Saturday, December 24, 2011

Grandma Minnie in Her Own Words

Grandma Minnie was born on Christmas Eve in 1890. As we have seen in an earlier post, she spent her childhood along the Erie Canal in Fort Plain, New York. Minnie always enjoyed telling her grandchildren about her life along the canal.:

Grandma Minnie reminiscing 1979

At some time during Minnie's "golden years," a family friend recorded an interview with Minnie, asking her about life in Fort Plain in the 1890's. Minnie's daughter Glenadore also participated in the conversation. An excerpt from the undated interview follows:

Interviewer: Can you tell me Minnie, about the days along the old canal? Did your father sell things besides the everyday type of food and like that at the store?

Minnie: Oh yes.

Minnie as a toddler on the porch of the store

Interviewer: Tell me, what did he sell? Did he sell supplies for the animals and like that too?

Minnie: You mean, for the horses? He had the hay and the straw and the oats for the animals. There was a building on the other side, and that’s where he kept the hay and the straw and the oats and the wood. And he had a rack for a cord of wood. It was slab wood.

Interviewer: Did the farmers and the townspeople sometimes come and trade there too?

Minnie: Oh yes, a lot of the townspeople come down and bought things and my father would deliver them. And I would ride in the wagon with him. [Laughs] Then I would go to the Larkin Company, and I would get a list of stuff that I wanted.

Interviewer: That was pretty popular in those days, the Larkin Company. Now tell me about the packet boats, did they eat on the packet boats too, and what about when they had to do their washing and like that? Did they do that on the boats?

Minnie: Oh yes, they did the wash; they had lots of water.

Interviewer: The canal water? Is that what they used to wash with?

Minnie: I guess so, where else would they get it?

Interviewer: Did the boats run at night or just in the daytime?

Minnie: Oh yes, I guess they did [run all night].

Interviewer: How many hours did they leave the team pulling the boat?

Minnie: Eight hours, eight hour shifts.

Interviewer: And the men changed then too?

Minnie: Oh yes, the drivers, and the lock tenders had eight hour [shifts] too.

Interviewer: Now can you tell me, did they have horses or mules on that canal, to pull the boats?

Minnie: Oh, it was mostly mules. And they’d change every eight hours; they had to walk [for eight hours].

Interviewer: Did they carry some of those mules down inside the boats, to have an extra team, or did they have stations along the canal [where they would change the teams]?

Minnie: No, they were always on the boats. And when they changed, they had to change while the boat was in being locked. They had a ramp, and the mules would go on the ramp, and then they’d go down in the cabin. And some of’em were balky [laughs], and they had a time to get’em there!

Interviewer: Tell me how the purchases were made at the store.

Minnie: Well, they had to get the groceries and supplies and take’em into the boats, when the lock tenders were lockin’ the boats in the locks, that was all the time they had to do all that. My father had to load up groceries and get’em and run across the lock gates and take’em [i.e., the supplies] down in the cabins, oh yes. And it was a lot of hard work for my father, because you had to hurry, because the boats don’t stay very long in the locks to get out. 

Minnie's family in front of the store

Interviewer: How many hours a day was the store open?

Minnie: It went right around the clock! The hired men had to sleep on the counter some nights, ‘cause the boats went all day around. And then they’d just take turns; one night my father would, and the next night, the hired man. They had to lay on the counter in the grocery store.

Interviewer: I was wondering when they had time to sleep, but they took turns then.

Minnie: That’s all the time they had, ‘cause the boats went day and night.

Interviewer: On the boats, the packet boats, can you tell me, did they cook and serve the meals on the packet boats?

Minnie: Oh yes, right down in the cabins, they must have had stoves, they probably had kerosene stoves, don’t you think so? Of course, my father had wood too; I don’t think they had much coal in them days.

Glen: Did any of the boats winter over here? Did they tie up for the winter?

Minnie: Why yes, in the canal. All the boats were there. They tied up at Lockville for the winter, and they could go to the grocery store and get all their supplies.

Glen: Well, did they live on the boats in the winter?

