A Historic Food Almanac

This is a month-by-month description of tasks and foods done by an open-hearth 18th  century cook.

January:   “To spice winter meals, there were jars of pickled and preserved summer food of an astonishing variety. The crisp coolness of pickles was a welcome contrast to the smooth and silky warmth of long-cooked stews. And then there were sweet potatoes roasted in the ashes, and cornbread batter, without eggs or milk, baked into hoecakes on a griddle set over the coals.  Hoecakes were nutty and bland, affine foil for salted meats.  For a sweet ending to the meal, there might be pasties with a filling of fruit preserved from the harvest season; apple butter speckled with cinnamon, blackberry jam, or mashed pumpkin sweetened with molasses.  Wild game was often dinner’s main dish.  The fields and forests were full of squirrels and rabbits, alive with pigeons and quail and flocks of wild turkey. One kill of deer kept meat on the table for days.  The slaughtered meat kept safely for days in the cold outdoors.  Game meats were one of the few fresh foods the family had.” (By The Seasons)

February:  “From February to the middle of March was known as the ‘Six Weeks Want’. Only the longest keeping vegetables were left in the cellar. And the only salads available were wild greens or beet tops from the cellar.  This information is from Sauerkraut Yankees and doesn’t agree with Jefferson who, according to his Washington diary, had lettuce, parsley, cabbage, Irish potatoes and spinach all year.  But maybe Jefferson had access to greenhouse produce not available to the average person.  (In spite of this possibility, Jefferson’s Washington dates are usually used in this report over others because they do offer the longest usage span, thus facilitating menu planning.)In February, the sows give birth, and it is a time for celebration, for a good litter in February means plenty of bacon, ham, and sausage for the next year’s table.” (By The Seasons)

March:  “It was the planting season, and in order to get-up-and go and thin the sluggish winter blood, a spring tonic of Sassafras tea was drunk.  While the men worked in the fields, the women planted garden vegetables. In the barn, there were lambs and calves and chicks and pigs born in February.  Yet the meals brought to the table carried winter’s trademarks: salted meats, stored vegetables, preserved fruits, and pickles. But growing in profusion were the wild edibles that served the pioneer family well: lambs-quarters, dandelion, watercress, and wintercress.”(By the Seasons)   And there were eggs again. (D. Blythe)  And because calving time was here, there was new milk. (M.L. Bugge)

April:  “Broccoli, asparagus, and green peas added to the dinner meal, and other vegetables followed quickly. The hens laid eggs faster than the family could find them and the cows were giving plenty of milk. The cooks made light custard pies and creamy puddings for the dinner meal—tastes and textures which delighted the family who had spent months on a diet of food preserved with vinegar and salt.  Eggs and milk turned the simple cornpone of early spring into crumbly golden cornbread and spoonbread.” (By the Seasons)

May: “Strawberries, green peas, and asparagus brightened May menus. Cabbages stuffed with veal were an especially prized dish and new crops of herbs replenished depleted medicine chests. But grain and legume stores were running low and there was now heavy reliance on white meats and fish until the fall.  “To celebrate the spring of the year, a barbecue feast was planned.  The traditional barbecue was a young pig, called a shoat.” (By The Seasons)

June:  “In early summer, every green thing grew very quickly.  The garden lush and full.  In the fields, the corn stood sturdy and tall.  In the woods, the blackberries were ripe and, at the dinner meal, bowls of blackberries and fresh cream were served.  The kitchen was filled with the sweet, syrupy smell of blackberries as the women made blackberry pie and blackberry cobbler, blackberry pudding, and blackberry jam to spread on hard biscuits. For a special treat, Ma mixed a syrup of blackberry juice, vinegar, and precious white sugar and mixed it with cool spring water for the refreshing drink called blackberry shrub.” (By the Seasons)

July:  “The summer days grew long and lot with a steamy hear, and the air the heaviness characteristic of the South in July.  For the dinner meal, at noon, the women fixed little more than fresh garden vegetables, cooking them simply.  Walnut-sized potatoes boiled in their skins, quick=fried fritters made of corn or squash.  Green corn with the husks left on was set to roast in the ashes of a burned down fire. Ma also boiled fresh ripe ears of corn, just long enough to hear them through. On the hottest days of summer, the women cooked the noon meal outside over an open fire. (In the 19th century, the iron cookstove itself was sometimes moved outdoors in the summer and set where the cook would catch the slightest stray breeze.) In the heat of summer, the milk the cows gave would spoil within a few hours unless it was turned to butter.  The butter, preserved with salt, would keep for days without spoiling.  The buttermilk was set aside for cooking and drinking with meals.” (By the Seasons)

