By Merry Post
Special to The Ellsworth American
The anonymous woman from Salem, Mass., who wrote “The American Matron, or Practical and Scientific Cookery,” addressed young housekeepers in her preface. Writing in 1851, she sought not just to ennoble the mission of housekeepers and cooks but also to caution the reader about the seriousness of her responsibilities.
“Good cookery is of inestimable importance to our comfort, happiness and health, and, indirectly, even to our intellectual and moral being.”
Our intellectual and moral being? Some ancient philosophers endorsed a simple diet for moral well-being. Fortunately, this cookbook was not spartan and included a lovely recipe reminiscent of Middle Eastern pilafs with the mixture of spices and the technique of sautéing rice first in butter.
Rice recipes appeared in New England cookbooks early in the 19th century, but these recipes often reflect the poor technique of overcooking rice to mush. Still, rice was a staple in the Northeast, and rice or hominy was part of the rations issued to Union troops during the Civil War.
Pilau was a meat or chicken and rice dish popular in South Carolina, where American rice agriculture started. Culinary historian Karen Hess traced the relationship of established rice farming in West Africa and the origins of rice plantations in South Carolina. Both regions featured low-lying, boggy soil that required different cultivation methods than higher, drier land.
Sadly, farmers kidnapped from West Africa were valued in American slave markets for their expertise in growing rice in lowland conditions. African-American cooks in South Carolina enriched American cuisine with their versions of jambalaya; shrimp and rice pie; and bread, cake and waffles made with rice.