I knew the book was bound to be largely incorrect in the facts
department, and probably just plain bad overall, when I read
the first sentence of its “Introduction”:
Colonial American pioneers left
diaries and journals telling tragic
stories of the deaths of nine out
of every ten early settlers.
So only one in ten lived to tell the tales of those early
years? It’s amazing, then, that any of us are even here!
Of course, this book is about the foodways of Colonial America,
which means there’s food history, receipts, and so on. Problem
is, there are signs that quality will be sorely lacking in that area,
as well. On the “Acknowledgments” page, the authors mention
they sought the “culinary expertise” of Mrs. Helen Duprey Bullock.
Contrary to popular belief, however, that particular “expertise”
is highly suspect, as seen in her past works wherein she was
unable, or unwilling, to separate historic fact from fiction.*
Nevertheless, here’s an inkling of what’s to come regarding
America’s earliest culinary endeavors:
Cookbooks from home would have
been of little use to the often illiterate
housewife, who found herself obliged
to prepare ingredients unknown to her
in England or Holland, such as corn,
pumpkin and squash.
Wait. If housewives were illiterate, why would they
bring a cookbook (that they couldn’t read) from home?
Frightening, isn’t it?! Well, buckle up for the proverbial “bumpy
ride,” because it’s only the beginning. It goes from bad to worse
to “You gotta be kidding me?!” in no time. And to think, the copy
on the end flap of the dust jacket proudly states:
Each chapter…is introduced by a lively
and authentic [emphasis mine] account
of how early Americans breakfasted,
dined, supped, drank, and entertained.
This book’s content may indeed be “lively,” but the majority
of it is anything BUT “authentic.” It’s just chock full of bizarre
assumptions, faulty conclusions, and myths masquerading as
facts. It’s amazing, even appalling, that such a book was not
only written, but also published and placed on bookshelves
around the world!
And so, what’s the title of this odd little book? It’s A Cooking
Legacy, by Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan, with
illustrations by Betty T. Duson (1975). It’s not a large book
at just 180 pages, but it’s heavily laden with inaccuracies
and myths about colonial foodways. I must say, I don’t think
I’ve ever before encountered such a gad-owful book! Well,
on second thought, I have. Several, in fact, and they are
FAR worse (more on that later) but for now, I’ll concentrate
on this particular travesty. Of course, I realize assessing
the value (or lack thereof) of a particular book is subjective.
One that I adamantly dislike may be someone else’s all-time
absolute favorite. So I try (struggle!) to keep my opinions
to myself. However, the factual content of this book is so
egregious that I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It’s driven
me over the edge. And with “facts” like the following, can
you blame me?!
Finger bowls were used for rinsing
the mouth as well as the fingers.
For starters, I think Legacy is poorly written. Different topics
are grouped together willy-nilly in a single paragraph. I’d
read about one subject, and then suddenly, BAM, I’d meet
up with another that was either partially or wholly unrelated.
Sometimes, dissimilar ideas were even in the same sentence.
The authors also tended to mix ‘n match time periods. They’d
start in the 1600s, then jump ahead to the mid-1800s, only
to end with a vague reference to “those early American
Colonists.” It made for some major confusion as to when,
exactly, they thought a cooking method or a culinary
custom was practiced or a specific food existed.
I was constantly bemused by the liberal use of judgmental
adjectives. Dozens of examples illustrate this, including:
We can readily understand the lusty
and excessive alcoholic drinking habits
of these early Colonists…
A boiled pudding (a bland pudding
with raisins) seems to have been
preferred over the traditional…
Then into the night tumbled the
boisterous Colonials, their tongues
and bodies loosened from an evening
of heavy drinking.
The table…was as finely dressed
as those patriotic zealots who sat
Or how about the descriptive words in this passage, coupled
with some classic misconceptions:
An early pioneer home was sadly
lacking in comforts, and the family
stood while eating. Their days were
totally occupied with the necessary
tasks of survival, and there was
no time for making chairs, stools
or other creature comforts. Despite
the hardships, these stoic families
never neglected to give thanks to God
not only before meals but after as well.
