upper delaware magazine

What we used to eat

Some of it was strange, much of it was tasty

Posted 7/28/21

Are you hungry?

Our ancestors were, too. And it was the women’s job, back then, to fill those growling stomachs. (And do the laundry. Scrub soot off everything. Garden for food, not for fun. …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
upper delaware magazine

What we used to eat

Some of it was strange, much of it was tasty


Are you hungry?

Our ancestors were, too. And it was the women’s job, back then, to fill those growling stomachs. (And do the laundry. Scrub soot off everything. Garden for food, not for fun. And sometimes hold down a paid job, too. They were busy.)

So what did these busy women put on the table for their families?

I turned to my great-grandmother, who spent much of her life in Callicoon, for answers.

OK, she’s been dead for decades. But I inherited both her handwritten cookbook (dated 1966) and her typed cookbook (undated, but older). Plus, I have a community cookbook, maybe from the 1920s, compiled by the St. Tammany Chapter of the O.E.S. and printed by the Methodist Ladies’ Aid in Callicoon.

The typewritten book is nicely categorized but doesn’t have as many recipes, plus my mom and I both added our own favorites, thus destroying its historic purity. The handwritten book is a bit random: One page has a recipe for cleaning the toilet bowl (vinegar + bleach, hmm), cleaning woodwork (“All” dissolved in a pail of water) and a recipe for ascorbic acid for canning fruit

Well, if you go by the cookbooks, people ate little meat, vegetables were in gelatin salads and there were lots of desserts. Truth?

Probably not. Great-grandmother Anna cooked meat, potatoes and vegetables for two meals a day. She mostly didn’t note the recipes for the obvious things.

Hearty fare

Linda English of Long Eddy, whose grandmother, Minnie Doyle, ran a boardinghouse in the early 20th century, recalls hearing about roast chicken “and a good, hearty meal with all the trimmings.” Mrs. Doyle didn’t have to work alone; Suzy Kaulitz was her assistant. An issue of The Echo, from the Basket Historical Society, notes that they also served up the “bounty of their gardens, homemade bread and rolls, and many times up to five desserts.”

Quarrymen, loggers and raftsmen lived there, as well as men who worked at the acid factory. (Wood acid, aka tannic, acetic and formic acid, had a number of uses, like drinking and disinfecting wounds, but was considered “feeble” compared to sulfuric and other acids. So says the Forest Products Laboratory, anyway.)

 Charles Armstrong’s Maple Grove House, also in Long Eddy, dates from the 1860s, according to an article in The Echo by his granddaughter, Cornelia Avery Hones. A sign in front specifically mentions the delights available in its hotel days: “Choice meats and tender chickens, vegetables fresh from our garden, are cooked to the taste of an epicure and served in a manner worthy of Fifth Avenue.”

Salad, or “salad”?

Also probably common were salads. Plain vegetables or fruit on lettuce didn’t get mentioned. The cookbooks feature salads either covered in mayo or bathing in gelatin. Jell-O salads still turn up at church picnics; chicken salad, Waldorf salad and carrot/raisin salad in mayonnaise are often-seen summer fare.

Sarah Grey on Serious Eats makes a solid case for the birth of Jell-O-based salads as a result of the industrialization of food, home economists pushing products, wars and changes in women’s labor, making easy-to-prepare food a must.

They were also easy to eat if you didn’t like vegetables or had tooth issues, and they were a way to use store- or home-canned produce. Plus, they made a little fruit or veg go a long way.

In the O.E.S./Ladies’ Aid cookbook, every salad recipe includes mayo, sour cream, sweet cream, or Jell-O. Same with my great-grandmother’s recipes, although she did suggest one minimalist salad: “sliced canned pineapple on lettuce leaf.”


The desserts are another story.

Pages and pages of desserts. Berry pies, lemon pies, chocolate pie. “Ice cream party dessert.” Petit fours frosting, raspberry torte and, well, zwieback. (Yeah, I don’t know). Tea cakes, Nabisco wafer pie, so many cookies, macaroon pudding and prune whip (which was not delicious and not attractive, either).

The O.E.S. book has a recipe for cream puffs by Mrs. A. Brandt, whose family (or in-laws) ran a boardinghouse in the 19th century. Probably a nice surprise for the lodgers.

Obviously, people had sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) and the added calories probably didn’t hurt either. You could create dessert out of whatever was lying around. The O.E.S./Ladies’ Aid have a recipe for War Cake, an eggless, milkless, butterless cake (it uses water, sugar, molasses, a little shortening, soda, flour and “one box raisins.”)

The point of War Cake, the point of food, was to bring a little joy into people’s lives. Work was hard and long, life was hard and sometimes short, but there was usually dinner of some kind waiting for you. Even if it was just something simple. Maybe a bit of meat, some potatoes and canned pineapple on a single lettuce leaf. It probably tasted great.

Boarding House

Evening whispers its arrival, boarders gather
Competing aromas bathe the air
Enveloped in expectation they await, rivermen
And city folk alike, Smith’s savory fare.

For hours on end, meats are prepared
Beans boiled, bread baked, cheese grated.
Victuals attended with knowing care
A cascade of tastes heaven-created.

Tomorrow comes, the faces change
But not the anticipation
A pure country meal, served in waves of plenty
The essence of true delectation,

Those Long Eddy summers brought many delights
Those times went “I-don’t- know-where”
Not the least of which came from that kitchen
Ah, if only I could have been there!
— Gary Holmes


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here