in soup plates with or without the rice. Note: If canned okra is used, the liquid should be added to the gumbo after the cooking process to enhance the flavor of the soup. If raw okra is used, blanch it in 2 cups of the stock before adding with the seafood and seasonings. Okra will take the place of file powder if the latter is not available; however, gumbo tastes better when both okra and file powder are used.
About the Author: Paul Courchaine