Minnie: Sure. They must have had their stoves to keep warm, oil stoves, or wood.

Interviewer: What about the ashes?

Minnie: They dumped them in the canal, ashes from the wood stoves.

Interviewer: Well now, didn’t those canals have quite an odor to them in the summer? It couldn’t have been very sanitary like that. What did they do with their garbage?

Minnie: [They dumped it] along the banks of the canal. Or it went down in the bottom of the canal. [Laughs]

Along the canal in Fort Plain

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about Fort Plain in those years. Was there any manufacturing at all?

Minnie: Oh yes, they was lots of things, different things. Manufacturing and stores  --  they had the knittin’ mill,  silk mill -- Duffy’s silk mill, and they had a lot of harness stores down here and they made harnesses. They had a lot of different stores, they sold dishes, one store had nice china dishes, and variety shops, “5 and 10’s”.

Glen: How about the carriage makers? Were the carriage shops in business?

Minnie: Yes, they had a lot of different ones, they had hose companies too, where they made hoses.

Glen: How about the fire companies, and racing at the race track?

Minnie: Oh yeah, that was a race track around behind there. The fire companies used to have races and Will, my husband, belonged to one of’em. And if you belonged for so many years, you was exempt from jury duty. I know when we were courtin’, boy, when that fire alarm whistled, Will goes a’scootin’, he always run to the fire, ‘cause he was a fireman. It was a great life.

Glen: How about your tea parties with your friends, down on the canal?

Minnie: Oh, I had lots of tea parties with the youngsters my age, because my father had a big case, with all kinds of candy and gum and stuff, and then we had soda pop, and they’d bring some cookies and something they’d made, and upstairs [from the store], we’d have a party. And I used to soak crackers, of all crazy things, I’d soak them little oyster crackers in water till they swelled all up, and ate’em! We used to like it. [Laughs]

Minnie as a young girl

Interviewer: How many months in the year was the canal open, Minnie, do you remember?

Minnie: Oh, it opened about April, and then it closed the end of the year. I think maybe it didn’t close until the first of December. It closed for the winter.

Interviewer: Was any water added in the summertime, when the canal got a little low? Did they add water from some of the rivers?

Minnie: I don’t know how they did that.

Interviewer: Well, they must have done it some way.

Minnie: Maybe from the aqueduct.

Interviewer: Minnie, do you have any other things that you’d like to tell people at this time?

Minnie: Oh yes, I wanted to tell you about the lock tenders. Between the two locks was quite a strip of land. And that’s where they had their little shanty, I would call it, where the lock tender stayed. They had a fire in there, and they would sleep in there, that’s where they slept. And every hour they’d change. And then they’d come over to the grocery store, and they’d shake dice, and my mother would make egg nog. And it was made of hard cider and eggs. And boy, was that good  --  that’s what the lock tenders said! [laughs]

Interviewer: Minnie, toward the end of the canal days, they used steam, didn’t they, on some of the boats? Did they have steam engines in them?

Minnie: Oh, there was steam boats, in the later times. And of course, they have a whistle. When they’re coming up there by the bridges, they’d blow the whistle, and my father was so familiar [with the whistles] that he would know when he heard the whistle just what boat it was, just from hearin’ the whistle.

Interviewer: Now, they had some pleasure boats too, did they?

Minnie: Oh yes, they had pleasure boats here, they’d have excursions. They would go from here up to Mindenville, to the lock. And then they would get off there, and along the road and up the hill a ways was a woods. And there was a sulfur springs up in there, and they’d go up in there, and they’d have their picnics up in there. Yeah, they had quite a thing like that.

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As Minnie herself said, "It was a great life." Later, as a young married woman, Minnie got the following cookie recipe from a neighbor up the street:

Minnie's Cookie Recipe

As you will notice, and is typical of many of Minnie's recipes, it tells us the ingredients without giving much guidance as to steps in preparation. I especially like the old-fashioned turn of phrase, "Mix stiff with flour." After experimenting with the recipe a couple of times,  I have modernized it as follows:

Minnie’s Molasses Cookies (From Mrs. Vrooman)

2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ginger
½ tsp. ground cloves
½ cup margarine (1 stick)
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup molasses
1 egg
½ tsp. vanilla extract
Approximately 1 cup granulated sugar for coating the cookie balls before baking

Pre-sift flour.
Sift together first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream together margarine and brown sugar.
Beat in molasses, egg, and vanilla extract.
Stir in flour mixture to form a stiff dough.

