Hear the School Bell Ring!

The Tetonia School Bell, currently housed at the Teton Valley Museum in Driggs, ID. The three room school house, operating from 1919 to 1953, was a consolidation of schools from Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia.

For almost my whole life, I think of the beginning of the year in September, not January. Not surprising, since from the time I was 5 years old, I’ve either been a student, a parent of young children, or a teacher, and so it seems natural to think in terms of the school year. Although many local schools start in August, September has always been the month I associate with the beginning of the academic year. But it hasn’t always been that way. In the late 1800’s, rural kids often only went to school for 5 months of the year. They had a short winter and a short summer session, and helped at home in spring and fall. In 1891 in Haden, ID, a school was required to be in session at least three months of the year. Urban students at this same time attended school much longer, in what was essentially year round school. However, event though the schools were open year round, attendance was not compulsory.  During the hot summer months, many students did not attend because any family that could afford to do so left the city. Without air-conditioning, the school buildings were sweltering. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, rural and urban schools worked to make schooling more uniform. To that end, the typical 9-10 month school year, with time off in the summer gradually became the norm. (States also began passing laws that made elementary education compulsory.) 

This year, 2021, the start of the school year is fraught with challenges. Covid-19 cases are on the rise again, and children under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine. School administrators are once again struggling with decisions about masks, social distancing, and virtual learning. I applaud all the teachers who survived the last year and a half, and are showing up again this year to face the challenges. As a former teacher, I can only imagine their struggles to work effectively in such a chaotic and ‘flexible’ environment.

Of course, teaching has never been an ‘easy’ job. It can be amusing to look at various ‘rules for teachers’ from the 19th century. (Although these ‘rules’ have not been verified as actually accurate or authentic.) One such ‘rule’ forbids teachers from loitering in ice cream shops. Another says women teachers could not ride in a carriage or motor car with any man except a father or brother. Whether or not these rules were really put in place, the challenges teachers have faced are very real. Consider trying to teach twenty or more people, ranging in age from five to twenty, all in one room.

The one-room school house was the norm in the decades before improved transportation made it possible for schools to consolidate. In the 1930’s, my mother attended a one room school house in Kansas. When she started, she was the only first grader in the school. With less work to do than the older kids, she had to go outside alone for longer recess breaks. Mom attended this one room schoolhouse through sixth grade, at which time she went to a consolidated school. This ‘big’ school had two rooms for first through eighth grades.

In September, the geese begin gathering to fly south, the leaves start to turn colors, and the school bells ring. (Although many school bells today are really buzzers that mark the beginning and end of each period.) For me, this is the beginning of a new year.

The Haden School Bell. The first permanent school in Haden, ID was opened Jan. 1892 and had 54 students by the spring of 1900. The town of Haden was formally dedicated three years later.

Ketchup: A Demonstration of International Exchange

Any American over the age of two has probably tasted ketchup and knows it as a bright red sauce used on just about anything from scrambled eggs to french fries. It might surprise you to know the convoluted, international journey ketchup has made to get where it is today.

Although linguists do not agree on the origin of the word, it seems most likely the sauce now known as ketchup* was originally a Chinese sauce, made from brined fish or shellfish. References to this concoction of fermented fish guts and soybeans date from as early as 300 BCE. (This Chinese /keo-cheup/ might have been similar to the common Roman fish sauce known as garum.) Because the salty paste kept well and was easily transported, it was spread by Chinese sailors and merchants along their regular trade routes to the Philippines and Indonesia. The British adopted the sauce by the early 18th century, but began replacing the fish with other ingredients. Common ketchup recipes from the 18th century often feature mushrooms or oysters, with mushrooms being most common. Various Southeast Asian spices, including mace, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves, were added to the mixture. When the British colonized North America, they brought this spicy mushroom condiment with them. 

Throughout the 18th century, the ketchup that was added to many sauces and other dishes was made of mushrooms and/or oysters. Early American cookbooks such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, has two recipes for ‘catchup’, both with mushrooms as the primary ingredient (216-217). John Townshend’s The Universal Cook, has a recipe for English ‘katchup’ that includes vinegar, spices, and anchovies, adding at the end of the recipe, “you may add to it the clear liquor that comes from mushrooms” (226).

