Betty Washington’s Cookbooks

In the 18th century, more women began to publish cookbooks.  Previously, writing or compiling such books was the domain professional cooks or chefs, who were men.  Two of these women and their books, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy and Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, ended up in Betty Washington Lewis’s personal library.  She no doubt referenced these two useful books as much as I have referenced them in my blog posts about cooking here, here, and here.  Both Glasse and Smith were part of an innovative movement to create guide books on cooking for common people in a common language without pretense.

Cookbooks on the Probate

The “Compleat House Wife” and “Glasses Cookery” listed on the probate inventory made following Fielding Lewis’s death in 1782.

Hannah Glasse was born in London in 1708 and had her first book Compleat Confectioner published in 1742. Her second book The Art of Cookery was published in 1747.  This book on cookery was so popular that it went through ten editions before her death in 1770.  It was reissued another sixteen times after 1770, including two American editions in 1805 and 1812. The book’s commercial success did not translate to personal success for Glasse, however.  Unfortunate business decisions eventually led to her declaring bankruptcy, selling the copyright to The Art of Cookery, and being sent to debtor’s jail.

Hannah Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

The frontispiece of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Credit: Wikipedia

Eliza Smith and her life are shrouded in mystery and, unfortunately, not much is known about her. She wrote only one book, The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, which went through eighteen editions and became the first cook book published in Colonial America in 1742.  According to her own account, what she presented in the book was from her own experience.  Her recipes and tips came from a “space of thirty years and upwards during which time I have been constantly employed in fashionable and noble families.”

Eliza Smith's 'The Compleat Housewife' frontispiece

Frontispiece of Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion. Credit: Wikipedia

When these two ladies were writing in the mid-18th century, more people were residing in urban areas as part of the emerging middle and gentry classes.  These new relatively or very affluent groups were desperate to keep up with fashions, manners, and lifestyle of the aristocracy.

This often meant the middle-class housewife needed assistance with how to run a household or plan multi-course meals to keep her from committing embarrassing social faux paus.  The old commercial cook books were usually unhelpful since they were written by grand chefs for other cooks working in courts or mansions with large kitchen staffs. These books were filled with technical language and extravagant recipes with expensive ingredients.

New writers like Glasse and Smith became popular because they offered practical advice, common sense recipes, and organization.  They wrote their books to help average middle and gentry class homes with small staffs, basic cooking equipment, and a limited budget. As Glasse stated, she wrote her book “in so full and plain a manner, that most ignorant Person, who can read, will know how to do Cookery well”[1] She only hoped her book would “answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.”[2]  Eliza Smith had a similar goal, writing that her book would be a guide for the housewife where “the receipts [recipes] are all suitable to English constitutions…wholesome, toothsome, all practicable and easy to be performed; here are those proper for a frugal, and also for a sumptuous table.”[3]

Indeed, both women’s recipes had simple instructions, accessible ingredients, easy and practical help with weights, measurements, and cooking times.  Recipes had no French vocabulary, no complicated patisserie, and no confusing directions. They were just simple, delicious dishes any housewife could make or have servants make without formal culinary training.  Eliza Smith offered over a dozen different types of stew with everything from beef to eel and her pancake and apple fritter recipes sound delicious! Hannah Glasse included over 20 different types of pies, an easy and lovely syllabub, and even the first recorded recipe for curry.

'To make a Currey the India Way' from Hannah Glasse

Recipe for curry from Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery”. Credit: Wikipedia

The 18th century middle or gentry class housewife and her staff, e.g. Betty and enslaved cook Rachel, could use these books to create meals that no longer consisted of just boiled meat and a vegetable. Now, they could create a range of dishes that would not be out of place on the table of a Lord or Lady.  Betty could have dinners prepared for the week, plan special dishes for a party, or undertake extravagant desserts for her Christmastime table.  All would delight guests who were using the same books.

The Art of Cookery and The Compleat Housewife democratized cooking, which is something Betty Washington Lewis, sister of the first American president, would have appreciated.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, T. Maiden for A. Lemoine & J. Roe, 1802: pg 3

[2] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, J. Rivington and Sons [and 25 others], 1788: pg 4

[3] Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, J. and J. Pemberton, 1739: Preface

Making Ribband Jelly & Blancmange

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

As Christmastime approaches again, it’s time to focus attention on two more forgotten favorites from the 18th century dessert table: ribband jelly and blancmange.

