Yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas Hedgehog!

During the holidays, it’s the curatorial team’s job to festoon Historic Kenmore in period-appropriate holiday swag to celebrate the Christmas season.  Greenery is brought in to cheer up the rooms and a table of special desserts is laid out as if ready for Christmas guests.  These sweet treats are a pretty traditional fare but one particular dessert garners far more attention and questions than the others: the hedgehog sitting at the center of the table.

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The Christmas dessert table complete with faux marzipan hedgehog in the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

“What is it?” and “Why a hedgehog?” are heard from visitors again and again.  I decided to investigate to see if I could find out how and why this spiny confection graced Betty Lewis’s table during the holidays.  Unfortunately, my research raised more questions than answers and ultimately lead me to an interesting but ambiguous conclusion based mainly on my own conjecture.

First, I have often heard the hedgehog referred to as a “cake” but it is not a cake.  It is made out of marzipan; a sweet created using sugar or honey and ground almonds.  Marzipan can be flavored, contain fruit and nuts, or even covered in chocolate …the possibilities are endless!  It is often shaped into miniature fruits, vegetables, or animals and colored with dyes.  The confection is usually eaten on special days or for special events.

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A closer view of the faux marzipan hedgehog.

No one knows for sure where marzipan was first created but it likely originated in the Middle East around the ninth-century.[1] It made its way to Europe through trade and immigration. Each country personalized the candy by adding its own unique ingredients and traditions.

Regardless of which country has the honor of creating this particular delicious dessert, it became quite popular. Recipes for marzipan began to show up in various cookbooks dating from the sixteenth century onward.   The two books most important to my investigation were The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith published in 1727 and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1747.  We know Betty owned both of these books because they are listed in the 1781 probate inventory. [2]

In Mrs. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, the chapter “All Sorts of Cakes” includes a recipe for ‘march-pane’ which is an old English word for marzipan.[3]  The recipe is a traditional non-baked marzipan that includes ground almond, refined sugar and orange-flower water for flavoring. [4] Twenty years after Mrs. Smith published her book, Mrs. Glasse published The Art of Cookery and, by this time, the hedgehog had made its debut.  The Art of Cookery does not list marzipan specifically but in chapter sixteen titled “Cheesecakes, creams, jellies, whipt syllabubs” there is a recipe “To make a hedge-hog”.[5]  This is a cooked marzipan recipe that instructs the baker to form the almond paste into the shape of a hedge-hog with little slivered almond spines.

How did the hedgehog become associated with this almond dessert? The short answer is I’m not sure.  I researched hedgehogs trying to discover any relation to the holiday season, to winter, or to the New Year. I was unable to find any.

Hedgehogs are native to England, where both cookbooks were published, but not to the Americas.[6]  Colonial Americans would likely never have seen a hedgehog.   There is not a lot of positive symbolism or folklore associated with the little creatures besides being industrious and cute.[7]  They have been used medicinally for a variety of ailments and were a food source in many cultures.[8]  None of this provides a reason why these little creatures were immortalized in almond meal and sugar at Christmas.

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A photo of a real hedgehog because it’s so cute! Credit: Wikimedia/AlmaGz

I think the most likely development of this holiday treat was a combination of coincidence and novelty. Someone made the marzipan for the holidays,shaped it into a dome, and then decorated it with almonds. Eventually maybe someone else thought this resembled a hedgehog and added a little hedgehog face because it was clever and cute.

Why would Betty choose a marzipan hedgehog to sit on her holiday dessert table in colonial Virginia? As previously noted, marzipan was an established treat used to celebrate special days. The cost of the ingredients, which included two pounds of almonds, orange-flower water, canary wine, cream, butter and sugar, was substantial and illustrated to guests the effort and expense the family lavished on the party.  While the table would probably have smaller bite-sized marzipan pieces in the more traditional fruit shapes, the novel hedgehog with the slivered almond spines created a visually appealing and attention-grabbing dish. The Christmas hedgehog was a great conversation starter then!  The Christmas hedgehog is a great conversation starter now!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum, Sweet Delights from A Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), 168: Sidney W. Mintz, “Color, Taste and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan”, Etnofoor, Jaarg. 4, Nr.1 (1991): 103-108.

