Slumping with Louisa May Alcott

October 8th, 2021
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This month I feature a dish that was frequently made by a woman who would have called it a “homely receipt.” American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) used what are now archaic definitions of both words.

“Homely,” which now generally means unattractive, was then interpreted as homey or simple. And “receipt” was the 19th-century term for what we now call a recipe.

I have been a fan of Alcott since I first read “Little Women” when I was eight. Hooked, I went on to read most of her other books for young readers: “Little Men,” “Eight Cousins,” “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” “Jack and Jill,” and so forth.

When I was an adult a number of the sensational tales she wrote under pseudonyms were discovered by scholars. I was lucky enough to be able to review some of them.

At that time, I also discovered one of my favorite Alcott books, “Work.” Published in 1873, this novel for adults tells the story of a young woman named Christie who has been brought up by her uncle and aunt.

She is welcome to remain in their house when she turns 21, and she has a reliable (if not exciting) local suitor. Nevertheless, she decides to leave home and make her own living. “Aunt Betsey,” she announces, “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.”

Christie in the Original Book

Christie wants to escape from the feeling of being a burden to others, but even more than that she wants to strike out on her own. She is excited by the prospect of exploring a world larger than the small town in which she has grown up.

She embarks on a series of jobs that reflect the occupations available to middle-class white women in 19th-century America—among them domestic servant, actress, governess, companion, seamstress, and nurse.

Some of these jobs are depressing in the extreme, particularly her work as a servant to a woman who denies Christie not just autonomy but also the use of her own name. The woman makes Christie answer to “Jane” because that is what this rigid employer is accustomed to calling her maids.

Alcott herself worked at all of the jobs in the book at one point or another. She was the main breadwinner for her family, in part because she believed, like her heroine Christie, that women could find fulfillment in work. She also sought work outside the home because her father was a terrible provider.

Bronson Alcott was a Transcendentalist educator and philosopher. An idealist, he would never take a job if it interfered with his principles. He took this admirable quality to extremes that made life difficult for his family. The Alcotts often had trouble finding enough to eat and paying their rent.

Those of us in Massachusetts can go to the town of Harvard and visit Bronson’s most disastrous experiment in living according to his principles, Fruitlands, now a museum.

Fruitlands

In 1843 he and a number of like-minded friends decided to try to create their own Utopian community. One of the friends, Charles Lane, was wealthy. Lane purchased a home and land, and the group moved in. They called their new home Fruitlands.

The residents of Fruitlands didn’t believe in hiring labor so they intended to engage in subsistence farming. Unfortunately, few of them knew much about farming. Most of them spent more time discussing philosophy and religion or trying to find new residents for the place than trying to grow food on the land.

They drank only water, used no products from slavery or animals (they dressed in homemade linen garments and canvas shoes, which offered little protection as the temperature fell), and practiced sexual abstinence.

Although technically the group endorsed gender equality, women ended up doing most of the work. Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife and 10-year-old Louisa’s mother, was the lone woman at Fruitlands after the only other adult female, a teacher, was expelled for breaking down and eating a piece of fish.

Abigail was supposedly once asked by a visitor whether there were any beasts of burden on the farm. “Only one woman!” was her reply.

The Alcotts abandoned the venture in the cold, hungry month of January 1844.

Their life didn’t become financially stable until Louisa’s books began to make money a couple of decades later. Bronson managed to eke out a living of sorts until then through odd jobs and handouts from relatives and friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

What does this have to do with food? In 1873 Louisa penned a tale called “Transcendental Wild Oats” about a family engaged in a Utopian experiment like Fruitlands. In fact, the aspirational community in the story is also called Fruitlands.

At the end of the story, after the family has abandoned its temporary home just as the Alcotts did, the patriarch sighs, “Poor Fruitlands! The name was as great a failure as the rest!”

In a “half-tender, half-satirical tone,” his wise wife replies, “Don’t you think Apple Slump would be a better name for it, dear!”

Apple Slump was the name of a favorite dessert in the Alcott home. It’s a simple dish perfect for this season of year when apples are everywhere. As its name might suggest, it’s not precisely exciting looking. Nevertheless, it’s tasty. It resembles a cobbler with nuts added.

It would never have been served at Fruitlands as it contains milk, egg, and sugar. Nevertheless, it was frequently served at the Alcotts’ future home in Concord, Orchard House. In fact, Louisa Alcott often referred to Orchard House as Apple Slump. The recipe below comes from the Concord Museum.