Ribband Jelly

Our first dessert is a simple Ribband Jelly that descends from an ancient dessert called white leach.[1] A white leach was a milk jelly flavored with rosewater and colored with gold to create an elaborate pattern. [2]

Ribband jelly simply means the jelly has multi-layers of different colors.[3]  Ribband jelly was a popular dessert on the salvers of Betty Washington Lewis’s holiday table because it added some pleasing color and texture to the spread.

We will be following a modernized version of the recipe by Hannah Glasse in her book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy which was in Betty’s library.  Traditionally, the jelly is thickened with calves bones and Hartshorn, which is the shavings of the soft velvet from the antlers of young male deer, as well as with isinglass, which is dried swimming bladders from fish, particularly sturgeon. [4]

The Ribband jelly we are making sounds similar to one written about by Thomas Jefferson during his diplomatic mission to France, where he lived from 1784 to 1789.  He wrote down a recipe for a nutmeg- and lemon-spiked “wine jelly” on what appears to be an 18th-century version of a cocktail napkin.

However, we will be using the more modern powdered gelatin first made available in the Victorian era.[5]

We will stick with the original coloring agents, however, using spinach for green and cochineal (the scales of the insect Dactylopius coccus) for red.

Blancmange

Our second dessert, blancmange or flummery, we know was popular with Betty’s brother George during his Christmastime feasts.[6]

Initially, flummery and blancmange were two different dishes. Blancmange was a savory dish of capon or chicken in milk and was thought ideal for the sick. Flummery was a jelly made by steeping oatmeal in water overnight and boiling the strained liquor with sugar. [7]

However, by the 18th century, flummery had become a synonym for blancmange, which had evolved into a sweet almond-flavored dish made with milk or cream and thickened with Hartshorn, isinglass, or, later, gelatin.[8] [9]

Flummeries and blancmanges were usually made with molds to create elaborate decorative displays that served as the center piece of the party.

For our blancmange we will be following a recipe by Hannah Glasse again. It is called “French Flummery”. [10]  As a setting agent, we will be trying the traditional isinglass as recommended. [11]

These traditional desserts were the forerunners of today’s Jell-O molds that grace many tables during the holidays.[12]  Perhaps this year, try a traditional jelly or blancmange, similar to the ones that graced the Washington family table and enjoy a little bit of history with your holiday feast.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswives Jewell (London: 1596)

[2] https://www.historicfood.com/Jellies.htm

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isinglass

[5] https://www.encyclopedia.com/science-and-technology/biochemistry/biochemistry/gelatin#2

[6] https://www.mountvernon.org/inn/recipes/article/blancmange/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blancmange

[8] https://www.historicfood.com/Jellies.htm

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blancmange

[10] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

[11] http://foodhistorjottings.blogspot.com/2013/08/jaune-mange.html

[12] Moskin, Julia. “How Jell-O Molds Claimed Their Spot on the American Table.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/25/dining/jello-mold.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&fbclid=IwAR3HCrnhDlqGZtsO7F_AdZxRJ8qJwlvQ57iMMs2MCiuMUKTLbOkQGCi-bZ0

The Wild Game on the Washingtons’ Table

The holiday season is beginning!  No matter how you celebrate the next several weeks, you’re likely spending extra time thinking about food. We archaeologists are no different, only we also want to know what the Washingtons and their enslaved laborers ate, whether at the harvest, the holiday season, or simply a regular meal. Historians know about the past because people wrote things down in diaries, letters, receipts, legal records, and other documents.  Of course, not everything was written down, especially when the things as mundane as what people ate for dinner. To find out more about the diets of those living at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in the 18th century, along with research in historical documents, we also turn to archaeological analysis.

We previously published a blog post detailing floral remains excavated in 2015 from a storehouse cellar abandoned in the mid-1700s. This cellar feature contained floral remains (seeds and wood) which were analyzed by a microbotanical expert.  We are currently using this information to recreate the Washington era landscape and to plant in our garden examples of what the Washingtons grew.

Historical documents, namely the probate inventory of Augustine Washington compiled in July 1743, show that the livestock owned by the Washingtons included 6 oxen, 29 cattle, 19 pigs, and 11 sheep. Rather than consume this livestock themselves, however, the Washingtons most likely raised most of these animals for market.  Many of them would be butchered by enslaved workers, the meat loaded onto small ocean-going vessels ported at Fredericksburg, and then shipped to the British West Indies or even to England.