Molasses cookie dough

Cover and chill in refrigerator until firm (4 hours or overnight).
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. 
Scoop out dough with a soup spoon, and roll into 1 inch balls.
Roll balls in granulated sugar and place on cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart.
Press down gently on cookie dough with the bottom of a glass, to flatten slightly.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until tops are slightly crinkled.
Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack. 

In honor of the holidays, and Minnie's Christmas Eve birthday, my daughter and I made the cookies, using red and green colored sugar to coat the cookie dough balls. The result is below. Mix, bake, and enjoy!

Molasses Cookies for Christmas

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Iroquois Harvest - The Journey Continues

If you haven't already read last week's post, you may want to read that first before continuing here. 

It is late December. You have been trudging through the wintry landscape for almost three weeks. You are cold, wet, tired and hungry. Approaching your destination, an Oneida village near where the Turning Stone casino now stands, you wonder how you will be received  --  as friend or foe. A figure appears at the crest of the next hill. As she approaches, you see that it is a woman bringing you baked pumpkins to eat. Later, at the village you feast on bear meat and salmon every day, the latter caught in the tributaries of the St. Lawrence River. They are so plentiful that the villagers may catch as many as 800 fish in one day.

Iroquois Menu #2
Broiled salmon
Baked squash
Whole wheat bread

Broiled salmon:

4 small salmon steaks (or 2 large salmon fillets)
2 tbsp. canola or olive oil
juice of one lemon
½ minced onion (or 1 clove garlic, minced)
2 tsp. dried herbs (your choice  --  I use “herbes de Provence,” a mixture of rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano)

1. Preheat broiler.
2. Rinse salmon and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Place salmon steaks or fillets on pre-greased broiler pan. Brush with half the oil.
4. Broil salmon, turning after 5-7 minutes.
5. When turned over, brush again with remaining oil, squeeze the lemon juice over the fish, and sprinkle with minced onion and/or garlic and your choice of herbs.
6. Broil again until done, another 5-7 minutes.

You may wish to salt a little to taste. Garlic salt adds a nice flavor if you don’t have fresh garlic.

Baked acorn squash:
I learned this recipe from a roommate in graduate school. Who would have thought that the basic recipe was hundreds of years old?

1 acorn squash
½ c. honey
1 tbsp. butter or margarine
½ tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Wash squash. Split it open carefully with large knife.
3. Scoop out the pulp and seeds. You can bake the lightly salted seeds alongside the squash if you wish; they make a tasty and nourishing snack.
4.  Place squash halves, cut side down, in a shallow baking dish with ½ inch water. This will prevent the squash from getting burned and sticking to the pan. Place pan in oven.
5. After 30 minutes, remove pan from oven, carefully turn squash halves right side up. Pour into each half ¼ c. honey, ½ tbsp. butter or margarine, ¼ tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg.
6. Bake again until done, about another 30 minutes. Seeds will require less baking time and should not be placed in the same pan with the water and squash.

Heat a loaf of whole wheat bread in the oven for the last 5-6 minutes of squash cooking time; it complements the salmon and squash nicely. The Iroquois did not cultivate wheat, but they enjoyed the wheat bread baked by their neighbors at Rensselaerswijck.

Variation: Use butternut squash instead of acorn squash; butter and salt instead of honey. You can reduce baking time by cooking the squash in the microwave for 5-10 minutes. Or, if you’re really in a hurry, do the entire cooking process in the microwave, about 10 minutes each side. 

Salmon, Squash, Whole Wheat Bread
* * *

When the travelers left the Oneida village to return east, they were given salmon, bear meat, corn bread and corn meal to take with them. Along the trail, they would use the corn meal to cook sappaen, a type of porridge much like our modern-day oatmeal. According to food historian Peter Rose, in Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch, this Iroquois corn mush became so popular with the Dutch colonists that it became a daily dish for them as it had been for the Iroquois. In fact, it survives in a different form in our supermarkets, in canned creamed corn.

