Transcending Seasonality: Preserving in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Recipes

By Rachel A. Snell

By the mid-twentieth century, the combined forces of science, technology, and industrialization freed the American consumer from the dictates of seasonally available ingredients. The tomatoes, peas, asparagus, spinach, and other vegetable delicacies once proudly featured in spring and summer menus in nineteenth-century cookbooks could be obtained virtually year-round. However, the desire to conquer the limits of seasonality existed long before the origins of the modern, industrial food system. The Fiske Family Cookbook, a manuscript recipe collection likely compiled by Joanna Ober Edwards Fiske and her daughter Joanna A. Foster of Beverly, Massachusetts, over the bulk of the nineteenth century, contains a rich and detailed record of the struggle with seasonality.[1] Instructions to keep meat fresh without ice, prepare cucumber pickles, dry apples, and create other preserves hint at the challenges of food preservation in an era before reliable refrigeration.

Table Diagram from Fiske Family Cookbook, ca. 1810-1890, Winterthur Museum and Library. The appearance of two detailed table diagrams in the cookbook hints the Fiske women had other concerns or aspirations.

Mid-nineteenth-century recipes like those collected by the Fiske women suggest the considerable effort women exerted to transcend seasonality in an era before reliable canning, refrigeration, and other methods of food preservation. Preserving, the process of preventing spoiling and extending the shelf life of foods using various techniques, was a fundamental development in human history. Preservation techniques like drying, salting, pickling in vinegar, smoking, fermenting, and many others evolved and were perfected over thousands of years. While the techniques to preserve food remained nearly constant, technological innovations during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries expanded the lifespan of preserved foods. Until the invention of home canning equipment, beginning with the patenting of the screw-on zinc lid in 1858, home preserving was limited by unreliable methods to seal preserved food from bacteria. Storage was especially fraught, since for all preserved foods “the more often they are exposed to the air by opening, the more damage there is of spoiling.”[2] Prior to 1858, sealing methods were imperfect with domestic advisors recommending queensware pots or glass jars or tumblers covered with tissue paper, writing paper dipped in brandy, or oiled paper. With these imperfect methods, the housewife had to be constantly vigilant for signs of decay amongst the family’s food stores. Lydia Maria Child advised her readers to regularly, “examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould [sic]; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.”[3]

Assortment of mason jars and lids.

Before the invention of Styrofoam trays filled with cuts of meat in refrigerated cases, preserving the meat was a considerable task requiring time and skill. In November 1852, Susan Pettibone recorded in her diary the multi-day task of butchering, processing, and preserving the families’ livestock. On November 17, Pettibone records killing a 330lb pig. On the nineteenth, she and her sister Julia “worked at the sausage meat,” but were waiting for colder weather to tackle the larger cuts. The next day, Pettibone records Julia spent the day “making brine” to complete the labor necessary to preserve the pig slaughtered four days before. Similarly, in December the sisters require several days to prepare “our beef” for brining. Pettibone does not record the brine favored in her household, but Sarah J. Hale’s The New House-Hold Receipt Book included a versatile recipe “for hams, tongues, or beef,” claimed to “keep for years” composed of spring water, coarse sugar, common salt, saltpeter, and various spices.[4] After brining for a set period, dependent on both the size and type of meat, Hale provides minute instructions for drying and smoking the cuts of meat. The following January, Pettibone records, “Mr. Pettibone brought home our hams from Mr. Shepards they are beautifully smoked,” suggesting the Pettibone family did not smoke their own meats but arranged for a neighbor to complete the preservation process. Perhaps as Hale recommends, the Pettibones’s reused their brine, adding “two pounds of common salt and two pints of water every time you boil the liquor.” Various versions of this brine circulate in both printed and manuscript recipe collections, such as “cure for beef or pork” found in Mary J. Hall’s contemporary recipe book.

To Cure Beef of Pork, Mary J. Hall, Receipt book, ca. 1851-1927, Winterthur Museum and Library.

If brining and smoking meat was the work of the cooler months, the summer months were equally filled with feverish preserving. In 1853, Susan Pettibone began making cheese on July 4th. Just over a month later on August 6, she noted, “I have made my eighth cheese which closes my dairying for this season.” Although Pettibone obscures the prodigious labor behind cheese making in her terse records, “I have made my sixth cheese today,” Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery provides a sense of the process. Cheese making required diligent cleanliness and patience. Although Leslie includes precisely heated milk and purchased rennet (she also provides instructions for preparing your own rennet), her notation, “the best time for making cheese is when the pasture is in perfection,” recalls an intuitive and experiential version of women’s domestic knowledge that was waning by the mid-nineteenth century as technology increasingly conquered seasonality and preserving took on new meaning.[5] Recipes and diaries from this era suggest both the practical purpose of preserving (extending the usable lifespan of seasonal produce) as well as the genteel desire to produce confections that evidenced classes and status. Ingenious methods for preserving eggs, instructions to salt large quantities of beef, and the trading of recipes for curing hams evidence the importance of women’s seasonal labor to preserve food well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Fiske Family, Cookbook [ca. 1810- ca. 1890], The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE ; 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, Beverley, Essex, Massachusetts, (Ancestry.com [database on-line]. Provo, UT), accessed March 1, 2016.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1851), 231.

[3] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel & William Wood, 1841), 8.

[4] Sarah J. Hale, The New Household Receipt-Book (London: T. Nelson and Son’s, 1854), 518.

[5] Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 384.


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