The Residence of David Twining, 1785 by Edward Hicks

“The Residence of David Twining, 1785′ by Edward Hicks. Although Twining’s farm was located near Newtown, Pennsylvannia, this painting includes great example images of livestock typically found on a colonial farm or even on a plantation like Ferry Farm. Credit: The WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia

To add to the probate inventory’s livestock picture, we also explored a root cellar feature under the Washingtons’ house as well as a root cellar feature associated with a nearby enslaved laborer’s dwelling.  In these cases, we hoped to determine what kinds of animals – or fauna – each group actually ate. These diets would be revealed by archeologically recovered animal remains, usually bones, called “faunal remains.” Then, we had an expert in faunal remains analyze what came out of these two root cellars.

Excavated Bone

Archaeologist excavating an animal bone at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Assortment of Faunal Remains

An assortment of faunal remains excavated at Ferry Farm.

The results for Ferry Farm were unusual compared to other 18th century sites.  The Washingtons weren’t only dining on typical domestic livestock like cows and pigs, they ate a variety of wild game and in much higher amounts than expected. Results from other studies show that typical 18th century Virginia households consumed a little under 4% wild game on average. Another study of planter households in Maryland and Virginia showed faunal remains only ranging from 4-15% wild game. The percentage of wild game recovered from the Washington house root cellar was a whopping 25%.

Mammal remains recovered from the Washington family root cellar include cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits, raccoon, white-tailed deer, fox squirrels, and grey squirrels.  Birds that were prepared and eaten include chicken, turkey, Canada geese, mallards and other ducks, bobwhite, and the now-extinct passenger pigeon. Fish eaten include longnose gar, stripped bass or rockfish, white perch, yellow perch, and carp. Shellfish consumed include oysters and crabs. The Washingtons also ate turtles, which were 18th century delicacies.

Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby

Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby from his famed Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published 1729-1747. Credit: Wikipedia

Longnose Gar by Mark Catesby

Longnose Gar by Mark Catesby from his famed Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published 1729-1747. Credit: Wikipedia

The species recovered from the slave quarter root cellar include cow, pig, chicken, possum, four types of fish, and an unidentified bird. Beef and pork account for almost 78% of the faunal remains.  What meat Ferry Farm’s enslaved people consumed came in the form of mostly beef, pig, and chicken. The relative absence of wild animals, with the exception of fish, shows that the occupants of the slave quarter did not significantly supplement their diet using hunting or trapping.  No lead shot, gunflints, or fish hooks were recovered in the slave quarter, the lack of which supports this conclusion. The enslaved laborers however were providing food for themselves by raising chickens, which account for over 7% of the meat recovered in the slave dwelling.

The prevalence of wild animals being served on the Washington table may be related to the makeup of the four Washington boys: George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.  The youngest Washington male, Charles, left home around 1761, meaning that the Washington boys hunted, fished, and trapped for up to 23 years at Ferry Farm. Farm life meant there were also frequent opportunities requiring the dispatching of varmints. At the time, hunting and fishing were considered fun and great practice for adult gentry life. There was also an economic benefit to provisioning one’s table with game. This supplemental meat source replaced domestic animals that could be steered toward the market, increasing the profits of selling livestock and poultry.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician

What’s Growing in Ferry Farm’s Garden?

As many of you know, the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm was reconstructed and furnished as accurately as possible using historic documents, paintings, letters, and, of course, archaeology. Now that the challenge of getting the house built and open to visitors has passed, it’s time to turn to the rest of our plan for interpreting Ferry Farm’s landscape. This will eventually include constructing outbuildings, finishing the work yard, and improving the garden.

Even though the present garden is located at Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center and not yet near the Washington house replica, we used archaeological discoveries to decide what goes into the garden this spring. Using data from past excavations on Washington-era contexts, we drew some conclusions on what the Washington family and their enslaved workers cultivated here. While most organic material left behind over 250 years ago is long gone, as archaeologists, we sometimes get lucky and find biological and botanical remains that have withstood the time in the ground. We get especially lucky when we do find botanical remains like seeds and wood because, depending on the elements, they usually decompose easier and faster than bone.

