Forgotten Foods

“To spitchcock an eel you must split a large eel down the back and joint the bones. Cut it in two or three pieces, melt a little butter, put in a little vinegar and salt, let your eel lie in it two or three minutes. Then take the pieces up one by one, turn them round with a little fine skewer, roll them in crumbs of bread, and broil them of a fine brown. Let your sauce be plain butter, with the juice of lemon or anchovy sauce.”

I read this morsel of culinary savvy from The Frugal Colonial Housewife, written by Susannah Carter and published in 1772. I’m pretty sure I could not have obtained this information from a 20th century cookbook. After reading this snippet, I had been contemplating why the American Eel is not as popular a food as it was in colonial times or even in the 1900s. How do I know it was popular? At first my evidence was only anecdotal – my source ate eel as a child – here on the Eastern Shore during the depression and World War II and suggests it was really “quite a common” food. But then I found this tidbit in Saveur magazine: “Over the last century or so, eel has vanished almost completely from the American table – incredible when you consider that it was once a North American staple, sustaining native peoples throughout the eastern coastal regions. Rich in nutrients, eels were a crucial source of sustenance for the early European colonists too.”

After reading more than I would ever want to know about eels, including the fun fact that their blood is toxic, therefore you must never eat them raw (not that I would want to), I decided to investigate other forgotten foods. Which, by the way, if they have been forgotten, they are consequently hard to find – or find information on. So, I turned to two references for initial inquiry: my vintage cookbooks and recollections of food conversations with many of my elders, no longer with us.

You may have never heard of Mrs. A.B. Marshall but, in the late 1800s, she was the queen of “fancy ices” in England. Her Book of Ices includes: “cream and water ices, sorbet, mousses, iced soufflé’s and various ice dishes.” Although she was revered for her refreshing sweet fruit cream ices, no doubt a less popular item would have been her Iced Spinach a la Creme, sweetened with castor sugar, orange flower water and a few drops of vanilla before freeze drying in a mold. With her popularity on the rise, she set out to tour the Americas and returned to England with new recipes for Chicago donuts and Sarasota chips. She also returned with a corn on the cob recipe that has been lost in obscurity, for good reason. She boiled the corn for an hour, then served it cold, masked with a mayonnaise-like sauce to which were added pureed oysters. It is easy to forget something that was never popular to begin with.

Take Mutton for example, extremely popular in other parts of the world, but not so much here. I used to think the word mutton referred to a really cheap, tough cut of meat. As it turns out, mutton is sheep, usually a male, that is at least two years old. According to The Spruce Eats, a popular food website, the first sheep were brought to North America by Spanish soldiers under the command of Cortez in 1519.

And in a New York Times article, “Much Ado about Mutton, but Not in These Parts,” by R.W. Apple, Jr., there was in fact a time when mutton was common on American tables. The 1918 edition of Fannie Farmer’s immensely influential cookbook, for example, gave instructions for preparing leg, saddle, chops and curry of mutton, although it also noted that ‘many object to the strong flavor of mutton.’ That last sentence harbors an important clue to our present-day aversion to mutton and, to a lesser degree, to lamb.

Onto sweeter things, let’s talk flummery, a sweet and delicious puddling-like dessert that my grandmother made. She most likely made a modern version with packets of gelatin. The history of flummery is as cloudy as the gelatinous oatmeal husk liquid it was made from. Its origin remains unclear, but it is definitely from the United Kingdom, whether it be Welsh, Irish, Scottish or Old English is of debate. It may have even been thickened with calves’ foot jelly – which happens to be another forgotten food. Which leads us to the origins of gelatin which is not a forgotten food but many may not know what gelatin actually is. Gelatin is a translucent, odorless, colorless food ingredient derived from the boiling of animal bones. So, if you think Jell-O is vegan, think again.

I first ate hominy from a tin during my childhood. My mother would buy a can of hominy from time to time and warm it up on the stove and serve it with butter, salt and pepper. We didn’t have it often, but when we did, I remember thinking it was pretty good. “Manning’s” brand hominy was first canned in Baltimore in 1904. Hominy is made from whole corn kernels that have been soaked in a lye or lime solution to soften the tough outer hulls. This process increases the nutritional value of corn. Traditional hominy recipes such as “Big Hominy” and “Hominy Patties” can be found in Maryland’s Way The Hammond- Harwood House Cookbook (1966). The White House Cookbook of 1887 includes a recipe for “Hominy Pudding.” But there is a recipe from Cooks Tour of the Eastern Shore that intrigues me the most. Perhaps it is the spirit in which it is written that sparks a smile. When a recipe tells you not to get discouraged, you cannot help but laugh. And laugh I did when I served this recipe at dinner one night. The facial expressions on my children were clear – they wanted to forget this food as soon as possible.

“Hominy Au Gratin”
Cooks Tour of the Eastern Shore, 1948

“Empty a can of drained hominy onto a frying pan and put in some milk to loosen the kernels. Keep stirring even though it seems discouraging for five minutes or so. Then make a rich cream sauce (1/2 pint of cream is helpful), season well and stir in 1/4 pound of grated sharp cheese. Mix hominy and sauce; it should be runny, it’s not good if dry. When thoroughly mixed, put it in a deep Pyrex dish or casserole, cover with grated cheese and plenty of paprika. Put in hot oven until it sizzles. Run under the broiler if you like the top crispy. This, with bacon and fried tomatoes makes a satisfying meal.” Recipe by Jack Gill.

Spitchcock eel, iced spinach ala creme, cold cob corn with mayonnaise and pureed oysters, mutton, flummery, and hominy are not part of the latest food trends. They are oddities lost in time gathering dust in relic style cookbooks found in dark corners of someone’s attic, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them. Instead, we should understand their worth at a time when food fashion wasn’t always at the forefront and sustenance payed a larger role in what was eaten. Many forgotten foods were invaluable building blocks of nutrition for hungry stomachs. Learning about forgotten foods provides perspective on how silly some of the current food trends can be. Contrary to popular opinion, if you are not munching on avocado toast and sipping fancy flavored coffee at breakfast these days you’re not out of touch; you just don’t buy into the culinary whimsy of the moment. In 50 years, our grandchildren may be asking us what avocado toast is.

Lemon sticks become a sweet straw for fresh lemon juice.
On Oxford Day, my senses were awakened by a rare sighting of a candy stick lemon. My grandmother used to bring these to me when I was in elementary school and oh how I loved them so! A natural precursor to the artificially flavored sour patch kids, these treats are very real. Lemon sticks become a sweet straw for fresh lemon juice. Sweet, sour and simple, it is a delight to the senses. The candy stick lemon is a perfect indulgence and a forgotten food that definitely needs to make a comeback.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

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