One of the essential survival skills that the Pilgrims learned from Native Americans was how to fish by hand for the cod that abounded in New England waters.
Cod was admirably suited for preserving by drying or salting. Preserved cod had been an important part of the European diet for hundreds of years. I learned at the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry Island that the U.S. government started subsidizing large-scale cod fishing in the 1790s to develop a lucrative fishery and continued until 1866.
Salt cod became an important New England export to Europe, especially to Roman Catholic countries. Lesser quality salt cod was traded to slave plantations in the Caribbean in exchange for sugar and molasses for home consumption and the manufacture of rum.
Judging by its popularity in period cookbooks, nearly everyone in 19th-century New England was eating boiled cod, sometimes with a sauce. Many families ate cod every week. Frugal women made fish pie, hash or fish cakes with their leftover boiled cod.
“Fresh halibut or cod will make excellent cakes,” pronounced the anonymous author of “The American Matron,” a cookbook published in Boston in 1851.
Like several other American cookbooks of the period, this book is better organized and more instructive than the random collections of recipes that characterized earlier publications. For example, instead of giving many different recipes for forcemeat (stuffing) suitable for different kinds of roasted meat, fish and fried condiments for soup, the author included a two-column table.
One column listed main ingredients for a forcemeat such as ham, lobster, or oysters, and the other column listed possible seasonings: anchovies, hard-boiled egg yolks, savory, marjoram, thyme, cayenne, onion, black pepper, cloves, soy [sauce], ketchup and curry.
I combined a recipe for fish cakes from this book with some of the author’s recommended seasonings. Any boneless, lean white fish will work for these fish cakes. The author stipulated pork fat for frying the cakes. You could certainly use fat rendered from salt pork or bacon. I chose vegetable oil as a more heart-healthy alternative.
You may not have leftover poached fish, so I’ll start with a recipe for that.