Visitor often ask how we find some of our tiniest artifacts such as seeds. For important contexts and Washington era features, we don’t want to miss a single (tiny) thing, so we use a water screen. Instead of the usual quarter-inch screen we use for dry sifting dirt, we use a gentle stream of water from a garden hose and spray away the dirt through a window screen. We then use tweezers to pick out the tiny artifacts left behind.  Objects like the straight pin in the photo below and seeds could otherwise fall through the standard quarter-inch screen.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-Cate-Courtney-24May2013H

Water screening

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-16May2013

Picking out the artifacts after water screening.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-StraightPin-17May2013

Straight pin

In 2015, we had flora remains from a mid-18th century storehouse cellar feature that had been captured by our fine mesh water screens sent to Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanical consultant for analysis.  Without getting extremely technical, I will say that we gained some very useful data to use to plant our garden this year. Seed specimens discovered archaeologically and used in cultivation consisted  of peas, green beans, wheat, and corn. Seeds included hackberry and, of course, cherry. The only nut uncovered was a hazelnut shell.

Along with this archaeological evidence, we also know that some tobacco was grown on the Washington farm because of court records. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was Virginia’s premier export and most valuable cash crop but places along the Rappahannock River like Ferry Farm were not great tobacco land.  In these areas, as our excavated seeds show, planters moved onto corn, wheat, and other crops, knowing they would never get rich on tobacco.

Using all of this information, we planted similar crops in the demonstration garden along with other crops widely grown in 18th century colonial America.

While seemingly insignificant at first glance, these tiny charred remains of flora give us a snapshot in time of the diets of the Washington family and enslaved workers at Ferry Farm. These definitely are not the only plants they were eating, but we do know via archaeology that these were stored by the family in the mid-18th century. Using the other archival resources listed above, we will continue to fill in the gaps and enhance our garden and landscape according to the historical and archaeological records.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Lecture – Foodways in the 18th Century [Video]

On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, Park Ranger Deborah Lawton of George Washington Birthplace National Monument presented a lecture titled “Foodways in the 18th Century” that explored the new dishes and changing tastes of the time.

Join us on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 for “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia” with Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation. Dave will explore some of the aspects of colonial waste disposal and put these practices into a larger context that in turn may make modern persons question their own sense of normalcy. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit kenmore.org.

Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

LiberTEA

With hindsight, the events of history often seem inevitable.  America was destined for independence from Britain.  All colonists were patriots who saw themselves as a nation and a people separate from the mother country.  This was absolutely not the case.  Colonists’ views on the appropriateness of independence evolved with events.  Over time, British identity gave way to American identity.

US and UK flags

The American Stars and Stripes and British Union Jack, the present-day flags of the United States and the United Kingdom. Credit: Hellerick / Wikipedia

We have written several blog posts about how colonists, including members of the Washington family, clung to their Englishness.  They expressed this identity through Westerwald mugs emblazoned with ‘G.R.’ for Georgius Rex in homage to three British kings named George, including George III who would be the foe of the American independence movement. They expressed their English identity through pipe bowls emblazoned with the British royal coat of arms.  Even as protests against their lack of representation in Parliament increased, colonists still hung onto their English roots through, in the Washingtons’ case, wearing cuff links emblazoned with an image of King William III, who “came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.”

The shift from a British identity to an American identity took time as colonists gave up aspects of British culture while they resisted, first, governmental overreach and, then, ultimately embraced full national independence.

Tea was one aspect of English culture given up as a political act to protest British rule and to show support for the American cause.  Abstention from tea drinking began with the Tea Act of 1773.  Parliament passed the Tea Act to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC).[1]  The government told the Company that it could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC could get rid of loads of tea piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists could get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company sold to the colonists was to be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If colonists purchased it, they indirectly accepted Parliament’s right to tax them without representation.[2]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[3]  Less well-known was a tea party of sorts organized by the women of Edenton, North Carolina, who came together on October 25, 1774 and pledged to boycott tea and other British goods.  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined these protests and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[4]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

By at least May of 1774, Virginians near Fredericksburg had given up their tea.   Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the Carter family at Nomini Hall, visited some neighbors on May 19 and noted in his diary that he “Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea.”[5] Indeed, as Fithan indicates and as we’ve previously explored in this post, coffee became Americans’ go-to substitute for tea.

Fithian did not seem all that enthusiastic about the tea boycott, however. A few months later, he got very excited when “Something in our palace this Evening, very merry happened—Mrs Carter made a dish of Tea. At Coffee, she sent me a dish—& the Colonel both ignorant—He smelt, sipt—look’d—At last with great gravity he asks what’s this?—Do you ask Sir—Poh!—And out he throws it splash a sacrifice to Vulcan” [meaning the Roman god of fire, of course, and not Spock’s homeworld on Star Trek].[6]  While “the Colonel” Robert Carter III “did not volunteer for political or military service during the Revolution. He did, however, sign the Virginia loyalty oath and supported the non-importation agreements drawn up by the First Continental Congress.”  He patriotically did not partake of the British beverage but Fithian clearly missed his tea.