On the whole, the diet described by van den Bogaert is a balanced one, with ample sources of protein, carbohydrate and vitamins. In particular, the growing of corn, beans and squash together in the same field was the hallmark of Iroquoian horticulture and the basis of their diet. According to extensive research conducted by Dr. John Hart, Director of Research and Collections at the New York State Museum, the cultivation of these three crops in New York State in a system known as intercropping, dates from about AD 1300. This system, in which bean and squash seeds are planted around sprouting stalks of corn, requires a sophisticated knowledge of agriculture. It is a polyculture that mimics natural plant communities: The corn stalks furnish a support for the bean plants; the beans, as legumes, produce nitrogen which makes it a self-fertilizing system; and the squash vines act as a natural mulch, discouraging the growth of weeds.

In the cooking pot as well as in the field, the Three Sisters work well together. Corn is high in calories, and it is 7-10 % protein. Beans contain a larger amount of protein, including a complementary amino acid to that found in corn. Squashes provide significant calories, vitamins and minerals, and their seeds are high in oil and protein as well.

In the villages visited by van den Bogaert and his companions, foods such as venison, salmon, corn and berries were dried and either hung from the rafters of the longhouses, or kept in bark-lined storage pits or granaries. In this way, there would be enough provisions to last through the long winters, and to share with weary travelers such as van den Bogaert and his companions. 


Author's Note: This post, and the previous one, are based on an article that appeared in The Altamont Enterprise on November 19, 2009. Used by permission.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Taste of the Iroquois Harvest

Last week we went back in time to the earliest forebears of Grandma Minnie in New Netherland. Here is a story and a menu from the era when her ancestor Cornelis Van Slyck arrived in Rensselaerswijck in the early part of the 17th century:

Imagine walking in the dead of winter from Albany 100 miles west past Amsterdam, Canajoharie, and Utica, floundering through three feet of snow, sometimes waiting for flooding creeks to recede, and wondering where your next meal was coming from. Such a journey was undertaken by three young Dutchmen in the winter of 1634, the same year that Cornelis arrived in the colony. (To our knowledge, Cornelis did not participate in this trip, but the tales he almost certainly heard from its leader may have encouraged him to press west on his own at a later date.)

With the assistance of Mohawk guides, the trio traveled west from Fort Orange through Mohawk and Oneida territory into what is now Oneida County. As employees of the Dutch West India Company, their mission was to investigate the situation regarding the fur trade.

There were reports that the French were making incursions into New Netherland from the north, and were offering the Iroquois more for their furs than the Dutch were. The three men left Fort Orange on December 11, 1634 (377 years ago today!) with five Mohawk guides, and stayed at a number of Iroquois villages as they made their way west. Once the provisions they had brought with them ran out, they were dependent on their Mohawk and Oneida hosts for nourishment and shelter.

The leader of the expedition, Harmen van den Bogaert, wrote an account of their journey, which has been translated by Dr. Charles Gehring and William Starna, and published by Syracuse University Press in 1988. The journal gives modern readers a window into some of the customs of 17th century Iroquois, including an almost daily account of the foods the travelers were offered. Many of these foods sound familiar to 21st century inhabitants of the Capital Region: nearly every Upstate New York school child has heard of the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, which were the staples of the Iroquois diet. We also still enjoy turkey, salmon, pumpkins, blueberries, strawberries, and corn muffins. Although we may prepare these foods differently from the way van den Bogaert’s neighbors did, our recipes have their origins in the daily diet of the original inhabitants of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Some other foods that are mentioned, such as bear meat, beaver meat, rabbit and venison, are a bit more exotic to modern tastes, although not unheard of.