[2] Fielding Lewis Probate Inventory, 1781

[3] Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswifes Jewell (London: John Wolfe, 1587), 23; Thomas Dawson, The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin. (London: Richard Jones, 1594), 37b.

[4] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, (Williamsburg: William Parks, 1742), 73.

[5] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London: A. Millar and R. Tonson, 1765), 288.

[6] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 63.

[7] Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Tatjana Civjan and Dainius Razauskas, “Hedgehog in Cosmogonic and Etiological Legends of the Balto-Balcanic Area,” Tautosakos darbai, no. XXI (2004): 79-91.

[8] Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 64; Vincent Nijman and Daniel Bergin, “Trade in Hedgehogs in Morocco,” Journal of Threatened Taxa, (2015): 7132-7136.

Summer Greens from the Colonial Garden

Typically, when modern Americans think of summer barbecue food, they think of meat grilled over an open flame. While that would certainly appeal to an eighteenth century audience, it is not necessarily what they considered ‘typical’ summer fare. Large livestock like pigs and cattle were usually slaughtered and butchered in the late fall/early winter when the weather was far more conducive to task. This meant that large roasts (like mentioned in our earlier blog) were not the norm in the warmer months. Instead, people of the 18th century looked to the seasonality of ingredients to inspire their summer time fare.

Eighteenth century diets were very dependent on the growing seasons. Summer was a bounty of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, and anything else that could not be had in the dead of winter. Much like today, there were a variety of methods, styles, and recipes used to please the numerous palates.

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The demonstration garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

With today’s weekend farmers markets and roadside stands, a salad seems the ubiquitous summer option. But what would our forefathers have thought of raw vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar? They certainly had all of the elements available to them but their tastes were different than ours. After all, we still have oysters and ice cream but most of us no longer enjoy oyster ice cream.

While the oldest references to salad come from ancient Rome (usually referred to as sallet) it was not ubiquitous in English summer cuisine. While there are some references in cookbooks and menus of the time that called for ‘salad herbs’ like lettuce and spinach to be served raw, most of their English recipes called for cooking the vegetables in some way.

The modern stereotype of English cooking insists that greens be boiled until no real flavor or texture remains. And while many of 18th century recipes for vegetables include boiling (and some for quite some time) there is also this warning in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

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Hannah Glasse cautions her readers not to “over-boil” fresh garden greens.

There was a clear appreciation for fresh vegetables even if they were prepared in some manner.  An appreciation that extended into George Washington’s own household. One recipe included in Martha Washington’s cookbook was for a ‘Lettis Tart’ which called for ‘cabbage lettis’ and prunes to be put in a crust with cinnamon and ginger and then baked like a pie.

In addition to recipes calling for fresh fruits and vegetables, early Americans were very familiar with numerous preservation methods in order to enjoy vegetables and fruit out of season. In the summer they would pickle vegetables, dry herbs, and make preserves with fruits so they could enjoy them all year long.

In September 1784, George Washington traveled west of the Allegany Mountains. He recorded some of his supplies in his diary and includeed a canteen filled with ‘Chery Bounce’. This was a drink made from cherries preserved in brandy and was a way for Washington to take the taste of Virginia summer with him on his travels.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Demonstration Garden.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Ferry Farm’s demonstration garden.

This summer when you are contemplating your patriotic picnic options for your July Fourth festivities, don’t pass up the greener options. They have far more in common with the summer options of our founding fathers than you may have originally believed.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Fredericksburg’s June Fair

Ask someone to list traditional summertime activities and they will probably mention picnics, family reunions, beach vacations, mountain getaways, and baseball games. Their list is likely to include going to the fair as well.  The fair as a summer pastime is a long tradition and like many American traditions can be traced back to the age of Washington.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his wife Mary and their five children, including six-year-old George, to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Coincidentally, in the same year, the colony’s General Assembly authorized two fairs to be held each year in Fredericksburg (pg. 35). This act built on an earlier ordinance passed in 1705 allowing for ‘markets and fairs’ as a necessary and civilizing element of early Virginian society.

Although other cities held fairs, Fredericksburg was one of the few that held a fair in June.  Sometimes called June Fair, it was one of the oldest and largest in the colony.  June Fair and other fairs were “first and foremost a market ‘for the sale and vending of all manner of cattle, victuals, provisions, goods, wares, and merchandizes.’ Prizes, ‘or bounties,’ were sometimes offered for the best stock and poultry” (pg. 18).

