[A version of this post appeared on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog, a current, sometimes playful, and always lively resource on a wide range of Shakespeare topics. Shakespeare & Beyond is created for the great variety of Shakespeare enthusiasts—young and old, from across the US and around the world. You can see the original post here, and read more about our “recreation” of the recipe in a related post, here.]
Potatoes are an iconic food in the United States They’re a staple of most American diets, and at holiday meals they often appear twice – white potatoes mashed with butter, and sweet potatoes layered into casseroles with gooey marshmallows melted on top (a dish invented by the Cracker Jack Company in 1917) – on tables around the country. But potatoes have a complex and sometimes troubled American history, one that started outside of today’s United States.
Culinary historians and archaeobotanists now think that potatoes originated in Peru, and they were eaten by women and men living in South and Central America long before western Europeans arrived in these areas in the fifteenth century. Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are frequently conflated or confused with yams (genus Dioscorea), and this slippage began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Sweet potatoes are of American origin, but their first major migration was westward, across the Pacific: in the 13th c. CE, they were taken to Easter Island and Hawaii, and later to New Zealand. At the end of the fifteenth century, they traveled eastward across the Atlantic, when they were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus around 1493. Yams, another edible root crop, are native to many different places around the world: Africa (Dioscorea cayenensis), Southeast Asia (Dioscorea alata, batatus, bulbifera, esculenta, japonica, and opposita) and even South America (Dioscorea trifida). Potatoes and yams have a high yield, thrive in any kind of soil, are drought-resistant, and grow in many different climatic zones. Their taste is not dissimilar and neither is their method of cultivation (although yams extend much deeper underground and it takes more work to dig them up). And in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, people of African, American, Asian, and European origin were all growing, selling, and eating these plants, and they didn’t always do a good job of distinguishing between them.
By 1500, the sweet potato (and/or yams) had become an established crop in western Europe. They were a staple of European sailors’ diets. And they were fed – often with great violence, and by force – to enslaved women and men, on the African continent, during the middle passage, and after arrival in the Caribbean and the Americas. “Common,” or white potatoes, took a bit longer to catch on; they arrived in Europe as a cultivable vegetable between 1550-1570. Metropolitan Britain was one of the last European countries to take to the potato; the first mention of potatoes (sweet, “common,” or otherwise) in a printed British book was in 1596, when famed herbalist and botanist John Gerard included it in his Catalogue. This was apparently so well-received that a year later, Gerard devoted an entire chapter of his famous 1597 Herbal to this new and unfamiliar plant.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, more and more British subjects – enslaved and free, and on both sides of the Atlantic – began to grow, harvest, cook, and eat potatoes (as well as, and alongside, yams). In the early modern period, news of the potato spread through contact with print as well as people. Women and men learned about potatoes through experimentation, books, and word-of-mouth. They exchanged potato recipes with friends. They shared potato cuttings with their neighbors. They read about potatoes and tried their hands at preparing them. And some were forced to learn about and eat potatoes out of necessity, because they had – or were given – nothing else.
A team of Folger researchers recently uncovered a very early European potato recipe in our archives. The Folger Library in Washington, DC is proud home to the largest collection of early modern western European recipe books in the United States. And in one of these recipe books, a manuscript collection kept by the Grenville family from c. 1640-1750, is a recipe entitled “to make a potato puding.” The recipe called for some ingredients that would have been familiar to any early modern British person, like butter and eggs. But it also included ingredients that might have seemed luxurious and even exotic: sweet wine imported from Spain, cinnamon (which was sourced from India and Sri Lanka in the early modern period), and three pounds of potatoes. This recipe reveals one family’s attempt to bring a new and unfamiliar food to their table, but it also teaches us about wealth and social status in seventeenth-century Britain. The Grenville’s potato pudding was a fancy dish, saved for special occasions, and something that most early modern families would not have been able to afford.
We learned a lot about early modern markets, economies, foodways, and methods of cultivation as we studied the Grenville recipe for potato pudding, but we also wanted to try it for ourselves. So we invited Dr. Amanda Moniz, a former professional chef, veteran Recipes Project contributor, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy, to visit the Folger in order to help us re-create the Grenville’s potato pudding in our test-kitchen.
We faced three major challenges in making this dish in a form that early modern people would have recognized. First, the recipe calls for sack, a type of sweet fortified wine originally produced in Spain and the Canary Islands. Sack fell out of use in the nineteenth century, and isn’t available in most American markets. The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern sherry, and especially a dark sherry like Oloroso, which is what we used in our adaptation. The second challenge is that the pudding calls for a lot of eggs: eight of them, both whites and yolks. Early modern eggs were smaller, less uniform, and had different moisture levels than our modern American ones. In order to reach the right consistency, we cut the number of eggs in our potato pudding down to five, and we adjusted our cooking time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes so that the pudding would set properly. And last, the recipe doesn’t specify what types of potatoes the Grenvilles used in their pudding. But since sweet potatoes were the first kind of potato to be widely adopted in early modern Europe – and since we thought that those flavors would be more familiar to most modern Americans today – that’s what we chose.
When it was finished, the potato pudding was delicious, earning high marks from all of the members of our Folger tasting team. Creamy and rich, delicately scented with sweet wine and cinnamon, this early modern sweet potato pudding was both unusual and familiar, imparting a sense of the past without compromising the sensibilities of a present-day palate. We don’t know how often the Grenvilles made this potato pudding, but I’m going to be making it again very soon.
The Grenville Family’s Sweet Potato Pudding (adaptation)
3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
¾ lb. butter, softened
½ c. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry like Oloroso)
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
5 whole eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat your oven to 350F. Bring a large pot of unsalted water to a boil. Add potato pieces and cook until tender. Drain. In a large bowl, mash the potatoes with the butter until uniform and combined. Fold in the sherry, cinnamon, and eggs. Bake in a buttered casserole dish for 45 minutes, or until the pudding has pulled away from the sides of the dish and the middle jiggles slightly when shaken gently. The pudding will continue to set as it cools.
Sources & References:
Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain (London: Harper Press, 2006); Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); L.A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (London: National Trust Enterprises Ltd., 1993); Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972); Redcliffe N. Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949).
Interested in learning more about early modern potatoes? Check out this Recipes Project post by Rebecca Earle from 2014, and learn more about her ongoing research project “The Early Modern Potato: A Global History.”