Holiday cooking is one tradition that most people partake in, even those who normally order take-out or nuke something frozen for dinner. Family recipes are unearthed from the back of the recipe box or perhaps your junk drawer. The house fills with the nostalgic smells of favorite treats. Recipes are often our most evident tie to our heritage and historians can glean a lot from one family recipe.
Lorenzo State Historic Site in Cazenovia has their own treasure trove of handwritten recipes from the families who have lived there. Spanning the early 1800s to the early 20th century, these cookbooks contain both handwritten recipes and clippings from newspapers. In addition to food, there are also entries for home remedies for health and cleaning.
Recently, these cookbooks were digitized so that the books themselves, which are quite fragile, no longer need to be handled and so can be protected from accidental damage. Researchers will be able access the books digitally, helping us better understand generations of the Lincklaens, Ledyards, and Fairchilds who lived at Lorenzo. Established in 1807, the Federal style home of John Lincklaen, Holland Land Company agent and founder of Cazenovia, Lorenzo was continually occupied by the family and its descendants until the property was conveyed to New York State in 1968.
What can historians learn from recipes over the years? The foods we eat can tell us about media, transportation, technology, and trade.
For example, vanilla was used sparingly prior to the mid-19th century. This fragrant spice is native to central and South America and vanilla orchids were brought to Europe and Africa through colonizers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but without successful cultivation of the fruit.
That all changed in 1841, a young enslaved man named Edmond Albius, living on the island of Réunion, a French island off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, developed a hand pollination technique for the orchid, which only blooms for 24 hours. With the agricultural production of vanilla beans now made possible, the vanilla industry was catapulted around the world, which made the spice much more affordable. Cookbooks started to fill with this popular flavor by the end of the 1800s. Since the plants are still hand pollinated today, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron. Prior to vanilla being widely available, many foods were seasoned with rose water or orange flower water.
Many earlier recipes used spices that are often associated with the holidays today such as nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cardamom, and candied citrus peel. These ingredients were imported to the United States and Europe at significant expense and added interest and flavor. Nutmeg was originally imported from Indonesia. The Dutch, in addition to colonizing New Netherland, which became New York when England took control, also colonized Indonesia, primarily for the profitable spice trade. Nutmeg continues to be an important ingredient in both sweet and savory holiday recipes. How spices are used also gives a hint to your family’s heritage.
Not all the recipes in these books seem palatable to modern audiences. There are many ingredients that have gone out of fashion. Suet, the rendered fat of beef, is an ingredient in many puddings. Tongue, calves head, and terrapin (turtle) are also present in recipes. Folks were also willing to put just about anything into gelatin including little ham balls seasoned with cayenne pepper.
Whether these dishes were daily fare or for special occasions is hard to decipher from these cookbooks, although terrapin became quite popular by the end of the 19th century until overharvesting made the creatures quite rare and expensive.
It is interesting to note that a few recipes are repeated in more than one cookbook. Perhaps each generation of women passed down the recipes to the next. The recipes might have been recopied in a new book when the old one deteriorated.
Lorenzo State Historic Site can now keep these recipes safe and accessible for many generations to come. And that is something you can do at home, too.
Which recipes will you be serving at your holiday table? What do those recipes say about your family’s heritage or status?
Recipes are considered primary source documents if your grandmother or great-grandmother was the first to write it down. How will you preserve this tradition? Share a recipe with your family and friends. Tell the stories that surround your memory of that food. This is intangible history, but just as important as your recipes. Stay safe and well fed this holiday season.
Cover Shot: The first commercial Christmas card, printed in 1843 in England and sent from John Callcott Horsely to Henry Cole, shows folks dining as a symbol of the holidays. In the same way so much of our celebrations revolve around food, with recipes often a cherished tradition passed to each generation. (Photo Credit – Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Post by Amanda Massie, Curator at Bureau of Historic Sites, Division for Historic Preservation at NYS Parks.
Want to have some fun at home with historic recipes from Lorenzo State Historic Site? Here are some to try… And Happy Holidays to you and yours from New York State Parks!