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726, Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Although this painting depicts a busy London agricultural market in the early 1700s, a similar hustle and bustle likely filled Fredericksburg during June Fair.  Covent Garden (1726) by Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Oil on copper. Pubic domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Fairs were about more than agriculture, however. The importance of a summer fair was its ability to gather people from all over the surrounding counties to a single central location to conduct business and government and to offer social interactions and entertainments.  In an agricultural colony such as Virginia, homes and plantations were very distant from one another and, for much of the year, people hardly saw anyone besides their immediate neighbors and family members.  Most colonial Virginians traveled no more than fifty miles from home in their lifetimes. This made for an isolated existence focused on the constant attendance of crops. During natural seasonal breaks, however, farmers traveled to a town to sell those crops at the fair.

Fairs were not just for farmers to sell. Court sessions, also known as ‘Public Times’, often coincided with fairs. Soon merchants and entertainers saw opportunity in the large numbers of people gathered together at the fair. Many people got paid or, more likely, an increase in credit and ready money made the fair a natural time to celebrate, entertain, gamble, and socialize.

Among the amusements common to colonial-era fairs,

“contests for prizes . . . in cudgeling, wrestling, manual-exercises, foot-racing, dancing, singing, violin-playing, greased-pig-chasing, etc. Prizes were offered to the most beautiful maid.  In towns large enough to warrant their attention, companies of actors sometimes arranged to give plays during fairs. Such plays, however, were held at the local play-house or theatre, and not on the market-square, where the fair usually took place” (pg. 19).

For example, in 1752, an acting troupe known as “THE Company of COMEDIANS, from the new Theatre at Williamsburg, propose[d] … to proceed to Fredericksburg, to play during the Continuance of June Fair.” The troupe hoped “That all Gentlemen and Ladies, who are Lovers of Theatrical Entertainments, will favour us with their Company.”

Company of Comedians - Va Gazette

Advertisement in The Virginia Gazette announcing the appearance of the Company of Comedians at June Fair in 1752.

The fair brought people together to conduct more than agricultural business.  Indeed, “the fair was also a place where men met to make and pay debts. Land, houses, storehouses, and personal property were offered for sale at fairs — privately and by public auction” (pg. 18).

During June Fair in 1751, 19-year-old George Washington auctioned off two of his lots in Fredericksburg.  His announcement of the sale in The Virginia Gazette offered the lots, “where Mr. Doncastle and Mr. Black lately kept Tavern, next June Fair, to the highest Bidder, for Cash or Bills. Eight Months Credit will be allow’d on giving Security, as usual” and was signed “George Washington.”

Washington Virginia Gazette Ad

Announcement placed in The Virginia Gazette by George Washington announcing his intention to auction off two lots of his land in Fredericksburg at June Fair in 1751.

A decade later at June Fair in 1760, George’s account ledger shows him paying Fielding Lewis £40.  Furthermore, just few days before paying his debt to brother-in-law Fielding, George also bought tickets to a ball and lost money on a horse race, both popular fair activities.

Indeed, “the most popular attractions of the fairs in Virginia and Maryland were the horse-races . . . held at race-tracks near the town. Purses were subscribed, and many gentlemen, who had no interest in the other activities, would attend the races” (pg. 19).

Gambling at the fair, mainly in the form of lotteries, even supported more noble pursuits.  At June Fair in 1769, a lottery was undertaken to raise £450 for building a new church and for purchasing an organ for that church.  The drawing was to take place on “the 7th day of JUNE next (being the first day of the Fredericksburg fair) at the town-house” and was supervised and supported by a host of the town’s luminaries including Charles Dick, Hugh Mercer, Charles Washington (George’s brother), George Weedon, and Fielding Lewis.

