My grandmother, Agnes Biggs Hall, could cook anything. She fed people day in and day out using her two stoves in the farmhouse kitchen. She baked bread, pies, and cookies, roasted chickens and beef, fried donuts and bacon, boiled potatoes and sweet corn, churned butter, pasteurized milk, put up pickles and peaches, and saved scraps to feed the pigs, dogs, and cats.
No wonder she loved going out to eat. She had a surprisingly adventurous palate. The first avocado I ever saw was one she was eating at her kitchen table, scooping the flesh from a half of the black-skinned orb and telling me how delicious it was. She probably would have cooked more adventurously had my grandfather’s taste in food not run to the bland side. His favorite supper was something he called “spaghetti soup” – un-drained spaghetti with watery tomato sauce and buttered white bread. So going to a restaurant was often the only way my grandmother got to try new things.
She was an enthusiastic forager. When spring came, she cut dandelion greens, boiled them, and served them with butter and vinegar. Finding edible mushrooms was not a problem for her. She went into the yard, looked for the rings of what I think were probably “Fairy Ring Mushrooms.” Unafraid of being wrong, she cut them efficiently with her sharp knife, gathered them in her apron, and took them inside to cook with onions and butter.
And she loved to go fishing and clamming. Her clam chowder was delicious. She made it with a light milky broth and served it with a little pat of butter and a sprinkling of oyster crackers.
When I got married, she gave me an old cookbook called “The Improved Housewife,” published in 1847 and written by “A Married Lady.”
“The Improved Housewife”
I don’t know if the cookbook came from the farm or was something she brought with her when she married. The recipes (my grandmother always called them “receipts,” just as it’s spelled on the title page of the cookbook) are both practical and brief. Here are a few that might have helped her cook her harvests.
# 444 – Greens
Turnip tops, white mustard, dock, spinach, water-cresses, dandelion, cabbage plants, the roots and tops of beets, all make nice greens. Boil them, adding a little salaeratus and salt to the water. If not fresh and plump, soak them half an hour in salt and water before cooking. When boiled enough, they will sink to the bottom of the pot.
“Dandelion Greens, ” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2015
# 459 – Stewed Mushrooms
Gather such as are grown, but are young enough to have red gills; cut off that part of the stem which grew in the earth, wash them carefully, and take the skin from the top; put them in a stew pan with some salt, stew them till tender, thickening them with a spoonful of butter, mixed with one of brown flour. A little red wine may be added, but the flavor of the mushroom is too delicious to require any thing.
“Mushrooms,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2015
#758 – Clams and Crabs
Cut the hinge of the clam-shell with a thin sharp-pointed knife. Roast, take out, chop fine, season, then replace them in the one half their shell with a paste cover, and bake. Very nice. So are crabs. Serve them hot.
Agnes Biggs Hall digging for clams
And in case you were wondering how to cure your Erysipelas (or maybe your indigestion from eating the clams or crabs) here’s what the “Married Lady” advises.
#562 – For the Erysipelas
Take three ounces of sarsaparilla root, two of burdock root, three of the bark of sweet ozier, two of cumfrey root, two of the bark of the root of bittersweet, three of princes pine, two of black alder bark, and two handfuls of low mallow leaves, and put it all in four quarts of pure, soft water; steep half away; strain it; add half a pint of molasses, and four ounces of good figs, and boil the mixture ten or fifteen minutes. Strain it again. When cold add one pint of gin. Take a wineglass three times a day.
On Wednesday: The Barnyard