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May 2002 Issue

 

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RECIPES

The following selections have been taken from Vaughan’s Vegetable Cook Book: How To Cook And Use Rarer Vegetables and Herbs.  A Boon To Housewives, 1898, a publication of  Vaughan’s Seed Store, New York and Chicago. Although this cook book offers standard cuisine, I have selected the “receipts” that  clearly reflect a garden at hand.

Nasturtium

The flowers are used to garnish salads, the young leaves and flowers make a lovely salad (See Flower Salad).  The young buds and leaves when tender are made into pickles and are used like capers in sauces, salads, and pickles.

Nasturtium Pickles

Gather the seeds as soon as the blossoms fall, throw them into cold salt water for two days, at the end of that time cover them with cold vinegar, and when all the seed is gathered and so prepared, turn over them fresh boiling hot vinegar plain or spiced with cloves, cinnamon, mace, pepper, briken nutmeg, bay leaves and horseradish.  Cork tightly.

A Flower Salad

The most beautiful salad ever imagined is rarely seen upon our tables, although the principal material for its concoction may be grown in the tiniest yard.  Anyone who has tried growing nasturtiums must admit that they almost take care of themselves, and if the ground is enriched but a little their growth and yield of blossom is astonishingly abundant…Professor Blot, that prince of saladmakers, recommends the use of the blossoms and petals (not the leaves) of roses, pinks, sage, lady’s slipper, marshmallow and periwinkle, as well as the nastutium, for decorating the ordinary lettuce salad…. These salads should be dressed at the table by the mistress, as, of course, a little wilting is sure to follow if the seasoning has been applied for any length of time.…If the eye is not trained to measure pepper and salt and the hostess is timid about dressing a salad, let her have measured in a pretty cut-glass sprinkler a teaspoon of salt and half of pepper mixed, for ever two of oil.  For a small salad the two of oil and one of vinegar will be sufficient.…How simple, and yet there are women who never have done the graceful thing of dressing lettuce at the table.

A Cabbage Center Piece

Take a head of cabbage, one that has been picked too late is best, for the leaves open better then, and are apt to be slightly curled.  Lay the cabbage on a flat plate or salver and press the leaves down and open with your hand, firmly but gently, so as not to break them off.  When they all lie out flat, stab the firm, yellow heart through several times with a sharp knife, until its outlines are lost and then place flowers at random all over the cabbage. 

Roses are the prettiest, but any flower which has a firm, stiff stem, capable of holding the blossom upright will do.  Press the stems down through the leaves and put in sufficient green to vary prettily.  The outer leaves of the cabbage, the only ones to be seen when the flowers are in, form a charming background, far prettier than any basket.

Roses are the best for all seasons, but autumn offers some charming variations.  The brilliant scarlet berries of the mountain ash or the red thorn mingled with the deep, rich green of feathery asparagus, make a delicious color symphony most appropriate to the season.

 

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ith the first bulbs and sprouted plants making the garden a wonder of anticipation, it is not too late to think of seeds. If you got to them early enough to have a stand of seedlings on your window sill, you are in good shape, but many a

Trade card, Wheeler & Melick Co.,  Albany, 1885.  Wheeler sold large agricultural equipment.  

 

time the seeds planted at the same time as young plants have a way of coming to fruition at the same time. In any case, the kitchen garden is taking on its own character, the perennial herbs fragrant under the buzz of visiting bees, and the taste of young vegetables just around the corner.

This is certainly as good a time as any to think of wandering in an old kitchen garden.  It   fills one’s senses with vaguely familiar plants bearing unfamiliar names, pleasant scents, numbers of sprawling or bushy plants, and perhaps even the weight of the basket filled with produce for the next meal.  Name tags are inscribed with exotic-sounding varieties  rarely seen in the modern nursery;  geometric arrangements of raised beds and neat rows reinforce an impression of order.  Sometimes the gardens were walled,  limiting the damaging effects of wind and intruding weeds or animals; some were fenced.  Sometimes the evidence of a hoe, cutting knife or dibble reminds us that these plants, beautiful as they were,  required  heavy work and had an eminently practical purpose.  This is clear in the demonstration plantings at many a living history museum and their reconstructions from medieval cloistered gardens to nineteenth century farmhouse beds.  One has to respect the intense research that has brought this area of food history to life, literally,  and which seems to be experiencing a revival today.   The underlying information seems to come from a variety of sources.