June Fair was a community event attended by Virginians from across the colony and brought George Washington back to his boyhood home on more than one occasion.  At the fair, Virginians sold farm goods and land, settled debts and tried court cases, enjoyed a play and gambled on the horses.  June Fair, much like today’s summer pastimes, was a moment in the year to enjoy the summer weather and the company of neighbors, friends, and family before returning to isolated plantations and farms and the unending work of plowing, planting, and harvest.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

“Dined at the Barbicue”: Washington Goes Picnicking

In the summer of 1770, George Washington came to Fredericksburg for an extended stay. His time here would seem familiar to anyone who has gone back to their childhood hometown. While in town he visited his mother, went to the tavern to play cards with old friends, and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. But the most interesting moment of his stay was on August 4, 1770 when he records…

“Dined at the Barbicue with a great deal of other Company and stay’d there till Sunset.”

GW BBQ Diary Entry (2)

While it is difficult to understand what exactly he meant by ‘Barbicue’. It is safe to assume that it was a communal meal similar to a modern day cook-out. Going to a cookout, a barbecue or a picnic, in today’s parlance, all mean pretty much the same thing – eating well-known foods while outdoors, probably seated on the ground, in a casual atmosphere.  Above all, it is a highly social gathering.  We use these kinds of meals to celebrate national holidays, family occasions or just a beautiful day – it’s what Americans do.  But where did this past-time come from?

In England, the idea of consuming light fare outdoors in the form of a picnic had been around since as early as 1748, when the word “picnic” first shows up in writing.  The word was probably a corruption of the French “pique nique” which basically means “to pick at small foods,” but for the English a picnic meant a fully mobile meal and all the accoutrements necessary to eat it.  Baskets of food were packed, equipment for entertainment (games of cricket or maybe some hunting or fishing) was gathered, and wagons were loaded (usually one for guests, and one or more for the provisions).  Then, the party set off to a pre-determined picturesque location, where it was all unpacked and set up by servants.  Although we might be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff these picnics required (everything from chairs and tables to cutlery and glassware), an 18th century English picnic was still considered a very informal affair by that time’s standards.  Guests might even be asked to contribute dishes to the meal (a forerunner of our potlucks), making recipes for picnic food were all the rage by the late 18th century.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers' Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers’ Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

While picnic’s etymology is relatively easy to trace, ‘Barbecue’ is far more difficult to pin down in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the term itself is nearly impossible to decipher. The earliest known recording comes from a Spanish explorer in 1526, who used it as a verb meaning to roast meat. In 1672, the first reference in English came from the writings of John Lederer, a German explorer of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Originally written in Latin, Lederer’s expedition reports were translated into English by Maryland’s Governor Sir William Talbot and published.

Many scholars believe the word “barbecue” most likely derives from the West Indian word “barbacoa” in the 16th century.  Believed to be a Taino word (although this is still up to scholarly debate), it is a term for slow-roasting meat over hot coals, usually using plenty of green saplings that would have created a lot of smoke. The meat originally roasted in this style was probably not the ubiquitous pork barbecue. While Christopher Columbus did bring some pigs on his voyage, it is Hernando de Soto who is credited with introducing the pig into Central America and Florida in 1539.

The word, and the meat, was probably encountered by ships’ crews during the colonial period and eventually made its way to the American colonies.  Slow-roasting meat and spicing it with various rubs and marinades was a familiar concept in a many parts of the world, and especially on the African continent, so enslaved Africans living in the colonies also helped to proliferate the cooking method.  As happened with many traditions from around the globe that found their way to the New World, a true “barbecue” as George would know it quickly became a uniquely American concept, combining the English love of a good outdoor meal and the exotic foods and cooking methods of the West Indies and Africa.

While the first American barbecues were practical affairs, held among enslaved communities or farming populations during the slaughtering season so as to quickly cook and preserve as much meat as possible, they very quickly took on a much more social aspect.  An entire town might gather for a barbecue, which might last for several days, perhaps to coincide with court days or a market.

Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington recorded his attendance at six such affairs in his diary, including one barbecue that he hosted himself, another that was probably held at Fielding Lewis’s house in Fredericksburg, and a third in Alexandria at which he stayed all night.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Drinking Vessels and Their Drinks

The goal of studying archaeological artifacts and, indeed, the goal of studying history more broadly is to understand the people who lived in the past both in the small moments and in the times of monumental change.  Something as ordinary as the beverages people drank and the objects from which they drank reveal what life was like in the past.  In this post, we examine three popular beverages, the vessels used to drink them, and their historical significance.