On December 14, van den Bogaert writes, “I bought a very fat turkey for two hands of sewant [wampum], which the chief cooked for us; and the grease that cooked from it, he put in our beans and corn.” The journal mentions cornbread on several occasions, which sometimes has beans baked in it, or chestnuts, dried blueberries and sunflower seeds. To experiment with replicating some of these meals, I came up with the following menu:

Iroquois Harvest Menu
Bean and corn stew
Cornbread with berries and sunflower seeds
Turkey drumsticks

Stew, Cornbread, and Turkey Drumsticks

For the bean and corn stew, I adapted my favorite chili recipe. You can either sauté the scallions, garlic and green pepper first, then add the beans and other ingredients, and simmer for 25 minutes. Or, as an alternate way of cooking this dish, I also tried putting all the ingredients at once into my slow cooker, and letting it cook on low for about 4 hours. Either way, this type of chili or stew always tastes better on the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to melt into each other.

Bean and corn stew:

2 stalks scallions cut into ½ inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium green pepper, chopped (or use red or yellow pepper, to give the stew more color)
3 (15-oz) cans kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained (The Iroquois grew several varieties of beans, so you can mix and match to suit your taste. I like to use 1 can each of black, red, and white beans. Or substitute a can of pinto beans for any of those.)
1 (16-oz.) can recipe-style stewed tomatoes, with the juice
1 (8 ¾ oz.) can of corn
½ to 1 tbsp. ground cumin, to taste
2 bay leaves (Be sure to remove these before serving.)

You can also add more flavor if you wish, by adding a half jar of mild salsa and/or a few slices of bacon, crumbled. If you wish to copy van den Bogaert’s description more closely, simmer a couple of turkey drumsticks in chicken stock and serve those on the side.


Great-grandma Kittie Van Slyke, who spent her whole life in the Mohawk Valley, had a simple recipe for cornbread: 1 pint buttermilk, 1 pint cornmeal, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt. I decided to make it even simpler by using a cornbread mix:

To your favorite cornbread or corn muffin mix, add any combination of the following:
1/3 c. sunflower seeds, 1/3 c. chopped chestnuts, 1/3 c. dried blueberries. If you cannot find dried blueberries, you can substitute dried cranberries. Or you can use fresh blueberries, which would make the muffins or bread more like our familiar blueberry muffins. Follow instructions on the package for temperature and baking time, and enjoy this hearty Mohawk meal. 
To be continued . . . 

Author's Note: This post is based on an article that appeared in The Altamont Enterprise on November 19, 2009. Used by permission. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reaching Back in Time

A series of photos from Minnie's family archives leads us back in time over 200 years. Like watching a film rolling backwards, we can reach back, first to a summer day 50 years ago:

August 1960

On a warm August afternoon in 1960, four generations of Minnie's family gathered for a family portrait on the side porch of the large house bought by Minnie's father in 1908. Minnie is in the top row, to the right. She is 70 years old in this photo. Her mother, Kittie Van Slyke Fineour (top left) is 92 years old. Two of Minnie's daughters sit in front of her, and son Bill is bottom right, with his family (wife Grace, and children) to the left.

At this time in history, Dwight Eisenhower's administration in the White House was winding down; in three months time, JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy) would be elected the 35th President of the United States. The population of the U.S. was 180 million, and the Space Race with the Soviet Union was on. The USSR launched Sputnik 5, with dogs Belka ("Squirrel") and Strelka ("Little Arrow") the very month this photo was snapped. The space capsule, with its canine cargo intact and alive, was safely recovered the next day.

Let's roll the film back another 50 years:

Van Slyke-Fineour Extended Family, Summer 1912

This family portrait may have been taken only a few feet from the earlier one. Minnie and her husband Will stand at the left. They are newlyweds, having married in February of that year. Minnie is a young 22, and her husband is somewhat older, age 37 in 1912. Minnie's parents Kittie and Fred Fineour are the couple standing at the right end of the row. Kittie, born in 1868, is 44 in this picture, and Fred (born in 1862) is 50. Minnie's younger brother Frederic stands in front of his mother. Other cousins stand between the two couples in the back row.

