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.

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.

Portrait

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