First of all, there were the books.  The old herbals offer much.  Handsomely illustrated medieval volumes tell us about the garden management and choices: for example, rue was planted for many reasons, one being that its scent was thought

Trade card, Parker and Wood, Seeds and Tools,  Boston, advertising their Agricultural Center and Seed Store.  No date, probably ca. 1890.

 

 

 to drive away unwelcome animals.  Works on gardening theory and technique have been written for centuries, introducing innovative (in their time) plot rotations, manuring, or new forms of plows.  Such books were common in the libraries of  eighteenth-century American estates, offering the newest theory available; by the nineteenth century Peter Henderson’s influential Gardening for Profit (1865) addressed not only the home gardener but also those specializing in producing for the market.

Then there were the seeds and root stocks themselves.  Early American kitchen gardens  first thrived on the seeds brought from Europe.  William Penn (1685) planted “Kidney Beans, English Pease of several kinds, with English Roots, Turnapes [turnips], Carrots, Onions, Leeks, Radishes and Cabbidges…also Pumpkins, Musmellons, Water Mellons, Sqwashes, Coshaws, Buck-hen, Cowcumbers and Sinnels of Diverse Kinds.”  Before long the seeds of sweet corn, tomatoes, celery, beets, lettuce, egg plants, peppers, spinach, sweet potato were added.

By the American Revolution, it was reported that “Vegetable gardens are kept for almost every house…beets, parsnips, onions, parsley, radishes, Turkish beans, large beans, pepper grass, red pepper, lettuce, head lettuce, German lettuce, scurvy grass, potatoes.”

Kitchen gardens, it seems, were rarely small.

At first the seeds were brought with immigrants and merchants,  or sent by commissioned factors or agents in Europe.  There was a constant search for new plants, as everyone from kings to scientists scoured the world on a serious search

Trade card, Rice’s Seeds, a fairly famous trade card of the late 1800s.

 

 

for new foods.  For example, Peter Kalm, the Swedish botanist trained by Linnaeus, traveled through North America for years (1747-51) in such a quest, collecting seeds and lore to improve Scandinavian diet.

A certain amount of natural hybridizing improved the strains.  Whether or not a plant’s seeds could winter over in the ground, a thrifty gardener saved seeds for the following summer, probably choosing those of the season’s best plants in the age-old process of selection. As the plants evolved according to desired qualities,  they were traded among friends and neighbors,  further developing improved strains.  Typically, Martha Ballard (Maine, 1809) noted in her diary that “ Mrs. Emry, two of William Stones daughters had gardin seeds of me.”   Sometimes this kind of trading crossed large distances, as we see from the garden correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and his peers.

By the end of the eighteenth-century a few nurseries had begun to supply orchard and berry stock to farmers up and down the Eastern seaboard.  Notably, the William Prince Nursery in Flushing, Long Island, shipped selections from their extensive catalog to Jefferson in Virginia.  By the early nineteenth century packaged seeds were being marketed—innovative Quaker efforts were to grow into the W. Atlee Burpee Company in Philadelphia.  It wasn’t long before other seed houses followed;  many other regional growers developed nurseries with names we still know today—Ferry’s of Detroit, to name one.   And with them came the seed catalog and the mail-order business.   Quick to use the trade card and growing advertising methods,  Rice’s Seeds, Cambridge Valley, N. Y., Parker & Wood of Boston, J. E. Elrick of Saltsburg, Pa.,  and even dealers in fertilizers, were among the many

Briggs Bros. & Co’s. Seeds,  Rochester, N.Y.,  no date, but probably ca. 1890.  Rochester was one of the many centers of commercial seed production.   

 

garden suppliers to distribute a series of fanciful “vegetable people” trade cards.  These amusing promotional give-aways were often saved and pasted into “educational” scrap books as a source of entertainment in  pre-radio days,    and  continue to delight collectors of ephemera today.  

In the early 19th century, the need for fresh produce in growing urban centers pushed the family-oriented gardens into the commercial world and commerce in seeds began.  From mid-century and on a good many “heirloom” varieties were being marketed and listed in period seed catalogs.  For example, William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetable Gardening  shows that what had earlier been known simply as watermelon, or the American watermelon, would now require such individual names as Moon and Stars,  Rattlesnake,  King And Queen, Ice Cream, Kleckley Sweets Watermelon,  Black Spanish  or Cuban Queen.  Some of these were developed by agriculture departments of new Land Grant Colleges; others came out of the research of private seed companies.  Seed catalogs from nurseries such as James J. H Gregory or W. Atlee Burpee educated the gardening public and spread new varieties.

