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“take A Handful Of Bugloffe…”
The Puritans were far from puritanical about their food. With them, cooking was a high art
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Obviously, conserve of roses was not a remedy to be run up at a minute’s notice. But all cooking in seventeenthcentury New England required what Sir Kenelm liked to call “discretion and experience.” It took place in and around the central chimney of what would be the largest room in the house, where, as likely as not, a great fourposted and handsomely curtained bed would stand in one corner. The wide hearth and deeply set fireplace under the huge open chimney would be, in itself, the kitchen. Even later, when there were separate rooms for eating and sleeping, the generous hearth with overhead cranes set into the center of the chimney, with its oven on one side at the back, constituted the whole cooking area. This is why we are mistaken in imagining roaring fires with great logs burning furiously, because the housewife, in order to cook, had to step into or lean into the fireplace.
And there she needed to have several fires going at the same time, at least three at different degrees of heat; one hotly flaming, one of glowing embers, and one of hot ashes with “coals” on top. With these and hooks on the cranes to hang pots at different heights above the heat, and the adjacent oven heated with hot coals before using, she would be able to carry out the most elaborate operations. Double boilers were improvised by putting hay in the water at the bottom of a large iron kettle so a smaller kettle could rest on the hay. A formidable array of utensils—reflecting ovens, spiders (frying pans on legs), spits for roasting meat, toasting forks, long-handled dippers, earthenware dishes, glass bottles, and copper kettles—equipped her to work minor miracles of cookery. The great beam stretching across the front of the fireplace, almost above her head, acquired a smoothly worn hollow where she rested one hand to balance herself while she stirred with the other. The inner side of this beam, close to the fire, could become charred, and constituted one of the commonest hazards of seventeenth-century cooking. The old books on housekeeping list many remedies for burns.
With everything cooking at once and in different ways, close watching was essential lest all those concoctions made with meal or flour or sugar should “fire too” or burn on. Sugar was used to an extent which would appall us today. It was plentiful, due to the nearness of Barbados, and Josselyn suspected it as the cause of people being pitiably “tooth-shaken.” The number of remedies for toothache and the desperate nature of some of them—such as rubbing the jaws with gunpowder—indicates that the pain must have been severe. This would also explain the prevalence in New England gardens of certain poisonous plants, some of which could be taken for a numbing effect.
In the still-room, usually a little room at one side of the kitchen, slightly lower to ensure coolness, the Puritan housewife needed skills even more complex than those required in her kitchen. Here she had virtually to understand and practice the rudiments of modern chemistry. In her still-room she made her cheeses, started her wines and sugar-fermented drinks, brewed beers, set dyes with mordants of her own concocting suited to each plant and the stuff it was to dye, and prepared all her plasters, salves, oils, and waters. In short, she ran a combination brewery, dairy, and apothecary’s shop. Fortunately for her, men of the seventeenth century often took an active interest in cookery as well as in the making of all kinds of drinks. In fact it is due chiefly to male chroniclers that we are now able to tell what was made and how.
For example, Sir Keiielm Digby describes, with gusto, an “excellent Way to make Metheglin.” Metheglin, a Welsh alcoholic drink made from fermenting honey, was apparently considered both medicinal and palatable. As recently as the iSgo’s metheglin was known in the United States, but it was flavored with sarsaparilla and charged with carbonic acid gas, which would certainly have startled and dismayed Sir Kenelm.
His seventeenth-century version was flavored as follows: “Take Bugloss, Borage, Hyssop, Organ, Sweet-Marjoram, French cowslip, Coltsfoot, Thyme, Burnet, Self-heal, Sanicle a little, Betony, Blew-buttons, Harts-tongue, Meads-sweet, Liverwort, Veriander two ounces, Bistort, Saint John’s wort, Liquorish, Two ounces of Carraways, two ounces of Yellow-saunders, Balm, Bugle, Half a pound of Ginger, and one ounce of Cloves, Agrimony, Tormintil-roots, Cumfrey, Fennel-roots, Clowns-all-heal, Maiden-hair, Wall-rew, Spleenwort, Sweetoak, Paul’s betony, Mouse-ear. …” For two hogsheads of metheglin you take two handfuls apiece of each of the above herbs, unless the quantity is already given, except for sanicle, of which, he says, “you need only half a handful.”