For those who disliked coffee or simply still wanted tea, there was a black market to provide one with British tea but there were also American-grown substitutes that adhered to the boycott and came to be known as “Liberty Teas.”  Dr. Leonard Perry, extension professor at the University of Vermont, provides an excellent summary of tea substitutes used by early Americans during their tea boycotts…

“One of the most common substitutes was the native American shrub New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), also known then as Indian tea or Walpole tea.  Leaves of raspberry also were commonly used for these colonial teas, as were sweet fern and spicebush. Bark from some trees such as sassafras and willow were used.

Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), red clover, chamomile, and violets.  Leaves of herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon balm, and mints were brewed as many are today.  Many herbs were brewed in the 18th century including parsley, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and sage. Native Americans introduced the colonists to many of these plants which they often brewed to use medicinally.  Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of dried strawberries, blueberries and apples.  Rosehips, rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well.  “Indian lemonade tea” was made from boiling the berries of the red sumac.

Often ingredients were combined, such as a common tea recipe of that time including equal parts sweet goldenrod, betony, clover, and New Jersey tea.”

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). Credit: John Oyston / Wikipedia.

Tea would return to American tables following the successful War for Independence.  There are several receipts from the 1790s that show Betty Washington Lewis purchasing tea, including a type of imported Chinese green tea, at Kenmore.  But, for the most part, these imported teas as well as the herbal liberty teas were ultimately eclipsed by coffee, which became, like tea for the British, the drink synonymous with American culture.

Betty Lewis receipt for tea copy

Receipt showing Betty Washington Lewis’ purchase of some “young hyson tea,” a type of Chinese green tea, on February 8, 1797.

Visit Historic Kenmore on Saturday, May 4 for “Tea and Tour: The Ladies of Kenmore” focusing on the many generations of ladies who have called Kenmore home! Enjoy Kenmore tea and gingerbread while experiencing eighteenth-century tea service first hand. See the first floor of the mansion, learning the history of the grand 1775 home through vignettes, and meet a few of the extraordinary ladies of Kenmore along the way as part of this dramatic tour.

Event admission is $20 Adults and $10 under 17.  Reservations required and there are only a very few spaces left. For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

 

[1] Breen, T. H., The Marketplace of Revolution, Oxford: University Press, 2004: 298-301.

[2] Breen, 235-239.

[3] Clark, F, “Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages” in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, 2009 (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ: 276.

[4] Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America, New York: Ecco, 1981: 127

[5] Diary entry, May 19 1774 by Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1943, 147.

[6] Diary entry, September 26, 1774 by Fithian, 257.

Making Syllabub

The holiday season has arrived at Historic Kenmore, bringing with it our annual display in the house of colonial wintry traditions from greenery to lovely desserts. Two years ago, I explored the mysterious origin of Betty Lewis’s hedgehog cake and even made a pretty passable replica.  This year, there is another dessert on our table at Kenmore that I have been eager to talk about and even taste, syllabub.

Kenmore Christmas Decorations 2018 (3)

Display of desserts popular in the 18th century inside the Passage at Historic Kenmore.

Syllabub is no longer the favorite staple dessert it once was two hundred years ago. I decided to investigate this fluffy confection to learn its history and to attempt to recreate it. You may find that it’s worth reviving this old classic for your upcoming holiday celebrations!

One of the earliest references to this frothy treat is from a 16th century Tudor drama called Thersytes, when a character states, “You and I…muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe!”[1]  It continued to be mentioned through the 17th and 18th century in plays, poetry, art, diaries and cookbooks.  From poet laureate Ben Jonson to famous diarist Samuel Pepys to pioneers in household management like Hannah Woolley, Eliza Smith, and Hannah Glasse, they all knew and appreciated this sweet treat.[2]

Through the centuries, syllabub evolved to suit changing taste and convenience.