Louisa May Alcott’s Apple Slump

Ingredients:

for the Apple Base:
6 pared, cored, and sliced tart apples (or whatever apples you have)
the juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (I love cinnamon with apples so I added a little more)
1/4 teaspoon salt

for the Slumpy Topping:
1-1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled a bit
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

First, make the apple base. In a large bowl, gently mix the apple slices, the lemon juice, and the vanilla. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, the spices, and the salt. Add the sugar mixture to the apple mixture and toss to coat it. Spread the apple base evenly in the pan and bake until it is soft, about 20 minutes.

While the apples are baking make the topping. Sift together the flour, the sugar, the baking powder, and the salt. Blend the egg and the milk together with a fork; then stir in the melted butter. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients, and stir gently.

Pour the flour mixture over the baked apples, doing your best to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the walnuts on top. Continue baking for 25 minutes, or until the top is brown and crusty. Cool for 5 minutes. The Concord Museum recommends serving it with your favorite ice cream. (I served it with caramel sauce.) Serves 6.

 

Celebrating the End of Summer with Corn

September 9th, 2021

We are still eating corn in western Massachusetts. Corn is the perfect late-summer vegetable. Its color reflects the hues of the sun and the goldenrod-filled fields. Its subtly sweet taste reminds us to savor summer’s beauty while we still have it.

Along with most Americans, I believe that fresh corn is best enjoyed boiled or steamed briefly and then slathered with butter, salt, and pepper. In recent years, I have learned to skip the butter, but I keep it on the table for corn-consuming guests.

Unfortunately, I am seldom able to restrain myself from buying more ears of corn than I need at local farm stands. This can be a problem. As readers probably know, corn is ideally cooked and consumed the day on which it is picked.

What’s a cook to do? I tend to cook corn briefly as soon as possible and then save some of the cooked corn in the refrigerator or freezer for future use. I can make corn fritters, corn salad (it goes with lots of other vegetables), corn chowder, and so forth.

I recently used leftover corn in a risotto. I share that recipe below. Risotto can sometimes seem daunting because it requires the cook to pay attention throughout the cooking process.

I handle the challenge of risotto in a couple of ways. First, I invite my guests to come into the kitchen with me to sip cocktails or whatever beverage they choose. That way, I don’t miss out on any scintillating conversation while I stir my risotto.

Second, I remind myself to let the risotto talk to me. The process of making it entails adding liquid a little at a time as needed. If I monitor the bottom of the pan for dryness as I chat with my friends and relatives, this is fairly easy.

The risotto tells me when it is done by creaming. This is a magical process. The cook has to taste the rice grains frequently. Suddenly, the risotto will reach a point at which it still has a little chew but also tastes rich and creamy. I promise, if you keep tasting (the proverbial tough job that somebody has to do!), you’ll know this point when you get there.

 

Sweet Corn Risotto

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) sweet butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 cup chopped onion
1-1/4 cups Arborio rice
3/4 cup white wine (approximately)
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
2 cups lightly cooked corn kernels
1 tablespoon chopped parsley (plus a little more if you like)
4 cups simmering chicken or vegetable stock (or as needed; you may use water if you run out of stock)
2 tablespoons diced fresh tomatoes
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (plus a bit more if desired)
a little more chopped parsley or tiny basil leaves for garnish

Instructions:

Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter and the oil. Stir in the onion. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the rice. Cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add 1/2 cup of the wine plus the chopped bell pepper and a little of the corn, and stir. Add 1 cup of stock and keep stirring.

As the mixture cooks and dries up, add the remaining stock a bit at a time. Stir frequently but not constantly. Cooking will take quite a while—somewhere between half an hour and 45 minutes. The corn is done with it suddenly tastes creamy.

Just before serving, add the tomatoes; the parsley; the remaining wine, corn, and butter; and the cheese. Serves 6.

Here’s my video for this recipe:

Tinky Makes Corn Risotto

https://youtu.be/-518nFR08j8

 

 

Let’s Hear It for the Girls! Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

August 4th, 2021

Last week I got my wild, low-bush blueberries from Heath, Massachusetts. I immediately thought of Senator Margaret Chase Smith.

In case the connection isn’t immediately apparent to readers, let me explain. Recently, my friend Peter Beck lent me a 1961 edition of the Congressional Club Cookbook.

I love the book’s cover with its image of an elephant and a donkey getting ready for a party. This copy was presented to Peter’s mother by Smith, who stayed with the Beck family from time to time and inscribed the book to her hostess.

