Long before refrigeration and supermarkets made it possible to get fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world, our predecessors relied upon drying, salting, fermenting, and pickling summer’s bounty for winter meals.
Allowing the wind and sun to dry food is the oldest method of food preservation. The Seneca and other New York Native American tribes dried millions of bushels of corn each year. The dried corn was turned into hulled dry corn and corn flour to sustain people during the colder months. Native Americans also dried meats, fish, and fruits such as blueberries for their winter meals.
Pickling vegetables and fruits goes back as far as 2030 BC. Pickling can be done in two ways, soaking the fruit or vegetable in either vinegar or saltwater (brine). The word pickle is a variation of the Dutch word for brine – pekel. Soaking vegetables in a brine bath is known as lacto-fermentation where lactic acid bacteria turn sugar in food to lactic acid.
Pickles of one sort or another have been produced and eaten in New York homes for many generations. Early European settlers sometimes used New World ingredients in their Old-World pickle recipes. One example of this is black walnut pickles, a variation of Old World English walnut pickles. Pickle recipes were passed down from one generation to another, with housewives recording the recipes in their special recipe book.
New York’s first European colonists were the Dutch, who maintained settlements along the Hudson River as far north as Fort Orange (now Albany). The van Rensselaers were a prominent Dutch family in the Hudson Valley. When sturgeon was abundant in the Hudson River, Maria van Rensselaer (a cousin to the Fort Crailo van Rensselaers) would use this hand-written recipe to pickle the sturgeon.
And this recipe to pickle cucumbers:
Keep the Fruit n pickle till green, changing it often, then in cold water 2 days changing very frequently, then wipe and dry them & to every six lb fruit 8 lb Sugar, 6 lemons, ¾ raw ginger a bit of Mace- boiled to a clear Syrup. When cold pour it on the fruit, the day after pour it off & give it another boil – the next day as the same & as often as necessary, never pour it on hot, for it will spoil them.
Eggs were one of many foods that were pickled because egg production is linked to day length; hens need about 13 hours of light a day to lay eggs. Staff at Loyalist home Philipse Manor Hall may have used a recipe similar to this recipe from The Lady’s Assistant (p. 277) to make pickled eggs.
To pickle Eggs.
BOIL the eggs very hard: peel them, and put them into cold water, shifting them till they are cold. Make a pickle of white-wine vinegar, a blade of mace, a bunch of sweet herbs, and a little whole pepper; take the eggs out of the water, and put them immediately into the pickle, which must be hot; stir them a good while, that they may look all alike; untie the herbs, and spread them over the top of the pot, but cover them with nothing else till they are turned brown; they will be fit to eat in nine or ten days.
Bruise some cochineal; tie it up in a rag; dip it in the vinegar, and squeeze it gently over the egg, and then let the rag lie in the Pickle. This is a great addition.
During his stay at the Hasbrouck House in the Hudson Valley it is possible that George Washington, who was a big pickle fan, dined on some of his wife’s pickles. Recipes from Martha Washington’s hand-written Booke of Cookery includes recipes (or receipts as they were once called) for pickling a variety of food from cowcumbers (cucumbers) to mackerel – George probably enjoyed them all!
Cooks in the Jay, Livingston, and Schuyler families may have had access to Amelia Simmons American Cooke, the first American cookbook It was first published in Hartford, Connecticut 1796, with a second publication in Albany New York also in 1796.
Pickling recipes in Simmons cookbook included pickling the barberry fruit:
The Lincklaen family recipe book from Lorenzo House included to pickle Chalottes (shallots) and to pickled cucumbers.
Frederic Church’s family maintained a farm and gardens at Olana in the Hudson Valley. Some of the produce from the farm was used to make pickles, including this Sweet Variety pickle:
Pickles were not only important part of many New York family meals, they were also a menu staple on the military bases in New York as this menu from Fort Ontario illustrates.
If you would like to learn more about preserving the summer harvest, maybe you can join in on the We Can Pickle That! program at Clermont State Historic Site on September 8.
Please note: recipes in this blog are for historic reference only and should not be made at home. The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides a wealth of information about food preservation as well as food preservation recipes for the modern family.
Avey, Tory. (2014) History in a Jar: The Story of Pickles
Colonial Williamsburg, Food Preservation Fact Sheet
Extra Slaw, Pickled Green Black Walnuts
Kellar, Jane Carpenter. (1986) On the score of hospitality : selected recipes of a van Rensselaer family, Albany, New York, 1785 – 1835 : a Historic Cherry Hill recipe collection. Albany, NY, Historic Cherry Hill.
Mason, Charlotte. (1778) The Lady’s Assistant 3rd Edition, London.
National Center for Home Food Preservation, Historical Origins of Food Preservation
Washington, Martha. (1799) Booke of cookery. K. Hess commentary, New York, NY, Columbia University Press