So how did ketchup become the tomato-based condiment it is today? Tomatoes, of course, are a new world fruit (or vegetable, depending on your perspective.) Tomato plants were domesticated in South and Central America at least by 500 BCE. The Aztecs cultivated many different varieties of tomatoes. When the Spaniards invaded South America in the 16th century, they ‘discovered’ this tasty fruit and introduced it to Europe and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines. From there it spread to China (where it was called ‘barbarian eggplant’).

Spain took to eating tomatoes fairly quickly (recipes for cooking tomatoes can be found as early as the 1540’s). It was another hundred years or so before Italy followed Spain with tomatoes appearing in cookbooks in Naples by 1692. Other European countries were even more hesitant. Some thought the tomato was poisonous, perhaps because it is a member of the deadly nightshade family or perhaps because the acidity of the tomato leached lead from the pewter plates of the wealthy. Some thought the tomato was an aphrodisiac, calling them ‘love apples’. Whatever the reason, the rest of Europe and English settlers in North America were slow to accept the tomato as anything other than an ornamental plant. According to Walter Staib, in The City Tavern Cookbook, it wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson championed tomatoes that they became popular (114). Jefferson had discovered tomatoes in France, and began growing them at his home in Monticello, where he regularly served them to guests. Apparently he even ate a tomato in public to demonstrate once and for all that they were safe to eat (Staib, 114).

Once tomatoes were accepted as edible, they slowly made their way into recipes for ketchup. The earliest tomato catsup recipe I know of is from the 1824 edition of Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (cited in Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery, 174). In the 1844 edition of Mary Randolph’s book, she included recipes for tomato catsup, tomato Marmalade,tomato sweet marmalade, and tomato soy, all of which are fairly similar (162-163). In 1833, Mrs. Child declared in The American Frugal Housewife, “The best sort of catsup is made from tomatoes” (35).

Mrs. Child’s words resonated within the culinary community and by the 20th century, everyone assumed ketchup would be tomato based. Thus a Chinese concept meshes with a South American fruit, then melds with European mushroom sauces, and becomes the ubiquitous ketchup of North America. If that’s not international exchange, I don’t know what is.

Recipes for ketchup from the 19th century vary a great deal in the method of preparation and seasoning ingredients. Mrs. Child recommends salting the mashed tomatoes and letting them sit for 24 hours before putting the mash through a sieve and adding cloves, allspice, pepper, mace, garlic and mustardseed (35). Three of Mary Randophe’s recipes are simpler, requiring only an hour or so of stewing before adding the spices. She uses onion, mace, salt and pepper for catsup, but adds cloves and garlic for marmalade (162).

The recipe below reflects Mary’ Randolph’s methods, but adds the greater variety of spices recommended by Mrs. Child. According to the practical Mrs. Child, ketchup is best made in August, when it is not raining (35), and coincidentally, when tomatoes are fresh and abundant. This recipe makes a very spicy and salty condiment, an excellent accompaniment to burgers. The high quantity of salt recommended in period recipes may have been added as a preservative in an era without refrigeration. For a less pungent mixture, adjust the salt and mace as desired. The original recipe also called for a peck of tomatoes, which is about 13 pounds. My version only requires 3 ½ to 4 pounds of tomatoes and makes about 1 ¼ cups of ketchup.

19th Century Tomato Catsup for modern cooks

  • 3 ½ -4 lbs. Tomatoes
  • 1 T. salt
  • ¼ c. chopped onion
  • ¼ t. ground allspice
  • ¼ t. ground cloves
  • ¼ t. whole mustard seed
  • ¾ t. whole black pepper
  • ½ t. chopped garlic
  • ¼ t. ground Mace

Remove the stems from the tomatoes. Cut them into chunks and stew them with salt for about an hour. Mash and strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the skins and seeds.

Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until thick.


*ketchup has been spelled in many different ways over the years. Variations include catchup, catsup, and katchup, among others. It wasn’t until the mid-1950’s that ketchup became the preferred spelling, in part because ‘ketchup’ was recognized as a vegetable for school lunches, while ‘catsup’ was not.


  • —–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
  • Child, Lydia Marie. The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. 12th Edition. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (First published 1828)
  • Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published. Alexandria: Cottom and Stewart. 1805. (First Edition publishing in London, 1747. This edition reprint of 1st American Edition, 1805, by Applewood Books, 1997).
  • Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1860. (Facsimile by Dover Publications, 1993, with introduction by Janice Bluestein Longone).
  • Staib, Walter. The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009.
  • Townshend, John. The Universal Cook or Lady’s Complete Assistant. S. Bladon: LOndon, 1773 (facsimile).