I was intrigued. I knew Smith had been a senator for many years. I didn’t know until the cookbook inspired me to do a little research that this politician from Maine ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 … or that she was a notable promoter of foods from her home state.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995) grew up in a working-class family in Skowhegan, Me. Margaret Chase couldn’t afford college and held various jobs before going to work at a local weekly newspaper, one of several enterprises owned by a businessman named Clyde Smith.

More than two decades older than Chase, Smith dated her on and off for years; he was apparently quite a ladies’ man. The pair married in 1930.

Smith insisted that his bride give up working after they married so she could devote most of her time to acting as his hostess. Nevertheless, she remained active in a number of women’s organizations she had joined during her single years.

More than two decades older than his wife, Clyde Smith had political ambitions. He was elected to Congress in 1936. Margaret Chase Smith accompanied him to Washington and learned the ropes by working as his secretary.

When he became ill in 1940, he asked her to run for his seat in his stead. He died in April of that year. His wife won a special election to complete his term and then ran successfully for her own two-year term.

She stayed in the House of Representatives until 1948, when she was elected to the Senate. She would serve there until 1973.

Smith in 1963. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

In both branches of Congress, Smith was known for her support of the military, for her civility, for her care for her constituents, and for her independence. She didn’t always agree with her fellow Republicans, and she quietly but firmly made her views known.

Perhaps most famously, she delivered a 1950 speech called the “Declaration of Conscience” in which she lambasted the activities of her fellow senator, Joseph McCarthy. She was violently anti-communist, but she found the tactics of McCarthy and his red-baiting colleagues disgraceful.

“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” she announced.

In 1964, Smith put her name forward as a Republican candidate for the presidency. Her chances weren’t strong. She didn’t get her name on the ballot in all 48 states, and she accepted no campaign contributions. An exception to the no-contribution rule was a gift from Peter’s father, a large bouquet of roses. “He thought she would make a great president,” Peter told me.

Although she lost to Barry Goldwater, Smith made history as the first woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major American political party. She even had a female-centered campaign song performed by Hildegarde called “Leave It to the Girls.”

Smith arrives at the 1964 Republican Convention. Courtesy, Senate Historical Office.

What does any of this have to do with blueberries?

Margaret Chase Smith actively promoted Maine’s foods by hosting events and sharing recipes. When she ran for president, her blueberry muffins played a part in her campaign.

One of her campaign photographs depicted her holding a sign that said, “Barry stews, Rocky pursues, Dicky brews, but Margaret Chase Smith wows and woos with Blueberry Muffins!” Her rivals were Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon.

The senator’s association with food is so strong that in 2018 the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine launched “Making Margaret,” a recipe-research collaborative.

Through this group, food-oriented students, faculty, and staff in different disciplines explore the connections between food and public life.

I was unable to talk to anyone in the group for this article. (It is, after all, the university’s summer vacation.) I hope to learn more about “Making Margaret” in the future, however.

I’m always interested in the ways in which food connects people. In the case of Margaret Chase Smith, food was a way to spread the word about her state.

According to her biographer Janann Sherman, it was also a way to reassure voters and her Congressional colleagues that this female—for years, the only woman in the Senate—didn’t represent a threat to the status quo because she was essentially “feminine.”

Her baking thus became form of self-protection as well as a form of self-expression, part of a dance she performed over and over again for her political audience.

The recipe below appeared in the “Congressional Club Cookbook” and was also sent to me by the Margaret Chase Library in the late senator’s hometown of Skowhegan.

The muffins are not unlike their original baker. They appear quite simple at first glance; they don’t contain a lot of sugar or butter, and they include no spice. Yet they are chock full of flavor. I highly recommend them.

Margaret Chase Smith circa 1940, courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library

Margaret Chase Smith’s Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) baking powder
1 egg
3/4 cup fresh milk
3 tablespoons melted shortening (I used butter)

Instructions:

Wash blueberries, and drain thoroughly. Mix and sift flour with salt, sugar, and baking powder. Beat egg and mix with milk. Stir egg and milk mixture into the flour mixture, then add the berries and melted shortening (or butter).

Mix well and pour into greased muffin pans, filling each three-fourths full. Bake in a hot oven, 400 degrees, for 20 minutes. Makes eight to 12 muffins depending on size.

Red, White, and Blue Sundaes

July 1st, 2021

I know I just posted a recipe, but this one is ideal for July 4 so I’m giving it to you this week. I promise not to inundate you in future!

As far as I am concerned, July Fourth isn’t primarily a day for cooking. I think of it as a day for family and community.

I love to swim with family and friends. I enjoy watching the Independence Day parade at noon in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and I adore listening to Mohawk Trail Concerts’ annual jazz offering in the afternoon. I’m thrilled that the latter two events are returning this year after their COVID-induced hiatus in 2020.

