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

“With Double Its Weight of Vermin”: Bugs in George’s Bed

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The Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore

“I went in to the Bed as they call’d it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c,” wrote 15-year-old George Washington in his Journal of my journey over the mountains kept during one of his earliest surveying trips to Virginia’s frontier.

Furthermore, when young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior as a handwriting exercise in school, one rule cautioned the aspiring gentleman to “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others.”

As these two instances from Washington’s life hint, the days of early Americans teamed with insects.  “Bugs were everywhere,” writes historian A. Roger Ekirch, “especially given the proximity of dogs and livestock.”[1]

Except for maybe the lice on one’s own head and body, probably nowhere were bugs more problematic than in bedding and bed furniture.  “Bedding afforded notorious homes to lice, fleas, and bedbugs, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology,” Ekirch notes.  Bugs in bed was a significant problem indeed and “people in Britain often referred to bedtime pests in martial terms—for example, ‘troops,’ ‘detachments,’ ‘a compleat regiment,’ and ‘whole armies’”[2]

These insect armies certainly had plenty of places to hide. Beds of the 18th century were constructed of wood frames lashed together with rope.  The humblest of beds contained numerous nooks and crannies that served as home to numerous creepy crawlies. Wealthier homes were not safe from infestation.  Large canopy-style beds frequently decorated with ornate cravings greatly increased the number of hiding places for vermin. Sheets, blankets, quilts, and bed curtains added more hiding places.  Finally, the mattresses themselves were usually filled with straw or, for the more well-to-do, with feathers that bugs found to be soft and enjoyable homes.

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Bed furniture, curtains, canopy, and coverings could become infested with variety of insects common to an 18th century plantation in Virginia. Housekeeping guides of the time included instructions on how to make concoctions to eliminate bugs from one’s bed.

The number of bugs in bed meant that before going to sleep, “families engaged in ‘hunts’ of furniture and bedding for both fleas (pulex irritans) and bedbugs (cimex lectularius)” while they also combed lice out of their hair and picked lice off their clothing and skin.  Ekirch recounts that “to keep gnats at bay, families in the fen country of East Anglia hung lumps of cow dung at the foot of their beds, whereas John Locke advised placing the leaves of kidney beans about a bed to avert insect bites.”[3]

The Compleat Housewife, or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse, two popular guides to proper housekeeping in the 18th century, included recipes for concoctions aimed at killing bugs in bedding and bed furniture.  Both of these books were in Fielding Lewis’ library at Kenmore.

Glasse's 'Art of Cookery' frontispiece

Title page and frontispiece to Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (c. 1777).

Glasse’s recipe for “How to keep clear from Bugs” advised closing up the room tightly by hanging blankets over shut windows, doors, and across the mouth of the fireplace.  Then, one opened any closets, cupboards, drawers, and boxes. Bedding and mattresses were pulled from the bed and hung over chairs and tables around the room.  In a broad earthen pan in the center of the room, one placed a chafing-dish full of lit charcoal to which was added brimstone (sulfur) and, if available, “India pepper.” This pepper was a source of capsaicin which served as an insect repellent. The sulfur suffocated the bugs and, frankly pretty much anything else in the room. The cautions within the recipe about leaving the room quickly and about reentering the room after several hours are lengthy.  The process left an irritating residue so, before it was safe to reoccupy the room, it had to be cleaned first.

Smith’s The Compleat Housewife recipe for “destroying Bugs” essentially consisted of alcohol and pine resin.  Alcohol would kill any bugs on contact while the pine resin in the form of turpentine would act as a repellent to keep insects away.  One applied the liquid mixture to “the lacing, &c. of the bed, or the foldings of the linings or curtains near the rings, of the joints of holes in and about the bed, head-board, &c. wherein the bugs or nits nestle and breed.” The recipe advised pouring “some of it into the joinings and holes where the sponge or brush cannot reach.” This concoction was quiet unsafe as well for it also called for camphene, a high combustible mixture of alcohol and turpentine.  The Compleat Housewife warned to apply the mixture only “in the daytime, not by candle light, lest the subtilty of the mixture should catch the flame as you are using it, and occasion damage.”