Dirt: A Story of the Dust Bowl

In the 1930’s, severe drought throughout the Great Plains of North America caused a misery called the Dust Bowl. Lack of water killed the crops, and high winds picked up acres of dirt carrying it as far east as New York City and beyond. Farms failed, towns were buried in dust, and millions migrated westward. Stories written about this period of American history reflect the heartaches and terrible losses of those who survived. 

Dirt, by S.L. Dwyer, s no exception. The story centers on 13-year-old Sammy, his 7-year-old sister, Birdie, and a mangy dog, aptly called Dirt. Suddenly and dramatically orphaned, Sammy and Birdie have to learn to cope if they are to survive in this harsh environment. Determined not to be separated and sent to the state orphanage, Sammy and Birdie begin their life of lies, telling no one their parents have died. But how does a child find enough food to eat, especially in a land where everyone is struggling? How does a child take on the responsibility of cooking, cleaning, working, and hardest of all, making decisions. It’s almost more than Sammy can bear.

But Dirt is also a story of resilience. Like many people who survived the dust bowl, Sammy finds he has more strength than he realized. Not the strength of muscles, but inner strength, the ability to carry on in spite of all that is going wrong, the ability to keep on trying even when there seems to be no hope of success. As Sammy works to find food and protect his sister, there are times he wants to give up, to quit even trying. But he refuses to succumb to that depression. He learns to work harder than he’s ever worked before. Even as things go from bad to worse, Sammy keeps on struggling just to stay alive.

Sammy’s resilience provides a good model for people today. His story shows us that when trouble comes, we don’t have to give up. More importantly, he discovers he doesn’t have to be alone in that struggle. Even when things are at the bleakest point imaginable, there are still good people, who in spite of their own troubles, reach out a hand to help. And it’s okay to take that hand, to trust in the kindness offered. Sammy learns that a community of people looking out for each other is stronger than any individual.By illuminating the darkest times of the past, historical fiction can provide powerful lessons for people today. In Dirt, S. L.Dwyer gives readers both a window into the past and a mirror for today. Above all, Dirt is a darn good story.

Counterfeit Flavors: Mock Ginger

It turns out there are a lot of reasons to create mock foods. Sometimes the new version is cheaper than the original. For instance, imitation crab legs are made out of fish, not crabs. Other times, the mock version is easier to make. My mom had a recipe for mock ravioli that she got from our Italian neighbor. It uses similar ingredients to various ravioli, but layers bowtie pasta with the filling ingredients so no one has to stuff the little ravioli pillows. Another reason for mock foods is scarcity. An example of this is mock apple pie, made with crackers and cinnamon, but not a single apple. Often, mock foods are made to delight and impress. I’ve often served a dish of hedgehogs (see Blog post) or urchins, which contain neither hedgehog nor urchins, but are made of ground beef and pork with almonds for spines. No one is fooled, but the resulting meatballs are cute. Actually, mock foods rarely are meant to deceive. After all, most of us really can taste the difference between a cracker and an apple. In fact, when a food does seem intent on fooling the consumer, we protest. If it doesn’t have peanuts in it, don’t call it peanut butter!

So which of these reasons might lead to pickling mock ginger? I’m not sure. The recipe is really a method for pickling cauliflower. No ginger is involved. It seems the substitute for ginger here is turmeric. Fresh turmeric is not cheaper than ginger, nor easier to use. In colonial times, both turmeric and ginger had to be imported rather than grown locally, so it seems unlikely that scarcity was an issue. Ginger is an ingredient in far more colonial recipes than turmeric is. Like ginger, turmeric is quite fibrous, so it is usually grated or chopped small if intended for consumption. More often either one is used for flavoring.

It could be the flavor is the reason for the substitution. Turmeric is actually related to ginger, and like ginger it has a spicy bite to it. The recipe below makes pickles, using garlic, cloves, mace, and horseradish along with the turmeric, that are not for the faint heart (or weak stomach). I’d put them at four flames on the heat scale.

