“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider.  In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast that loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples.  Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced.  Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995

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At the Kids’ Table …with George Washington?

Happy-Thanksgiving-One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall.  It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year.  With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.

We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century.  Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house.  Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.

What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often.  They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories.  Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production.  Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together.  Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.

In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished.  There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating.  Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit.  They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.[1]

The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces.   Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms.  Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.

The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time.  The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights.  As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).

Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period.  When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.

Hall on the Probate

Section of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 showing the furniture and personal property listed in the Hall.

The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories.[2]  The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans.  When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table.  But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids.  Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.

An Election Entertainment Hogarth 1754

“An Election Entertainment” (1754) by William Hogarth. The painting shows a Whig banquet thrown to win votes through food and drink, a common practice in both England and the Colonies. Two dining tables – a rectangular one and a round one – are visible. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Porject / Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm).  Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.

We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research.  Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.”  In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table.  In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.

Kenmore Dining Room on 12th Night

Kenmore’s Dining Room with both the round and square tables displayed during a performance of the annual holiday theatrical drama “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” each year in early January.  This season’s performances will take place January 5, 6, and 7. Visit kenmore.org for details.

So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons.  In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.  Basic Books, 2013.

[2] The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information.  Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=287

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/pdfs/wshgtn43.pdf

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=122

 

 

George’s Hometown: Julian’s Tavern

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Besides learning to survey and receiving his formal schooling, young George Washington also pursued an education in the social graces valued in gentry circles while a young man at Ferry Farm. These social graces included dancing, fencing, horseback riding, and gentlemen’s games like cards.  Card-playing was a popular pastime in the taverns that Washington frequented all across Virginia.

On one occasion – Christmas Eve 1769 – adult George passed the evening at Julian’s Tavern in Fredericksburg with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm.  This tavern was located at the corner of present-day Amelia and Caroline Streets.

George's Hometown 3

You can ready more about when Washington returned to his hometown for Christmas in 1769 by clicking here.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

ms 856 copy

Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  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.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

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.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

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

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218

Tales of a Patch Stand and a Porringer

For the past year or so my focus here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been determining what types of ceramics were owned by the Washington family. Once we have this information we want to acquire accurate examples to place in the reconstructed house for all to see.  From door hardware to teacups, most of the details of the house will be informed by archaeology or historic documents.  If a visitor asks “Why do you have these plates on the table?”, we can say “That’s an excellent question!  Because we’ve dug up pieces of it right over here!”  Our most recent focus has been on the white salt glazed stonewares, which have been featured in previous blog posts.  In this post, we talk about fragments that have been identified as a patch stand and a porringer.

First of all, identifying whole vessels from tiny sherds involves a lot of research.  This is made all the more difficult when you’re working with a ware-type such as white salt glazed that is defined by its plain white color.  So, it’s always a thrilling moment when you’re paging through a huge book with a tiny but distinctive fragment of pottery in your hand and you manage to spot the fragment’s whole object.

My most recent ‘Eureka!’ moment involved both a patch stand and a porringer.  You’ve likely never heard these terms but you may own modern day equivalents.  A patch stand is a teapot stand, designed to elevate a teapot, arguably the most important object in a tea set, above the other tea wares.  It also serves the practical purpose of keeping the hot pot off of the table surface.

18th-century-patch-stand

18th century pearlware blue and white patch stand. Credit: Woolley & Wallis.

At Ferry Farm, archaeologists found four small fragments from just such a patch stand.  The fragments all have evidence of ‘piercing’ or the cutting out of wet clay before it was fired to form a pattern.  The pattern created through piercing also promoted air circulation under the stand. Patch stands are not common in the archaeological record so we’re very happy to have identified the sherds. Now we’ll be able to furnish the new Washington house replica with a patch stand.

The other vessel is a porringer. Although kind of a weird name, porringers were really handy and ubiquitous in every colonial household.  A porringer was simply a bowl with a handle for eating soups, porridges, stews, and the like.  You may have some equivalent in your house, like those oversized coffee mugs you can also use to eat soup or cereal.

4x5 original

A silver porringer dating from 1742 and made in Boston by Samuel Gray II. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

porringer-handle-fragment

Fragment of a ceramic porringer handle excavated at Ferry Farm.

Stay tuned and keep your eyes out for a sweet patch stand and a nifty porringer once the Washington house is finished!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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.

hedgehog-1

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.

Hedgehog 2.JPG

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.

hedgehog-3

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.