One of the oldest and most legendary syllabub recipes was informally known as “under the cow”.[3]   To make it, a poor dairymaid was supposed to milk a cow directly over a bowl of sugar, sack (a white fortified wine), brandy, and cider to create a “fine frothy top.” Then she was to let it sit for a few hours in a cool place.  It sounds simple, rustic, and even pretty tasty. However, this recipe was more fantasy than reality and incredibly impractical.  Despite being unsanitary, it doesn’t seem to work and splits the milk in a most unappetizing way.[4]

If you don’t have a live cow, another syllabub recipe, also rather dubious, was the so-called “Poured or Teapot” approach[5].  This method called for the maker to fill a container with milk and then, from a substantial height, pour it into a bowl of sugar, wine, cider or bandy, and a bit of lemon to create a light and frothy mixture.  This could actually work, if the maker used a heavily enriched cream (similar to modern heavy whipping cream). Otherwise, it also tended to create an unpleasant curdle. [6]

The two former methods, if they worked, were supposed to create a syllabub that was more of a drink and that was pretty heavy on the spirits.  By the 18th century, however, the “Whipt syllabub” became the most popular style of syllabub. It contained less alcohol and was used as a topping instead of as a drink.  The recipe called for the whipping of cream, wine, lemon juice, sugar, and sometimes egg whites. As the froth started to develop, the maker spooned it off into a sieve and let it dry.  After drying, the maker placed the little clouds of froth on top of a glass of sweet wine or jelly.[7]

The Sense of Taste (1744) by Philippe Mercier

“The Sense of Taste” (mid-to-late 1740s) by Philippe Mercier includes some “Whipt syllabubs” on the table. Credit: Yale Center for British Art

I decided to try this fourth style and used a recipe for my experiment called an “Everlasting syllabub” found on page 276 of Mrs. Eliza Smith’s cookbook The compleat housewife, or Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, published in 1773.[8] Betty Washington Lewis owned this book, which is listed on the 1781 probate inventory of Kenmore. Additionally, I picked this recipe because I don’t have access to a cow, didn’t want to create too much of a mess, and wanted to create a dessert rather than a liquor-infused drink.

RECIPE

18th century recipe
To make Lemon Syllabubs
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it in your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them overnight.

Recipe using modern measurements and a mixer and that makes less syllabub:
2 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

1 cup white sugar
½ cup white wine or apple juice for non-alcoholic
¼ cup of lemon juice
2 tsp of grated lemon zest
Nutmeg to sprinkle on top

Whip the cream and sugar (slowly tbsp. at a time) in a bowl until the cream begins to thicken.  Add white wine, lemon juice and zest and continue to whip until light and fluffy and just holds a peak.  Make sure that all the sugar has dissolved and does not give the syllabub a grainy texture. Serve chilled with a dash of nutmeg or lemon zest. Makes 12 servings.

Syllabub can sit in the fridge for a few hours but you may get some separation of the wine and cream. 

Everlasting syllabub creates a fluffier mousse that is great on its own or as a topping on jellies and trifles.  The recipe is quite simple and requires heavy cream, white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar. This is all beaten together until it is almost the texture of modern whipped cream.  The ingredients are relatively inexpensive and it took less than 15 minutes to create and serve.

After taste-testing my refreshing treat with several colleagues, we arrived at a consensus that this indeed is a dessert that needs revived for our holiday celebrations.  It is light, fluffy, and citrusy and would be a great palate cleanser after a heavy dinner or a nice change from dense baked goods.  For families with children, a non-alcoholic version can be made by replacing the wine with apple juice.

Finished Syllabub

The syllabub we made topped with lemon zest and nutmeg.

Our experiment was a success and many of you may now have a new dessert gracing your holiday table, if you can keep from eating it all yourself.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Syllabub.” The Foods of England Project, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/syllabuboldtype.htm.

[2] Day, Ivan. “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not ‘Jumble it a pritie while’?” Historic Food, https://www.historicfood.com/Syllabubs%20Essay.pdf; Pepys, Samuel. “Sunday 3 August 1662.” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/08/03/; Woolley, Hannah. The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Stored With All Manner Of Rare Receipts For Preserving, Candying And Cookery. Very Pleasant And Beneficial To All Ingenious Persons Of The Female Sex. Duck Lane near West Smithfield, Richard Lowndes, 1672. J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 114; Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. London, Company of Bookfellers, 1747, pg 218.

[3] MacDonell, Anne. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. London, Philip Lee Warner, 1910, pg 120.

[4] Day.

[5] Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary: Or, the Accomplish’d Housewife’s Companion. London, C. Rivington, 1723.

[6] Day.

[7] Nott.

[8] Smith, Eliza. The Complete Housewife: or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion. London, J. Buckland, et al. 1773, pg 276.