Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Dainty Serving"

"The advisability of making the dishes attractive by dainty serving is not enough appreciated by the busy housewife. It seems so much easier to dish the meat and vegetables 'anyhow,' than to use the extra exertion needed to make them pretty, that she is apt to grow careless. Habit is everything in such matters. The practice once acquired of arranging the food to please the eye, as well as the palate, the added labor is taken for granted and seldom observed."

With these subtly scolding words, the Queen of the Household gently exhorts the Victorian era homemaker to pay attention not only to how food is prepared, but to how it is dished out as well. The advice is relevant even today, since in our busier-than-ever twenty-first century lives, we are apt to eat on the run or slap together a sandwich on a paper plate even at home.

Thanksgiving place setting
Fortunately, family gatherings at holidays such as Thanksgiving usually break this daily pattern. This is the one day all year that Americans of all faiths and ages trot out their best china and linens  --  perhaps the chipped Stanglware inherited from Mom and the thrice-mended lace tablecloth of Grandma's. They polish the tarnished silver spoon that came from Great-grandma's trousseau and the cut-glass Fostoria goblets that were Aunt Marg's.

Each family has its own traditional Thanksgiving recipes for turkey, stuffing, vegetables, and pies. Here are a few from Great-grandma Nan's book of household hints and recipes. They are part of the Thanksgiving menu proposed by the Queen of the Household in 1891. (See last week's post for the whole menu list.)

Pare and cut into pieces; put them into boiling water well salted, and boil until tender; drain thoroughly and then mash, and add a piece of butter, pepper and salt to taste, and a small teaspoon sugar; stir until they are thoroughly mixed, and serve hot.

Sweet potatoes
Sweet Potatoes:
Sweet potatoes require from 45 to 55 minutes to boil, and from 1 to 1 1/4 hours to bake; the time given will make the potatoes moist and sweet; if, however, they are preferred dry and mealy, 15 minutes less will be enough.



Wash, trim and scrape the stalks, selecting those that are white and tender; crisp by leaving in ice-cold water until they are wanted for the table; arrange neatly in a celery-glass; pass between the oysters and the meat.

We did not have oysters at our Thanksgiving dinner this year, but we did have the traditional turkey and stuffing, and two kinds of vegetables: carrots and turnips. These are two root vegetables, which our forebears were able to keep well in root cellars before the days of refrigeration.

The meal was scrumptious and daintily served. The colors on my plate mimicked those of the late November landscape outside my window:

Bon appetit!

But we all saved room for pie . . .

Happy Thanksgiving!  (Thank you to Margriet W. for hosting this year's feast.)

                                                                                   *  *  *

This afternoon, my husband and I drove west into the Mohawk Valley for a visit to the old homestead. We brought pumpkin and apple pies for a post-Thanksgiving treat. Flipping through old photo albums, we saw pictures of Grandma Minnie as a young adult, with her proud parents holding one toddler after another as her family grew. I feel fortunate to have those scenes of life as it was lived 100 years ago in the neighborhood where Dad grew up.

We drove homeward as the afternoon sun waned, and as we came over the crest of a hill, we could see the skyline of Albany in the distance. I slowed down as a family of wild turkeys crossed the road in front of the car. As we approached home, pink and purple streaks in the sky were reflected in the Schoharie Creek and the Watervliet Reservoir. The sun slid behind the pines as I pulled into the driveway. The long holiday weekend was over.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Over the River . . .

. . . and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go."

Thus begins an old holiday song that had particular significance for me as a young child.

Over the River and Through the Woods

It was our family custom to travel west into the Mohawk Valley on Thanksgiving, to celebrate this typically American holiday with Grandma Minnie and our aunts and uncle from my Dad's side of the family. Of course, we didn't travel by horse-drawn sleigh as portrayed in the video, but instead by car over the highway. Even if the road was sometimes snowy, most often it was plowed.