Oh dear. No chairs. Or stools. And still, they constantly
thanked God for the experience. Amazing!
I was miffed that there are no footnotes in Legacy. Not one
statement is attributed to any source. What’s up with that?!
So where’d the authors get all their information? There is
a bibliography, but it’s of little use when trying to track
the path of supposed “facts” from origin to printed page.
It almost seems as if this book is just a jumble of stories
and tales that’ve been gathered from friends and family,
or even people on the street, instead of from fully-vetted
historical sources. Or perhaps, that was the plan: to compile
all the weird ‘n wacky (and untrue) stories ever told about
colonial foodways, then publish and share ‘em with the world!
But then, if that’s the case, the reader should be told.
Ahh, another amazing “fact” from the colonial era:
Little dishwashing was done in
the home because of the difficulty
of transporting water. Cooking pots
were transported downstream for
washing; this had to be done to
protect the drinking water.
Apparently, no one had any buckets for totin’ water
“back then”! And yet, big ‘n heavy cast iron cooking
pots would regularly be lugged miles down river. Ahh,
those silly, yet hearty ‘n “stoic,” Colonials!
Now, the authors of Legacy live in Texas, and I wonder if,
perhaps, that fact played a role in this mess. Not because
of the state itself (and no offense to Texans), but because
of the physical and cultural distances, conscious and not,
between it and the original 13 colonies. Works such as this
may tend to exhibit a certain disconnect between fact and
fiction on the part of the people who write them. Not to
mention the scents of Hollywood’s fantasy-land that waft
through the pages. I think it’s the case, at least in part,
of that fellow from Arizona who wrote Founding Foodies,
another book full of nonsense (more on it later, as well).
Ready for some more fakelore? Good, cuz there’s enough
to spread ’round a couple hundred acres:
Highly spiced food was popular
in all thirteen colonies…The ‘high’
taste of slightly spoiled meat was
actually enjoyed by the early settlers.
So people preferred rotten meat?! Imagine that! Guess there
was really no need for anyone to invent the refrigerator.
Supper! What is there to say about
a meal that probably did not even
exist for many settlers during
the early days of the Colonies…?
Yep, early colonists only ate two meals a day. So sad.
Except that it’s so NOT true.
When it [tea] was first introduced,
Colonists, not understanding its use,
stewed the leaves in butter, threw out
what liquid collected and munched on
the leaves. Later, when the practice
of drinking tea was understood, the
leaves were highly valued and were
used over and over.
Oh my. Where do I begin?! With the supposed “fact”
the Colonials didn’t know what to do with tea? Or that
they “munched on the leaves” as if they were a handful
of Cheetos? Oh, so many fake facts, so little time….
Of course, hilarious fakelore is only half the story, as recipes
comprise nearly three-quarters of Legacy. In fact, it contains
more than 200 newly-created recipes that are billed as being
for “modern Americans,” and that were “inspired by dishes
and beverages the authors discovered in cookbooks, family
journals, and notebooks of 125 to 250 years ago.”
Yes, dear readers you, too, can enjoy the foods of the past
just as the early American colonists did. HUZZAH!
So that today’s cook may prepare
the recipes with ease, the authors
have thoroughly tested each of these
original creations [emphasis mine]
and adaptations [emphasis mine].
A few bona-fide receipts from authentic historic cookbooks
are scattered here and there throughout this book. However,
the modern adaptations that accompany them are typically
nothing like the originals. In fact, some are SO different
and SO far-fetched, that it’s almost laughable! Extra and
unnecessary ingredients, along with others that didn’t
even exist (baking powder, cornstarch, etc.), during
the colonial years, are sprinkled throughout. But hey,
at least readers were fore-warned (see above).
Most of the adaptations in this book
are based on receipts prepared for
the wealthier Colonists who could
afford exotic seasonings and the
lavish use of dairy products.
Wow. So only wealthy people could afford spices and…cows?!
Sorry, lowly farmers, no “got milk” for you!