To Pickle Mock Ginger (based on Hannah Glasse’s recipe)

  • 2 Heads of cauliflower
  • ½ c. plus 2 T. sea salt
  • 14 c. white vinegar 
  • 2 T. long pepper (This is not the same as black peppercorns.)
  • 1 T. mace
  • 1 T. whole allspice
  • 6 ounces fresh horseradish, peeled and sliced
  • 2 whole bulbs of garlic, separated into cloves, and peeled. (cut large cloves in half)
  • 1 T. cayenne pepper
  • ¼ lb. turmeric, peeling and cut into sections about 1”

Dissolve the salt in 2 ½ quarts water. Separate the cauliflower into florets and cut to the desired size.  Put the cauliflower in the salted water and leave it for three days. On the third day, drain the salt water. Mix the vinegar with the rest of the ingredients in an enamel pot. Bring to a boil. Add the cauliflower and remove from heat. The next day, bring the mixture to a boil again. Repeat once more. Remove the cauliflower, horseradish, garlic, and turmeric pieces from the pickle and put in jars. Strain the pickling vinegar to remove the whole spice, and pour the strained liquid over the vegetables in the jar. Stored in the refrigerator, such pickles should last a long time. Enjoy at your leisure.

Initially, I was suspicious of anything mock, since the mock often implies inferior, but like other mock foods I enjoy, these pickles are surprisingly good. You can eat them straight, if you enjoy spicy hot foods, or chop them up and add them to salads, humus, or dips whenever you want something to wake up those taste buds.


Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published. Alexandria: Cottom and Stewart. 1805. (First Edition publishing in London, 1747. This edition reprint of 1st American Edition, 1805, by Applewood Books, 1997).

The Fall of Acre

Thoughts on Acre’s Bastard and Acre’s Orphans

History, especially history of war,  is most often told from the winner’s point of view, and the loser’s side is left out of the story. Wayne Turmel’s books,  Acre’s Bastard and Acre’s Orphans, are remarkable because Turmel’s protagonist, 10-year-old Lucca, encounters and reflects multiple perspectives.  Both books in the series are set in 11th century Acre and surrounding areas  at the moment of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This Christian kingdom had been established by crusaders nearly a hundred years earlier in 1099, in what is currently Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. Then in 1187, Saladin’s forces gathered to attack the Kingdom.

The story begins as trouble in the area is brewing. Rumors abound in Acre as everyone  fears the coming of Saladin. Enter Lucca Le Pou, (or Lucca  the Louse), an insignificant orphan with unknown parentage. He might be the bastard child of a French crusader. His mother might have been a native Christian, or possibly a Muslim, a Jew, or a Samaritan. Acre was very diverse with many ethnicities, languages, and religions interacting. Whatever his heritage, Lucca has been raised in a Christian monastery, and taught to believe Christianity is the only way.  Lucca’s ability to blend in with the other natives of the area, and his familiarity with the French rulers, make him an ideal candidate to report on what he sees and hears in the marketplace.

A boy who knows  how to find trouble when he’s not even trying, Lucca gets into one mixed up scrape after another. He is observant, but naive, which makes him an ideal person to narrate the events in this story of the Crusades. The adult reader sometimes understands more than Lucca, but like him comes to understand the terrible irony of a conflict in which each side believes theirs is the only right way to believe and live. Worse, each side firmly believes the others are monsters, bent on raping, killing, and destruction. As readers follow Lucca’s journeys, they see not only the great leaders, but the many ordinary people caught up in the tides of drastic change. 

With great attention to detail and historical accuracy, Turmel’s stories remind us there is more than one side to any conflict. The European invasion of the Middle East in the Crusades and the centuries long conflicts that ensued brought cruelty and hardship to a great many people.  This  orphan caught in the middle will need  all his wits just to stay alive. In the end, Lucca shows readers that no matter what God we believe in, or who our leader is, we really all want the same things: safety for our friends and a place to call home.

Fighting Illness: Elixirs and Vaccines

When I think of women of long ago, caring for their families during illness, I’m struck by both their ingenuity and their lack of medical resources. Some 46% of children born in 1800 would die before the age of five (O’Neill). Another 20% or so wouldn’t live to see sixteen (Raising …).  I can only imagine the heartbreak these statistics reveal. When illness hit the family, most often mothers had to put their trust in one of the many well-known recipes for plague waters or medicinal syrups. Many recipe books from the medieval and colonial periods include directions for such potions, some of which actually help. But more often the potion or elixir was used not because of effectiveness, but because doing something is usually better than doing nothing.

Imagine the dilemma facing families in the 18th century: Dose your family with an herbal elixir said to be good for ague and fevers, and pray to God that none of you catch smallpox, with its 30% mortality rate (Smallpox)  or risk variolation or inoculation by making a scrape or cut on the healthy person’s arm or leg, and spreading material from the scabs or pustules of the sick person. This usually resulted in a milder form of the disease with a mortality rate of only 2%. Much less risk obviously, but still a risk. 

