Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Market Assistant

I love reading old cookbooks. I don't mean 1900s old, more like 1800s old. It's interesting to see what things remain the same and what things have changed. On the one side are the forgotten kitchen skills of our foremothers (making buttermilk, waxing the pinfeathers on poultry, hanging meat); on the other are the things we have today that were unknown then (pluots, chipotle peppers, broccolini--not to mention frozen food, food processors, and silicone).

When contemplating the ingredients that we have now that they didn't have then, I checked in with my favorite food-history website Feeding America and stumbled across a book called The Market Assistant. It was published in 1867 by a guy named Thomas Farrington De Voe, who was (and this is for you New Yorkers) a butcher at New York City's Jefferson Market. The book was a sequel to one he had written in 1861 called The Market Book. In his preface, De Voe explains why there was such a big gap between the two books, which he had intended as companion volumes:
The dreadful Rebellion, however, commenced with the attack on Fort Sumter the day after I had arranged for the publishing of [The Market Book], and I concluded to wait for the suppression of the Rebellion before entering upon the second.
The dreadful Rebellion. Wow.

Anyway, here's the thing that I found that falls into the category of Things That Have Remained the Same. In the 1860s, ingredients not yet in season locally were being shipped to the Northeastern markets from warmer climes. As De Voe says:
Early in the spring from the South...many rare vegetables and other edibles are brought to market by the facilities afforded by the railcars and steamboats, thus inducing...artificial seasons.
And what did I find that they had then that we don't now? Actually, not much except for a substantially greater variety of things like potatoes, apples, grapes, and tomatoes--things now designated as heirlooms. But I did find these:
  • Swan
  • Fresh kidney beans
  • Scarlet carrots
  • Martynia--a fruit that was pickled like cucumbers
  • Potatoes with great names--black kidneys, peach-blow, yellow pink-eyes
  • Fig tomatoes--probably like squat plum tomatoes
  • Shaddock--a forerunner to the modernday grapefruit
  • Ground cherries (husk tomatoes)
  • Pineapple cheese--cheese in the shape of you know what
  • Chimney-corner butter--cheap butter, made in the winter (the best butter was made in the spring)

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