FORTY FORT – Imagine following a recipe calling for a portion of butter the size of an egg or a small handful of flour. These were ounce commonplace cooking directions, said Mary Babcock.
Babcock, a registered dietitian, presented “Colonial Cooking, Foods, Recipes and Cooking Equipment” on Sunday at the Forty Fort Meeting House. This free lecture is the first in a series of three the Forty Fort Meeting House Preservation Fund committee will hold this fall.
Babcock, from Laurel Run, has been a dietitian for 52 years. She said when she first started researching colonial cooking she found a lot of information and needed to focus on one aspect.
“I decided to focus on vegetables and fruits because Americans still do not eat enough to this day,” she said.
Starting with the first settlement in Jamestown in 1650, Babcock said, the settlers were familiar with red beets, cabbages, lentils and potatoes, which they had in Europe. In America, they found corn, squash in the form of pumpkins and lima beans.
This meant they had to adapt and learn how to prepare these foods to survive.
With the lack of modern conveniences, settlers dried many of their foods in order to preserve them. This method, she said, removes the vitamin C, so illnesses such as scurvy became a problem.
“About 50 percent of the settlers died of malnutrition and sickness,” she said.
Pumpkins today are mostly eaten as pumpkin bread or pies. Back then, they were eaten as a vegetable to survive. “Pumpkins were very abundant,” she said. “Their vines would help protect the soil.”
In the northeast, grains such as wheat did not grow well, so corn and rye were the primary grains used, Babcock said.
“Eating corn on the cob was not done back then,” she said. “Their teeth were too weak to eat it off the cob.” Instead the corn would be grounded down to make breads, Johnny Bread, succotash, corn meal mush and Indian Corn Sticks.
Honey or maple syrup were the sweeteners available then. Babcock said the original recipes for corn bread never called for sugar. “Even today, many New England recipes for corn bread are sugarless,” she said.
Throughout her research, a common thread found were that the directions for cooking vegetables all stressed cooking them just long enough so the natural color was not lost.
If the color is lost and the vegetable is soft not crisp, the vitamins are gone, she said.
“We should follow this advice now,” Babcock said.
The cooking equipment during colonial times was mainly a cast iron kettle held over a fire with a tripod or a bee-hive-shaped brick oven.
“The only running water was from a creek,” she said.
To prepare the oven for baking, Babcock said, colonialists would line the floor of the oven with bark, then lay kindling over that and then some leaves. She said she read the oven was to be lit and left to burn for two hours before use.
Since temperature gauges were not invented yet, cooks of the time tested to see if their ovens were hot enough by sticking their arms in to see if the hair on the arm got singed, she said.