Lastly, both books included one other “Effectual Way to clear your Beadstead of Bugs” specifically for use on bed furniture. This recipe called for mixing quicksilver (poisonous mercury!) with eggs and then spreading the goo throughout the cracks, crevices, and joints of the bedstead and leaving it there.

While all of these treatments would have been effective against the bugs, they were quite dangerous to humans as well.  The reprieve provided from infestation was probably relatively short-lived for the recipes all suggested repeating the process as needed.  Even with the help of Hannah Glasse or Eliza Smith, lice, fleas, and bedbugs were an ever-present and inescapable part of the 18th century life and could be found in the fine bed in Fielding and Betty Lewis’s chamber as well as in the dirty straw mat of the young surveyor George Washington.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005: 270

[2] Ekirch, 294-5

[3] Ekirch, 270.

Thanksgiving in George Washington’s Virginia?

As thanksgiving approaches we turn our thoughts to tradition, family, and feast. Thanksgiving traditions call to mind family around a table full of food, a roast turkey with cranberry sauce, or maybe even a romanticized recreation of New England meal from the 17th century. But what is the history behind that tradition? What would people of the 18th century Virginia thought of our feast? Would Betty and George Washington have sat down for a meal of turkey and mashed potatoes in late November?

Thanksgiving as a national holiday wasn’t born until the 19th century and many modern American concepts of Thanksgiving come from legend and advertising.

The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). “The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains” says wikipedia.org. Public domain.

But when you peel back the layers of myth and romance in the above painting, in the advertising, and in the legends, you find a history deeply rooted in the 18th century and just as at home in Virginia as in Massachusetts.

While many people tend to look to colonial New England as the origin point for this late fall celebration, these bountiful autumn feasts have existed in places all over the world and for much longer. Many agrarian cultures have celebrated harvest festivals to mark the end of the harvest season. Families and communities came together, celebrated the bounty of the harvest, and gave thanks for all they had.

In the 1700s, Virginian households were familiar with a large fall feast. Produce that hadn’t been preserved had to be eaten. Cooler weather meant it was time to butcher and preserve meat. Soon, winter weather would make travel impractical. Any farm that enjoyed a bountiful year could celebrate with a large feast in the late fall.

But what would have been served at those feasts?

The dishes typically associated with Thanksgiving are inherently American. Turkey, potatoes, pumpkins, and cranberries are indigenous to the Americas and were unknown to Europeans prior to the 1500s. By the 18th century, Atlantic trade changed this. Some American produce like cranberries and pumpkins did not enjoy popularity in England. However, other American food had been fully accepted into kitchens and cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Lewis family owned Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, a cookbook from which Betty undoubtedly pulled many of her recipes. It contains multiple dishes modern Americans would consider typical Thanksgiving fare. It provides instructions for roasting a turkey complete with stuffing, making gravies for every kind of meat/preparation, and baking a plethora of desserts. It even contains a mashed potato recipe on page 193 that would be perfectly at home on any modern table.

BOIL your potatoes, peel them, and put them into a sauce-pan, mash them well; to two pounds of potatoes put a pint of milk, a little salt, stir them together, take care that they don’t stick to the bottom, then take a quarter of a pound of butter, stir it in, serve it up.

But if we are going to study Thanksgiving’s historic details, what about the term itself? Thankfully, we have George Washington himself to look to. Seventeen months after the ratification of the Constitution the newly elected President put forth a proclamation at the request of the Congress and Senate that…

… recommend[ed] to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

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Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789 by President George Washington. Library of Congress photo.

The day assigned was November 26, 1789, the last Thursday of the month.

We may not know whether or not Mary Washington ever sat her family around a large turkey dinner at Ferry Farm in late November, but we do know that a large harvest meal would not have been uncommon. Since Hannah Glasse’s cookbook rested on her shelf, we can have confidence that Betty Washington Lewis would have approved of our present-day mashed potatoes and roast turkey. Finally, we can read the words of Thanksgiving proclaimed to Americans by George Washington, as the new nation’s first president. When you sit down with family next week, remember that you are part of long tradition and celebrating something truly American.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services