I’m not a fan of fireworks. I spent too much time when I was little overseas in countries where explosives were readily available and children could burn themselves. If my neighborhood is planning a display, however, I try to be a good sport and not cover my eyes and ears too obviously during the fireworks.

Despite all of these activities (and more!), one has to eat—and it’s nice to have something in one’s repertoire for Independence Day that goes beyond hot dogs.

You may have your own special summery dishes: a great aunt’s potato salad, a smashed hamburger (these are very popular right now on the internet), sun tea, a strawberry pound cake.

Here I offer a couple of suggestions in case readers need a little recipe inspiration. Actually, I’m just offering ONE—but I suggest you visit some past recipes here as well. Tammy’s Tangy Kielbasa is easy and tasty. Cliff’s Potato-Chip Chicken is more work, but it has a holiday appeal.

My new recipe this week is a red, white, and blue sundae. It uses strawberries (which are finishing up their season in these parts) and blueberries (which are starting theirs). If you want to simplify life, look in a cookbook for a standard ice-cream formula that doesn’t require cooking like my custard recipe.

If you want to make things even simpler, purchase your ice cream. I suggest a high-quality local brand.

I wish you a glorious fourth of activity and eating.

Red, White, and Blue Sundaes

The Sauce:

Ingredients:

2 cups cut-up strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 generous tablespoon butter

Instructions:

Place the berries, sugar, and lemon juice in a nonreactive (stainless steel or enamel) saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat, add a little bit of the butter, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes.

Turn off the heat, stir in the remaining butter so that it melts, and continue to stir the mixture for 3 to 4 more minutes to distribute the berries. Use immediately or refrigerate. Makes about 1-1/3 cups sauce.

Vanilla Ice Cream:

Ingredients:


1-1/2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
2/3 cups sugar
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pinch salt

Instructions:

Heat the milk until it is steamy but not boiling. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until the mixture is thick and light yellow (about 4 minutes).

Whisk a bit of the hot milk into the egg mixture. Then whisk in more, up to 3/4 cup. Whisk the milky egg yolks into the remaining milk. Cook over medium heat until the custard begins to thicken but does not boil (about 2 to 3 minutes on my gas stove).

Remove the custard from the heat, and strain it into a heatproof bowl or pot. Cover and cool thoroughly.

When the custard is cold whisk in the cream, vanilla, and salt. Place this mixture in your ice-cream freezer and churn until done.

This recipe makes a little more than a quart of ice cream.

Assembly:

For each sundae, scoop out 1/2 cup ice cream. Spoon on some strawberry sauce, dab on a little whipped cream (optional but good), and top with a couple of fresh local blueberries.

Lovely Pink Blossoms

June 29th, 2021

My chive blossoms are winding down, but I still have some. Chives are the first herbs to come up in my garden, and when their pink flowers join the green stalks I’m in springtime heaven.

Each year I make chive-blossom vinegar. It’s the prettiest vinegar I know. I often give it to friends … who then want to know what to do with it. The recipe below is for them. I also put it in any salad that can use a little onion flavor; yesterday, it gave zip to my chicken salad.

This potato salad would be great for July 4. Happy summer!

Chive Blossom Vinegar

Ingredients:

enough chive blossoms to fill at least half of a clean 1-cup jar
just under 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

Instructions:

Place the chive blossoms in the jar. Heat the vinegar until it smells strong and just starts to bubble around the edges. Pour it over the blossoms, and cover loosely. Later in the day, tighten the cover. Keep the jar in a cool, dark place for 2 days, turning it a couple of times a day; then strain the vinegar into a clean jar through cheesecloth. Makes just under 1 cup of vinegar.

Chivy Potato Salad

Ingredients:

4 to 5 medium potatoes, cleaned but not necessarily peeled and then diced
the juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup canola or olive oil
salt and pepper to taste (go lightly with the salt!)
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise (plus more if needed)
2 generous tablespoons chive blossom vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
chopped chives to taste
chopped dill to taste
crumbled bacon for garnish (optional)

Instructions:

Boil the potato pieces until they are just tender. Drain them, and toss them with the lemon juice, oil, and some salt. Let the mixture cool. Add the celery, egg, and herbs. Blend the mayonnaise the vinegar, the pepper, and the mustard. Toss this mixture onto the salad. If you need to, add a little more mayonnaise. Taste and adjust the flavors. Top with a few more chopped chives and crumbled bacon (if desired). Serves 6.

Watch me make it here:

Tinky Makes Chive Blossom Vinegar and Potato Salad