Ellsworth American Photos by Jacqueline Weaver

Food historian exploring 19th century cooking



SULLIVAN — Merry Post has an affinity for all things 19th century — be it the freewheeling thinking, the empowerment of women or the food.

“You could be a Renaissance clergyman and a botanist,” said the Sullivan resident, a book editor for more than 25 years and a member of the Culinary Historians of Boston.

Currently, she is focusing on the food — perusing 19th century cookbooks, among them the community fundraiser cookbooks, which are popular to this day.merry-post-jw0001

“I like recipes that tell a story,” said Post, who moved to a home on Flanders Pond with her husband, Michael Fisher, two years ago. “I have an appreciation for how hard it was prepare these books and how complicated a lot of the recipes used to be.”

“I just want people to enjoy authentic cooking from the 19th century and enjoy some of the stories,” she said.

The recipes are a shadow of today’s detailed instructions. There were no cooking times, no temperatures, no herbs or flavoring quantities.

Post and Fisher moved to Maine from their home in Belmont, Mass., where they raised twin sons.

The couple had been introduced to Downeast Maine two decades ago and rented cottages every summer until they purchased their current home.

Post’s interest in the 19th century emerged from a childhood in Garden City, Long Island, and studies at Syracuse University.

Her mother, Marie Post, had a degree in home economics and had grown up on a farm in Delaware where scrapple — usually made of hog organ meats —- and crab cakes were staples.

In Marie Post’s own home nutrition was at the forefront, Merry said.

The cooking was first inspired when Post was 12 and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and baked a recipe from the book, Lane Cake. The layered sponge cake had a heavy dose of bourbon —something author Harper Lee noted in her classic novel.

The cooking skills Post learned as a child became valuable after college while working in magazine advertising in Boston. She lived for a few years with a woman on Beacon Hill who provided lodging in exchange for Post’s cooking merry-post-jw0015skills.

“She told me, ‘You won me with your Sole Bonne Femme [Fillets of Sole]” said Post of the Julia Child recipe.

While living in Boston, Post also was head of the Boston Area Shaker Study Group for two years, although she is not a Shaker.

The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, were founded in England and became a presence in America in the 19th century.

“There were so many reform movements in the 19th century and a lot of interesting communities,” Post said. “They were trying to reinvent society, which meant to reinvent the family.”

Post also was a part-time interpreter at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass., which was originally a utopian community.

Fruitlands was inspired by transcendentalism and ideas of societal reform. Among its early inhabitants was writer Louisa May Alcott and members of her family.

It is said the community ultimately failed because of the difficulty growing crops.

Post attended graduate school when her sons were grown and obtained a master’s degree in museum studies.

She wrote about the Native American, Shaker and Hudson River School art collections at Fruitlands, honing her research and writing skills.merry-post-jw0012

As she investigates cooking from that period Post has noticed that recipes along the coast were more interesting with curry and tropical fruit ingredients no doubt due to seafaring influences.

Post said she admires the thriftiness and ingenuity of the women living in the 19th century.

Boiled cider was an economical alternative to sugar, added interest to a dish and could be reconstituted easily, she said.

There were no packaged mixes. Women made their own. Post might add herbs and/or Parmesan cheese to traditional baking powder biscuits to make them interesting.

“I’m looking for lost recipes that I can then adapt for a modern kitchen,” Post said. “Things like carrot pie.”

Some women at the time focused their efforts on simplifying cooking to free women from the kitchen.

Catherine Beecher designed efficient kitchens and functional homes. She published housing designs, architectural plans and domestic advice books.

Stowe was an advocate of labor-saving devices, such as the potato peeler.

She also offered advice on how couples should be together and how they should raise their children, although she was neither married nor ever had children.

The suffragette Lucy Stone owned a book called “Quick Cooking: A Book of Culinary Heresies,” written by Flora Haines.

“Her feeling was, why spend a morning cooking something that will be consumed in 20 minutes,” Post said.

Another interesting writer at the time was Lydia Maria Child, a noted abolitionist and author of “The American Frugal Housewife” (but best known for her poem, “Over the River and Through the Wood.”)merry-post-jw0019

“Today Lydia would have been producing the slow food movement,” said Post.

Post said cooking in the 19th century was a challenge.

“It took a tremendous amount of work to be a good cook,” Post said. “They had no mixes, no gelatin. They had to buy calves hooves and cook and strain them for gelatin.”

One thing that has surprised Post as she immerses herself in 19th century cookbooks is the lack of imagination in recipes for vegetables.

“I knew that the typical American diet in the 19th century was very focused on meat, poultry and fish,” she said. “New Englanders did not have fresh fruits and vegetables coming from California and Mexico in the winter.”

But root vegetables, she said, were available year-round.

“Outside of a very few suggestions to roast root vegetables (never mixing the different types), most vegetable recipes call for long boiling or breading and frying,” Post said.

 

Roast Chicken Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes

This recipe is adapted from Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery,” 1796. Simmons instructed to “fill the bird therewith and sew up, hang down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until steam emits from the breast.

“To stuff: Boil and mash three pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast as above.”

 

Roast Chicken Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes

Merry adapted this recipe to stuff a large roasting chicken. Note that one five-pound bird will hold enough mashed potatoes for three persons only.

 

Two baking potatoes (about 8 oz. each), peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

¼ cup milk

4 Tbsps. butter

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

½ tsp. dried rosemary

one onion, sliced into thick circles

1 Tbsp. butter

1 tsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. Italian herbs

1 roasting chicken, about 5 pounds

 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a medium saucepan, add the potatoes and enough cold water to cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain then return the potatoes to the pot.

Add the milk and two tablespoons of butter and warm them in the pot. Once the butter is melted and the milk is warm, mash the potato-milk mixture until smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and rosemary.

Rinse and pat dry the outside of the chicken and rub the skin with one tablespoon of butter. Crumble the herbs and mix with the salt and pepper. Sprinkle half the mixture inside the bird.

Stuff the bird with warm mashed potatoes and skewer the openings closed. Sprinkle the other half of the herbs over all the skin. Place the stuffed chicken on a rack in a roasting pan with the slices of onion tucked under it. Bake until tender and the juice from the thigh runs clear when pierced with a fork, about 1½ hours. Baste three times with pan juices during the roasting.

Transfer the chicken to a platter. Stir up any browned bits from the bottom. Spoon the pan juices over the chicken and serve.

 

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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