When we arrived at Grandma Minnie's house, after warming up with snacks and beverages, a dozen or more family members would seat themselves around the large table in the dining room, extended out to its maximum length for the occasion.

The table boards seemed to groan under the weight of the turkey and other dishes prepared once a year for this special feast. Minnie would always prepare creamed oysters for Dad, and there would be several varieties of pie for dessert  --  pumpkin, blueberry, and mincemeat.

After dinner we would retire to the parlor, where Aunts Glenadore and Charlotte would entertain us with piano and violin, until it was time for us all to gather around the old Victorian era upright with its trilling tremolo, to belt out, "Swing the Shining Sickle," a harvest song from the 1920's.

Only then was it permitted to turn on the television for the inevitable football games, which Dad watched while we kids dozed on the sofa, overcome by a surfeit of soporific turkey flesh and other goodies.

My earliest memories of these holiday gatherings include my great-grandmother, Kittie Van Slyke, who was born in 1868, and who lived to be 94 years old. It was she who owned the book of household hints and recipes, "Queen of the Household," which has been passed down to me along with Minnie's handwritten notebook.

Queen of the Household - Frontispiece
While leafing through the crumbling pages of this 120-year-old volume earlier this afternoon, I wondered how families in the Mohawk Valley celebrated Thanksgiving in Kittie's young adulthood. The holiday was declared an official day of  thanksgiving and praise by President Abraham Lincoln a few short years before Kittie was born. Perhaps by the time her cookbook was published, some traditions had already emerged.

Sure enough, on page 531, in a chapter entitled "A Year's Bill of Fare," I came upon a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner:

                                                Thanksgiving Dinner

Oyster soup                    
Roast Turkey, with Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Mashed Turnips
Roast Pig
Carrots With Cream
Boston Baked Beans
Minced Cabbage
Pumpkin Pie
Plum Pudding
Fruit, Nuts, Cheese
Tea and Coffee

With the exception of the roast pig, plum pudding, and perhaps the oyster soup, the menu is not so different from the typical Thanksgiving fare of today. Stay tuned; perhaps I'll try out a recipe or two this Thursday . . .

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Home of Their Own

Elisabeth & Barend, with baby Jake 1912
As their family grew, Elisabeth and Barend began to realize that the apartment on Third Avenue was too small. In the early 1920’s, they purchased a plot of land on the outskirts of Albany, near where the Eagle Point Elementary School now stands. Today, seeing the paved streets and rows of houses in the neighborhood where I grew up (a block away from “the old homestead”), I try to imagine what it must have been like there in that previous era. The main road, Route 20, was paved, but there were no streets yet adjacent to their house. The family had to walk through a grassy field to get to the road, where a trolley would take them downtown. 

With his carpentry skills, Barend built a small house, then a larger one for the growing family. They planted fruit trees and a grape arbor in the lower lot next to the house. The only thing missing to replicate the bucolic environment of their rural villages in the Netherlands was  a cow to provide milk for the children.

But where to find a cow in New York State’s capital city? Across the Hudson River in rural Rensselaer County lived another Dutch family who owned several cows, and who agreed to sell a Holstein named “Baasje” (“Bossie”) to the VandenBerghs. The only catch was, lacking a truck to transport the cow home from the farm, Barend would have to walk the animal from Castleton on the eastern side of the river to the western edge of Albany, a distance of twelve and a half miles (20 kilometers). This journey must have taken about six hours, with Barend leading the bovine slowly along the river, past Poplar Island, Cow Island, Bear Island, and Cabbage Island, across the river at Rensselaer, and along Route 20 to Beacon Avenue, perhaps stopping here and there along the way, wherever he could find water for the thirsty animal.

It must have been worth the journey, because eventually the family owned three or four cows, including a calf which became a family pet. It was this calf that had the unfortunate fate of being slaughtered for beef steak, as the children watched horrified from an upstairs window. After that experience, the family determined that they would never do such a thing again. 