Tea: In the 18th century English speaking world, tea was synonymous with high society. Not only was the tea itself expensive (since it was shipped from across the globe) but the entire culture around tea was costly. One could not serve tea without a proper tea service or equipage. The first English references to tea come from early 17th century English merchants abroad in Asia. However, tea wouldn’t enjoy universal English adoration until later in the century when Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal in 1662 and brought the practice from Europe into England. From then on, tea represented wealth and high society wherever the English went, including across the Atlantic. Over a hundred years later, however, Parliament inadvertently changed tea’s beloved status amongst their North American colonists as colonists boycotted the drink to show their displeasure with the mother country’s rule. Even with that change, tea remained a highly-prized status symbol among many and even inspired some Americans to create ‘Liberty Teas’ from locally grown herbs and fruits.

Like the tea itself, teawares (the vessels in which tea was prepared and served) were fashionable and reflected societal trends.   Well-to-do families like the Lewises of Historic Kenmore exhibited their finest teawares and were expected to update their china cabinet with the most stylish wares they could afford.  Silver topped the list followed by porcelain. If those were lacking, elaborately decorated and finely potted stone and earthenwares would do in a pinch.  At the end of the Revolution, Fielding and Betty Lewis were reeling from wartime expenses so their teawares likely resembled this lovely creamware piece with a delicate strawberry flower at the base of the handle.  While not the most expensive teaware at the time, this molded creamware exhibited good taste and was suitable for the Lewis family to use while serving tea to their guests.

Drinking Vessels (2)

Punch: Much like tea, punch was also a status symbol in the 18th century. A punch’s different ingredients usually came from all over the world and were therefore quite expensive. Punch is first written about by 17th century English sailors. The word ‘punch’ is believed to come from the Hindustani word ‘paanstch’, meaning ‘five’, and may explain why historic punches have 5 parts: sweet, sour, strong, weak, and spice. Typically, the sweet was sugar, the sour was a citrus fruit such as lemons, limes, or oranges, the weak was water or tea, the strong was alcohols like rum or whiskey, and the spices could be nutmeg or cinammon. These 5-parts allowed punch to be made from any number of ingredients and to take on unique identities and flavors. Punches varied greatly between taverns and recipes (receipts) were closely guarded secrets. What was not flexible was the necessity of punch. Colonials could hardly have an elegant ball, a large celebration, or even a small get-together without the ubiquitous drink.

As with tea, imbibing punch was a communal event requiring fancy equipage.  The bowls themselves ranged from elaborately decorated to elegantly simple and came in many sizes. The smallest served a single individual while grand bowls served lavish parties with dozens of tipplers.  Some bowls even conveyed political opinions or leveled jokes at members of society.  Suitable for a modest gathering of friends, this tin-glazed punch bowl displayed at Kenmore was owned by the family during their more prosperous pre-war days. By the time they moved to Kenmore, however, this cheerfully hand-painted bowl was falling out of fashion.  Tin-glaze was less refined than later wares and was easily chipped and cracked, making it less desirable.

Drinking Vessels (3)

Fortified wine:  In 18th century America, fortified wine reigned supreme.  Lacking our own wine industry, despite the best efforts of Thomas Jefferson and others to establish wine grapes in the colonies, we relied on imported wines from Europe.  Because of the ocean journey, fortified wines such as Madeira, port, and sherry became very popular.  These wines shared one thing in common:  The fermentation process was halted by the addition of brandy.   This upped the alcohol content considerably and made the wine portable over long distances.   Most wines prefer a quiet life in a cool environment.  Fortified varieties, however, thrive on chaos and age better when subjected to extremes of temperature, humidity, and constant sloshing around in the belly of a huge ship.  These choice wines even exhibited labels documenting their torturous journeys.  Wines that traveled south of the equator before eventually making their way up the coast to the colonies were especially prized.  Once a fortified wine found its way into a household, it was likely stored in an attic or on a portico, where it would continue to improve while battered by cold winters and sweltering heat.

Today, fortified wines are considered desert wines to be consumed after dinner.  The colonists, however, needed no such excuse to pop open a bottle of fine Madeira.  They did, however, traditionally drink these more potent wines from smaller glasses.    This lovely lead glass example is hand-blown and engraved using a copper wheel.  Probably manufactured in England in the late 1700s, one can only imagine the delicious wines it once held!

Drinking Vessels (1)

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services