Burpee Seeds published its own cook books;  likewise Vaughan’s Seeds put out  their own Vegetable Cook Book in 1898. Conversely, in the long tradition of kitchen gardening, cookbooks sometimes told the cook how best to grow her

Highland Nursery Co., 1916,  Iowa, seed catalog.

 
 

ingredients.  Gervase Markham (1615) instructed on the monthly phases of the moon and when to plant each plant.   Amelia Simmons (1796) directed that “Beets, grow on any ground, but best on loam, or light gravel grounds,  the red is the richest and best approved, the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many,”  and noted that the Low Dutch Cabbage “only will do in old gardens.”

The tools of kitchen gardens were for a long time quite simple.  One needed a “reel and line” to establish straight  rows,  a spade to turn over the earth, a rake to smooth it and remove debris,  long- and short-handled hoes, and a knife to prune or harvest.  A dibble or planting stick made the hole for the seed,  and eventually a mechanical seeder (most often used in field crops, but handy in a kitchen garden as well).   After 1850 improved industrial methods contributed to the patenting of a number of weeding implements – among them the “hand-weeding hook,” the pronged cultivator so common today, and the strengthened digging fork.   

With this view of the things needed,  let us turn to the work of  kitchen gardens.  They were usually fairly extensive as they, along with various processes of preservation,  carried the burden of provisioning during the cold months.  The planting, tending and harvesting  were of necessity heavy work, and often required the efforts of  the entire family, but were most commonly women’s work.   Martha Ballard, farming in Maine, wrote (May 15, 1809),  “I have dug ground west of the hous.  Planted squash, Cucumbers, musk and water mellons East side house.” A number of  entries between May 9 and May 31 of that year recorded that she

Shaker Gardener’s Manual, Containing Plain Instructions for the Selection, Preparation, and Management of a Kitchen Garden…Published by the United Society, New Lebanon, N. Y., 1843.

 
 

 maintained several plots, “workt in gardin,”  planted seeds and  ‘stumps” [roots], potatoes, strawberry and “leutis”  [lettuce] plants, covering the gamut of kitchen garden produce with both seeds and previously-sprouted  or wintered-over plants. Perhaps she had a cold frame or used a root cellar to winter-over cuttings. Her efforts  included planting and tending an orchard.  Martha’s  late summer and autumn entries appropriately recorded  harvesting, preserving, and storage.

The status of kitchen gardening has swung back and forth over the centuries.  There was a time when complex beds near a luxurious house boasted unusual varieties among the staples and brought high status to the master. At the same time, lower levels of the largely rural society maintained less impressive plots in their efforts to survive the winter.  With the growth of cities and more sophisticated materialism, the status of rural life  declined, and with it the allure of gardening.  But in the late nineteenth century in America,  their popularity returned as part of the back-to-the-land movement when city dwellers perceived need to reconnect to the natural world,  to do physical work, and perhaps to seek a more “healthful” vegetarian diet.  It was thought that this would counter  the harmful influences and overstimulation of the modern city, in which the anxieties associated with life and business were thought to cause physical and mental problems.  Children were now encouraged to garden as a source of exercise and fresh air, of moral lessons in the good life, and a wholesome sense of pride in the harvest.   During World War 1 and World War 2, those on the home front used what land they could for Victory Gardens, and the subsequent move to suburbs has made this still more possible. 

Today gardening is ranked as the number one American hobby, and for many a kitchen garden is part of it.   The proliferation of Seed Savers and other such

Trade card, L. L. Crocker’s Buffalo Honest Fertilizers, “Amoniated Bone Super-Phosphates and Pure Ground Bones, Buffalo, N. Y.,  ca. 1885.

 

 

organizations, dedicated to preserving old varieties,  and the mushrooming of vegetable gardens in urban vacant lots  shows something of the currant value and prestige of kitchen gardens for many.

A kitchen gardener myself, I am tempted to remark on the wonderful kitchen gardens of my childhood in Brooklyn, inevitably behind the homes of first generation  Italian families.  Their tradition is still alive and well on Long Island,  where you don’t have to be Italian to know that the best time to eat a tomato is in August when you have just picked it yourself.

 

 

 

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.aliceross.com

 

 

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