But they continued to enjoy the fruits of their labors, and of their garden in the lower lot.

VandenBergh family 1937, in lower lot with blossoming fruit trees

                                                                              *   *   *

I don't know whether the family grew endive in their kitchen garden, but if so, Grandma may have prepared this stamppot recipe from her cookbook. Endive is quite bitter, and thus an acquired taste, but in this recipe the bitter flavor is mitigated by the blandness of the mashed potatoes.

Stamppot With Endive:


- 5 or 6 small or 3 large potatoes
- 3 endives
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 - 2 tablespoons butter or margarine

- Peel and rinse potatoes. If using large potatoes, cut in quarters.

- Place the potatoes in salted water, just barely covering the potatoes.

- Lay the washed and trimmed endives on top of the potatoes, so that they will be steamed as the potatoes boil.

Boiling potatoes with endive

- Cook until potatoes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

- Drain so that there is about a half inch of water in the bottom of the pan.

- Mash the potatoes and endive together, with a tablespoon or two of butter or margarine.

Stamppot with endive

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gathering Nuts -- Montgomery County, Late 1940's

It was a sun-dazzled late autumn afternoon, much like today. We don't know the exact date, but the photos may have been taken the year Mom and Dad were married (1946); if so, it was probably not more than six weeks after their wedding. Mom and Dad enclose the rest of the party like bookends: Mom in a pinkish skirt and sweater set, and Dad in a blue shirt or sweater, frozen in the act of tossing a stick at the tree branches to shake down a few more nuts.

This is the only slide in the series where I can positively identify each of the figures. Moving right from Mom, we see Dad's sister Doris, Grandma Minnie, and sisters Charlotte and Margaret. I can hear their voices as clearly as if I had been there that day  --  Grandma Minnie exclaiming, "Land sakes, Bill, don't hit your sister with that stick!"

Mom stands a little apart from the family group, perhaps still a bit shy with her new sisters-in-law, or perhaps simply not dressed for the occasion, not having known that the visit to the in-laws would include an excursion to the countryside to gather nuts. Otherwise, why the pink skirt and high heels? I'm sure she wanted to make a good impression on Dad's sisters.

Just as the figures in the photos are frozen in mid-gesture, the sunny afternoon in central New York seems congealed in time, at the cusp of the changing seasons and times. It was like that moment when the sun tinges the treetops with gold just before it makes its way over the rooftops to bathe the entire landscape in light.

In history, this moment was the pause after World War II, when horror gave way to hope, the GI's came home, and reconstruction was about to begin in Europe. The returning soldiers would fuel not only an economic boom, but a baby boom as well. The babies born that year are now in their sixties and collecting Social Security.

Today we turned the clocks back one hour ("Spring ahead, fall back"), to return to Standard Time from Daylight Savings Time.

But we can't really turn the clock back, certainly not to that autumn afternoon of 65 years ago. We can only look back and ponder with hindsight at time's relentless march, and at what we know now that the figures on that idyllic afternoon didn't know: a creeping mass of frigid air known as the Cold War would dampen spirits for the next few decades in spite of the hopefulness of the present moment.

And what would the family do with the nuts they gathered that day? It is difficult to tell what kind of nuts they were, perhaps chestnuts for a Thanksgiving stuffing recipe, or maybe some other variety that Minnie would use in one of her recipes for fruit conserves.

I have not attempted any of these recipes yet; they call for enormous quantities of fruit and sugar, but curiously no pectin such as we would expect as a thickening agent in a modern recipe for jam or jelly. The fruits used may naturally contain a certain amount of pectin, which may also be the reason for the inclusion of the grated orange rind. The purplish blots on the paper indicate that Minnie must have used at least one of the recipes and dripped a few drops of the fruit mixture while testing whether it had jelled or not.

If any reader tries one of the recipes, please let me know how it turned out!

Thank you to Margriet W. for scanning these slides.