At the same time, many of the original historic receipts are
not really “colonial,” because they’re from later time periods.
To me, the “colonial period” of this country is any time prior
to 1776 or, at the latest, 1783; in other words, when we
were a colony of Britain. And yet, many original historic
receipts offered in Legacy are from later dates, such as
1824 and 1850, which is more than one quarter and one
half, respectively, of a century AFTER the colonial period!
Not that it matters, I guess, since they’re all “adapted”
and “modernized” beyond recognition.
Let’s pause for this fine example of jumbled fakelore:
Leavened breads, or white breads,
were considered luxuries and were
made only for special occasions.
Yeast was scarce and expensive,
and so sourdough cultures, potash,
pearl ash and beer barrel ‘emptins’
were used as leavening agents.
Yeast was “scarce”?! And yet ‘emptins’ from beer barrels
were used. Um, yeah, but…oh, never mind!
Legacy’s recipe titles are fairly straightforward, as most
merely describe the dish. There’s “Rum Punch,” “Chicken
with Apples,” and “Lobster Salad.” For a few, however,
the authors show off their creative side by making up
titles at random, such as “Adela’s Flan,” “Helen’s Lace
Cookies,” and “Cleto’s Game-Bird Pie.” Naturally, I have
to wonder just who are Adela, Helen, and Cleto? Are
they perhaps members of the authors’ families?!
Pausing, again, for more fakelore:
Since washday came only approximately
once a month, it was imperative to have
a huge supply of napkins to last from one
washday to the next.
Because those elegant old pewter
tankards had to be poured into
molds, they came in only two
sizes, pints and quarts, thus
giving rise to the expression
‘Mind your P’s and Q’s.’**
Since meats and vegetables were
prepared simply, the more elaborate
kitchen tools found in early Colonial
kitchens were for the preparation
Silver flatware was still in short supply,
though forks were available.
If it seems this entire book is filled with nothing BUT fakelore,
well…you couldn’t be more right! I can’t say enough BAD things
about it. And there are plenty of other ghastly examples I could
share, but frankly, all of this is making my head spin. However,
I’ll leave you with a few final morsels of misguided, totally wrong,
and astonishingly incorrect information, along with this piece
of friendly advice: DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU READ
IN THIS BOOK!!! Don’t buy it. And if you already own it,
(Maybe you can start your next hearth fire with it. LOL )
As the earliest settlement phase drew
to an end, butter and cheese were
available to all but the very poor.
The term ‘brewing’ tea came from
the English expression for ‘brewing’
beer. As a result of high prices and
the tea strike, tea was labeled
dangerous and was thought
to cause deadly diseases. In time,
coffee became the favorite American
drink and tea survived primarily as
a medicine, quite a change from
the early ‘Revolutionary’ claims!
Ugh. My brain hurts.
Although I have this book, it is definitely NOT one that you
will find listed on any of my “Library” pages!
*From the full-page obituary for Mrs. Helen Duprey Bullock (1905-1995),
published in The New York Times on November 11, 1995. Apparently, she
was known for playing foot-loose ‘n fancy-free with historical receipts:
Her Williamsburg cookbook became
the bible for the preparation of food
in Williamsburg exhibitions, at least
until the 1980′s, when it was discovered
that Mrs. Bullock, an eminently practical
woman, had taken certain liberties with
the original recipes.”
In other words, she greatly altered them by “modernizing” them. It’s
also a well-known fact that she created many so-called “historical”
receipts out of thin air.
**Britisher Michael Quinion presents the final (?) word on “watching
your P’s and Q’s” in World Wide Words, his weekly e-magazine:
Investigations by the Oxford English
Dictionary in 2007 when revising
the entry turned up early examples
of the use of Ps and Qs to mean
learning the alphabet. The first
is in a poem by Charles Churchill,
published in 1763:
On all occasions next the chair
He stands for service of the Mayor,
And to instruct him how to use
His A’s and B’s, and P’s and Q’s.
The conclusion must be that this is the true origin.