August:  “Vegetables and fruits ripened with a rush as July turned to August and there was an overwhelming profusion of food, more than enough for the table.  Baskets were filled with okra and cucumbers and yellow squash and green beans and cabbage, with pink-skinned peaches and melons. The women settled down to the task which consumed most of their time during the summer months—putting up food.  They did not put up many fruits with sugar.  Sweet fruit preserves, jams, and jellies were definitely a special treat, for the refined white sugar bought at the general store was too expensive for everyday use.  The readily available molasses and raw brown sugar tended to overwhelm delicate flavors and cloud bright colors. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the air was filled with the tantalizing sharp scents  of pickling, the sour odor of fermenting vegetables and the heady, sweet smell of fruits set to dry in the sun. Among the vegetables that must be preserved as the ripened were green beans and cabbages.  Most of the cabbages were worked into sauerkraut. The beans were dried into leather britches.  Okra was strung and dried like the beans.  Peaches and plums were also dried.  And then there was pickling—a chore that gave the creative cook an outlet to experiment.  Every day of the summer new selections of pickles were set on the dinner table for sampling.  Putting up food, said Ma, was putting up summer.” (By the Seasons)

September:  “The warm weather lingered into the fall of the year. There was time for the family to harvest another crop from the garden, and the task of putting up food continued until the first frost.  The  turnip and mustard greens planted in early September would flourish through November before they turned bitter.  The pumpkins that grew in the fields among the corn were harvested.  Some were dried into sweet leathery rings—the right size to stick in a coat pocket for a quick snack-and others were boiled for pumpkin butter.  Apple harvest began and perfect apples were picked by hand.  Then the trees were shaken hard, and the remaining fruit pelted the ground like rain.  These were cider apples.  Apples were peeled and cut for drying in the sun, sometimes in rings draped over sticks, sometimes in crescents threaded on cord.  Apple butter was made. The peelings and cores of the processed apples were saved for making cider vinegar.  Dinners during the fall were rarely without apples-baked, fried, stewed, spiced, pickled, or eaten raw.  The best dinners ended with apple pie.”  (By the Seasons)

October:  “October was a time of choice, and choice was a rare commodity for those ruled by the seasons.  The women made hearty, heavy meals to feed appetites sparked by hard work and to fuel the body for cold weather coming.  From the garden there were mashed potatoes and turnips and stewed pumpkin.  Sometimes a small pumpkin was baked in its own shell.  Sweet potatoes and carrots were baked into fragrant egg puddings.  There were greens, briny pickles, nuts planted by nature herself, and hens past their prime for the stew pot.  In the fields, the corn was ready for harvest. [This is the month given by Jefferson. By the Seasons does it in September.] After harvesting, friends and neighbors gathered for a “Husking Bee”.  When an ear of corn with red kernels was found, the person who found it was entitled to kiss the person of his or her choice.  The last task of the corn harvest was making hominy.” (By the Seasons)

November: “When the first real cold of winter hardened the earth and turned breath to frost, it was time for the last food processing chore of the year—slaughtering the hogs.  Families rarely ate fresh pork, but on slaughtering day, they ate enough to last the rest of the year—the quickly perishable organs on the first day and the tails, ears, and feet, the second. And on the third and following days, the backbones, ribs, and chitterlings.  Shoulders, hams, sides, jowl sand sausage links went to the smokehouse. Trimmings were made into souse meat  and were sealed in stoneware jars where it kept for several weeks.  With the rendering of the hog fat, the last of the harvest was in. The storerooms were full, and winter might do its worst.” (By The Seasons)

December: “Winter in the South was neither harsh nor long, but the air was always damp, carrying penetrating chill, and sometimes a fall of snow would coat the ground. For a farm, winter was the test of the self-sufficient farm life.  The earth gave little food, the cows gave no more milk, and the hens stopped laying eggs. However, the storerooms were full of the riches of the harvest months, and there was plenty to eat. Most of the meals were cooked over the fires that had to be lit for warmth, and the good food smells were comforting and warming too.  The iron pot that hung in the fireplace might have held a savory winter stew, or perhaps a fry of cabbage, potatoes, and country cured ham, or a mess of beans, cooked for hours with a slab of cured side meat.” (By The Seasons)

–compiled by Rachel Latimer

[By the Seasons refers to: By the Seasons, Cookery at the Homeplace, 1850, TVA’s Living History Farm, Golden Pond, Kentucky.]

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the kitchen program committee at Hezekiah Alexander Homesite researched Mary Alexander’s kitchen and happenings there. The committee was headed by Mary Lynn Bugge along with docents Estelle Baker, Rachel Latimer, Calla Bolen, Rhonda York, and Margaret Newland. The group was trained by Kathryn Hoffman. Rachel Latimer researched colonial cooking and developed the cookbook and cooking program for the site.

For more information and references, see Cooking with Mary Alexander [notebook] located in the Mecklenburg Historical Association Docent Library.