Front and center sit Kittie's parents, Jonas Van Slyke and Margaret Colson. Their birth dates reach back to 1841 and 1840 respectively, and they were married in 1864, when the American Civil War was still raging. But by the time this photo was snapped, Jonas had reached the age when he sat and pondered a lot, and his wife Margaret often admonished him to "get up and air your pants," as family lore reports.

1912 was a busy year in politics, with developments in technology and social history as well. New Mexico and Arizona were admitted to the Union as respectively the 47th and 48th states; Woodrow Wilson would be elected the 28th President of the United States a few months later. It was also the year that Roald Amundsen reported reaching the South Pole. Tragically, the Titanic ocean liner sank on its maiden voyage, having been struck by an iceberg.

The woman's suffrage movement was actively demonstrating in both the US and Britain, but women would not get the vote in the US until several years later. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the "bread and roses" strike  at the woolen mills was part of the movement for better wages and working conditions for both male and female mill workers.

In technology, the Ford Motor Company produced 26,000 cars that year, making the first modern electric traffic light, installed in Salt Lake City, a welcome piece of equipment to help regulate the increasing flow of traffic.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Harry Houdini, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall in turn captured the population's attention for their popular or shocking accomplishments, and the Mayor of Tokyo gifted the city of Washington, D.C. with 3,000 cherry trees to symbolize the friendship between the two nations.

Last but not least, chocolate lovers will be glad to know that the National Biscuit Company introduced the Oreo cookie the year this photo was taken.

Now let's roll the  film back about another 65 years:

Jonas and David D. Van Slyke

This daguerreotype was taken sometime in the second half of the 1840's. The little boy seen here leaning confidently on his father's shoulder is the bearded grandfather we saw in the last photograph. Jonas appears to be about five years old in the picture, but we're not exactly sure when it was taken. His father, David D. Van Slyke, was born August 28, 1813, and married his wife Sally Moyer in September 1840. David D. was in his early to mid-30's at this time.

In the latter half of the 1840's, the new science and art of photography was in its infancy. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre first demonstrated his invention to the French Academie des Sciences in January 1839. This image was apparently taken within the next decade.

While young Jonas roamed the hillsides of the Mohawk Valley, President James K. Polk precipitated a war with Mexico, hoping to wrest a large swatch of territory from that country. There was drought on the Great Plains, which had seen sufficient rainfall in previous years. White hunters began to decimate the vast herds of bison that roamed the plains, eventually depriving the Native American hunters of their source of sustenance.

Other names in the news were Brigham Young, the charismatic Mormon leader who led his followers from western New York State beyond the western limits of United States territory; Henry David Thoreau, who was jailed in Concord, Massachusetts for refusing to pay a tax to support the Mexican War; Edgar Allan Poe, who published "The Cask of Amontillado" in the September issue of Godey's Lady's Book; and William Morton, a Boston dentist who pioneered  the use of ether as an anesthetic during tooth extractions. This invention also found immediate use in operations on casualties in the Mexican War, opening a new era in medicine.

One last image, also a daguerreotype, takes us back another generation in Minnie's family history:

David Van Slyke and Betsy Hellegas

This daguerreotype, probably taken at the same time as the previous one, shows us David D. Van Slyke's parents: David Van Slyke, born on Christmas Eve in 1787, and Elizabeth ("Betsy") Hellegas, born in May 1790. They were married about 1810. If the picture dates from the same era as the previous one, David would be 60-ish, and Betsy five years younger.

With this image, we can reach back to the year of David's birth, the year that the US Constitution was drafted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, presided over by George Washington. The Federalist Papers published after the Convention urged the States to ratify the Constitution. By the end of that year, three states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey) had ratified it.

Three years later, the first US census in 1790 would count a population of 3.9 million.

David Van Slyke was the first of Minnie's ancestors to be born after the American Revolution. David's father, Nicholas Van Slyke, fought in the Battle of Oriskany as a young man. If we go back even further in time, we can trace Minnie's forbears to Cornelis Van Slyck, who came to New Netherland from Breukelen in the Netherlands in 1634. Cornelis married a Mohawk woman, with whom he had four children. We can clearly see the Native American heritage in David's features, even 200 years later.

                                                                        *   *   *