THE KITCHEN POETS
Back in the 1990s, when I was writing articles for the Cookbook Collector’s Exchange (CCE), one of the articles was about rhymed recipes and was titled “Eve’s Pudding & Other Rhymed Recipes”. Another article dealt more extensively with kitchen/cooking poetry themes and was titled “The Kitchen Poets”.
What I want to do now, on my Sandychatter blog, is combine the two and present you with a compilation of everything I have collected on this topic over the years. It will be a series of articles and they will all be posted under The Kitchen Poets. What surprised me not very long ago was the discovery that my interest in this subject is not unique – there are other bloggers and website writers who collect and publish poems of this nature.
Sometimes these poems can be found in old cookbooks. For example, my favorite cookbook authors the Browns – Cora, Rose, and Bob Brown—were apparently interested in rhymed recipes too. Their book “AMERICA COOKS” contains several rhymed recipes which enchanted me, and may have been when I started a quest to find more recipes like these. One of these was devoted to the subject of cooking beans, which appeared in Moore’s “RURAL NEW YORKER” and was reprinted in “AMERICA COOKS”. One interesting note on Bishop Williams’ poem about baked beans, as noted by the Browns, is that the Bishop left out the molasses and mustard.
”And to think,” the Browns lamented, “This recipe was perpetuated by being copied in church cookbooks all across the wide band of territory made by New York Staters moving westward!” We’ll get back to Bishop William’s rhymed recipe for beans later.
What I would like to do for now is present you with a little background on the topic of rhymed recipes. Perhaps the oldest one we know about is “Eve’s Pudding” which dates back to colonial times. It goes like this:
”If you want a good pudding, mind what you’re taught,
Take of eggs six in number, when bought for a groat,
The fruit with which Eve her husband did cozen,
Well-pared and well chopped, at least half a dozen,
Six ounces of bread, let Moll eat the crust,
And crumble the rest as fine as the dust;
Six ounces of currants, from the stems you must sort,
Let you break out you teeth and spoil all the sport;
Six ounces of sugar won’t make it too sweet,
Some salt and some nutmeg will make it complete;
Three hours let it boil, without any flutter,
But Adam won’t like it without wine and butter.”
This rhymed recipe, as I noted above, dates back to colonial times when half a dozen eggs could be bought for a mere groat (an old English silver coin equal to fourpence) and a pudding—such as this one for apples—was put into cheesecloth and either boiled or steamed until cooked, like plum pudding (which is more accurately described as a cake to us, while pudding – well, pudding is something like chocolate pudding or tapioca.
It may surprise you to learn there was a very practical reason for rhymed recipes. A recipe in rhyme, once memorized, provided the cook with an easy way of recalling the ingredients and method of preparing a dish. While cookbooks were being published in the 17th and 18th centuries, as you might expect, only the well-to-do and educated could afford to buy them. Few cookbooks were published for Americans; we know that most of the cookbooks available in the colonies were from Europe and none of them contained recipes using American-grown foods.
The first printed in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1742 was “The Compleat Housewife” by Eliza Smith. At the time it was the most popular cookbook in England. “The Compleat Housewife” was reprinted again in New York in 1764. In 1772, a cookbook titled “The Frugal Housewife” by Susannah Carter, was published in Boston, while “The New Art of Cookery” was published in Philadelphia in 1792. These were all basically English cookbooks, however, even if they were published in America. None of them contained recipes using American foods and in fifty years, there were only seven editions of these three cookbooks. For one thing, cookbooks were not in demand in America. For another, young girls or servants were expected to learn the art of cooking by observing and helping in the kitchen. On colonial plantations, favorite family recipes were treasured and kept secret, handed down from mother to daughter. In higher-class homes, the lady of the house often kept her own “receipt” book, as they were called.
Then in 1796, along came Amelia Simmon’s “AMERICAN COOKERY”, which is considered to be the first truly American cookbook. It was so successful that it was reprinted and plagiarized many times. Even so, many American housewives didn’t own cookbooks and many couldn’t read. You may remember learning, in history classes, how only boys were educated in the early days of America’s development. It was considered unnecessary and even frivolous for girls to be educated. So, it isn’t surprising that rhymed recipes served a practical purpose. A young girl could memorize a recipe (even if she couldn’t read) and if it was a rhymed verse, it was easier to remember.
Just how many rhymed recipes exist is almost impossible to guess. In my own collection of cookbooks I have found them on occasion, often in church or club cookbooks. When I began researching for the original “Eve’s Pudding and Other Rhymed Recipes” and “Kitchen Poets”, both published in the CCE in the 1990s, friends and email pals, and some of the other writers for the CCE sent me contributions they had found. Recently, I came across the folder containing all of my notes and copies of the original articles – and thought they might be considered interesting to share in Sandychatter.
As noted above, the Browns included a few rhymed recipes in their marvelous cookbook, “America Cooks”. Along with Bishop Williams’ rhymed recipe for beans, there was another by the Bishop as well as a quite frequently reprinted recipe for salad dressing, by the Reverend Sidney Smith that I have found in dozens of cookbooks.
