Picture a widow, who has been wearing black for months, gazing wistfully at floral print fabrics. ILLUSTRATION BY CAMILLE BOISVERT

Plain black: Mourning dress advertised in early cookbooks



By Merry Post
Special to The Ellsworth American

Community cookbooks from the last quarter of the 19th century sometimes include advertisements that hint at the importance of public mourning customs. The “Excelsior Cook Book,” put out in 1891 by the Congregational Church of Rutland, Vt., includes two advertisements that show the need for proper mourning attire.

The ad for the C.E. Ross store, which sold fabric and sewing notions, announced “Henriettas and other fine Black Goods always in stock.” Henrietta was a finely woven, woolen twill fabric that tailored well and was rather expensive. Black Henrietta had a matte surface and was considered dignified and appropriate for mourning costumes.

The milliner Mrs. F.C. Eddy advertised “mourning goods a specialty.” Milliners sold other accessories in addition to hats. Mourning goods could include black parasols, black-bordered handkerchiefs and black veils to complete an ensemble.

When this cookbook was published, it was still customary in New England to observe a formal period of mourning for a departed spouse or close relative by wearing black garments every day. The higher up the social scale you were, the longer you were expected to mourn and the more complicated your mourning costume. Women were expected to observe a longer mourning period than men. Widows at the pinnacle of society might wear a special white cap under a black bonnet with a long black veil, black gloves, gown and cloak for a full year or longer before lightening their mourning to wear gray or mauve. Because mourning outfits were expensive, less affluent widows would dye their clothes black and avoid purchasing a new wardrobe.

The custom of wearing black daily for a prescribed period of mourning faded during World War I when the federal government discouraged wearing mourning attire as bad for morale. Instead, the Wilson administration started the Gold Star program to honor families for their patriotic sacrifices, encouraging them to hang a banner in their windows with a gold star for each family member who had died during active duty.

The church ladies who wrote the “Excelsior Cook Book” were successful in selling advertising space to other businesses in addition to the milliner and the fabric store. They published an excellent cookbook that contains more recipes that translate well to 21st century tastes than most community cookbooks of that period.

One such recipe, called “Chicken à la Tartare,” is an early version of oven-fried chicken. This is lighter in calories, easier and less messy to prepare than fried chicken. The recipe can easily be scaled up and made with chicken thighs on the bone instead of chicken breasts. To make the dish more heart-healthy, you could substitute vegetable oil for butter.

Gouldsboro artist Camille Boisvert created the illustration. You can see more of her work at artclb.blogspot.com.

Chicken à la Tartare

3 slices fresh bread
½ tsp. dried rosemary
½ tsp. dried marjoram
½ tsp. dried thyme
¼ cup melted butter
2½ lbs. split chicken breast halves
about 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Put bread and herbs in the food processor and process to crumbs. Melt ¼ cup butter. Dredge chicken pieces with flour, then salt and pepper both sides. Brush chicken pieces with melted butter, then press breadcrumbs on the skin side. Place chicken in a baking dish, skin side up, with pieces not touching. Bake for about 45 minutes or until the meat is no longer pink next to the bone.

Merry Post

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