Here, then, is Bishop Williams’ rhymed recipe for Boston Baked Beans:
“If my dear Rural, you should ever wish
For breakfast or dinner a tempting dish
Of the beans so famous in Boston town,
You must read the rules I here lay down.
When the sun was set in golden light,
And around you fall the shades of night,
A large deep dish you first prepare;
A quart of beans select with care;
And pick them over, until you find
Not a speck or mote is left behind.
A lot of cold water on them pour
Till every bean is covered o’er,
And they seem to your poetic eye
Like pearls in the depth of the sea to lie;
Here, if you please, you may let them stay
Till after breakfast the very next day,
When a parboiling process must be gone through
(I mean for the beans, and not for you);
Then if, in the pantry, there should still be
That bean pot, so famous in history,
With all due deference, bring it out,
And, if there’s a skimmer lying about,
Skim half of the beans from the boiling pan
Into the bean pot as fast as you can,
Then turn to Biddy and calmly tell her
To take a huge knife and go to the cellar;
For you must have, like Shylock of old,
‘A pound of flesh’, ere your beans grow cold;
But very unlike that ancient Jew,
Nothing but pork will do for you.
Then tell once more your maiden fair,
In the choice of the piece to take great care,
For a streak of fat and a streak of lean
Will give the right flavor to every bean!
This you must wash, and rinse, and score,
Put into the pot and round it pour
The rest, til the view presented seems
Like an island of pork in an ocean of beans;
Pour on boiling hot water enough to cover
The tops of the beans completely over,
Shove into the oven and bake till done
And the triumph of Yankee cookery’s won!”
I have a couple of after-thoughts about Bishop Williams’ rhymed recipe. One, I assume you know, is that the beans are navy white dried beans that in olden times might not be very clean and might even contain some dirt or pebbles. Most dried bean recipes advise the cook to rinse and check them over even today but I rarely ever discover anything that shouldn’t be with the bag of beans. Another thought crossed my mind – that perhaps Bishop Williams’ omission of molasses and mustard might have been deliberate – not much rhymes with molasses or mustard!
And, it also occurred to me that this rhyme recipe isn’t much different from the way my mother in law, who was from Bluefield Virginia, cooked pinto beans. The pinto beans were often cooked with nothing more than a piece of salt pork and water, then served with cornbread and chopped raw onion. (I have to admit, I was horrified the first time I saw crumbled cornbread on a plate, topped off with beans and onion! The BEAN SOUP cooked by my mother and grandmother was always made with white navy beans, with onion and some tomato sauce, sometimes some celery or bits of carrot tossed into the pot). However, I learned to make corn bread and beans and got pretty good at it).
The Browns considered Bishop Williams a ‘worthy rival’ of the Reverend Sidney Smith (no relation) whose rhymed recipe for salad dressing as appeared in part or in its entirety in hundreds, if not thousands, of cookbooks—and even appeared in a 1968 edition of Gourmet magazine, although they omitted the first couple of lines. All of which led me to wonder – just who WERE Bishop Williams and Reverend Sidney Smith?
I discovered part of the answer in Jane Grigson’s “FOOD WITH THE FAMOUS” published by Antheneum, in 1980. The Reverend Sidney Smith rated an entire chapter devoted to his life (1771-1845). Says Ms. Grigson, “He learned to cook, loved good food, and felt that he could feed or starve a man into virtue or vice”. Ms. Grigson also said that the salad dressing was not too satisfactory as it ends up like a mud pack.
According to my original typewritten notes, written over 30 years ago, a version of the salad dressing also appeared in Marion Harland’s 1873 edition of “COMMON SENSE IN THE HOUSEHOLD”, and Ms. Harland stated that HER version of the rhymed recipe had been pasted in her scrapbook at least twenty-five years prior. A copy of the recipe was also sent to me by a CCE subscriber who said she acquired the rhymed recipe on a trip to England or from an English magazine.
As nearly as I can determine, the rhymed recipe goes like this:
To make this condiment your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, strained through kitchen sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give.
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half-suspected animate the whole
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon.
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault
To add a double quantity of salt;
Four times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown,
And twice with vinegar procur’d from town;
And lastly o-er the flavour’d compound toss
A magic soupcon of anchovy sauce.
Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbaceous treat!
Twould tempt the dying anchorite to eat;
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul!
Serenely full, the epicure would say
‘Fate cannot harm me, I have dined today”.
*Sandy’s Cooknote: For an adaptation of the Reverend Smith’s recipe, cook well two scrubbed potatoes, in their jackets. Remove the skins. Cool completely. Slice thin. Mince crisp green scallion ends; toss with potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste. To make the dressing, combine7 tablespoons of a good olive oil, 3 TBSP vinegar, 2 rice egg yolks (cook egg yolks alone, reserving the whites for another purpose, by separating the eggs and sliding the yolks into boiling water), 2 tsp mustard and if you wish (optional) a tsp of anchovy paste. Mix in the blender for a few seconds. Makes 2/3 cup. Use as you would mayonnaise with the potato salad.
Another Sandy’s Cooknote: this doesn’t seem like very much to me. When I make potato salad I usually boil a ten pound bag of potatoes…but you know how frugal the English are.