Not long after variolation became widely accepted in the New World, Edward Jenner developed a vaccine that further reduced the spread of smallpox. He expressed the hope it would eradicate the disease forever (History…) It took almost 200 years, but Jenner’s dream was realized in 1980 when the WHO declared the world free from naturally occurring smallpox. 

Jenner’s vaccine did more than eradicate smallpox. It paved the way to develop other useful vaccines that are now common. I’ve lived long enough to be older than some of the vaccines now routinely given to children. I survived measles, mumps, and chicken pox, and made it to adulthood without contracting Rubella or German measles as it was called. But as soon as a vaccine became available, I got it. Of all the vaccines I’ve received, three stand out as truly significant.

One is the smallpox vaccine, described above.  While I don’t have any memories of getting this, I do have a tiny scar on my arm as a visible reminder of my protection. 

The earliest vaccine I do remember is the Sabin Polio vaccine. Polio was another one of those terrible diseases that was highly contagious and killed or crippled thousands. Some of you may remember the restrictions frightened parents made– pools, theaters, and playgrounds closed, birthday parties cancelled, children isolated from playmates. Polio was one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century. I was too young to remember the fear, but I do remember standing with my mother and various siblings in a long line in a huge, unfamiliar auditorium. I think it was 1961 or 1962 in San Bruno, California. Even then I understood the importance of what we were doing. At the end of the line I was handed a little paper cup with a sugar cube in it. As vaccines go, that was undoubtedly the most pleasant, like a candy treat, or sweet-tasting medicine. The massive worldwide vaccination efforts against polio have nearly wiped out this dreaded disease.

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021. Once again the world is facing a major pandemic: Covid-19.. We’ve learned to wear masks, close schools, and theaters, and practice ‘social distancing.’ With a speed never before achieved, scientists around the world have created vaccines to fight this new threat. Thus, my third memorable vaccine was this year when I got the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 shot. The little sting in my arm felt like a gift, a miracle even. I understand the pandemic is not over. Social distancing and masks are still important, especially in any public place. But like the smallpox and polio vaccines, this new vaccine lifts the weight of worry we’ve been carrying for the past year. It means that we can hug our loved ones without the fear that such an important gesture carries such a terrible risk.

Of course, vaccines can’t prevent everything. We’ll still catch colds and various bugs. For those we can use our modern elixirs: the myriad cough syrups, lozenges,and pills, available in any grocery store or pharmacy. Or we can try one of the concoctions our foremothers used. Unlike modern elixirs, those of bygone days were not subjected to rigorous study, but handed down from generation to generation. Some of them even formed the basis for modern remedies. 

I’ve found that many of the recipes for medicinal syrups in early cookbooks use unfamiliar or unavailable herbs, some of which cause vomiting or purging, both thought at the time to be good ways to relieve a fever. Still some of the recipes are tasty enough to be made into a refreshing drink. As for their medicinal value, your guess is as good as mine.

For those of you who want to try an old-fashioned medicine, I’ve included a potion for rose syrup. I say potion because I personally find the scent too strong and flowery, so that the resulting syrup tastes like medicine, which of course, this syrup was used for. Rose water and rose spirits are said to be good for the heart and lungs, and helpful in reducing fevers. It is also said that rose water adds a pleasant flavor to all sorts of dishes. While I can’t vouch for any pleasant flavor, or even any real benefits, I can say that rose syrup is unlikely to be in any way harmful. Most of all, I can be grateful that I don’t have to rely on any such elixir to ease the colds or viruses that come my way.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Sweetmeats has five recipes for rose syrups, ranging from a simple rose water and sugar mixture boiled to the consistency of syrup, to a concoction requiring twelve days of steeping. The recipe below follows the simplest version. Hannah Glasse’s recipe calls for infusing rose petals in water for eight hours, then adding fresh petal and letting them steep another eight hours. Both these books call for using damask roses, cutting off the white parts of the petals, and making the rose infused-water first.

For my version, I used rose water that I purchased since I didn’t have fresh roses. Fresh damask roses would give the syrup a reddish tinge, so I  added a few drops of red food coloring to the clear rose syrup.

Rose Syrup: Modern version

Mix 1 c. rose water and 1 ¼ cup sugar. Bring to a boil, and boil until the mixture reaches 200 degrees for a thin syrup. Add 3 drops red food coloring. Enjoy on pancakes or biscuits, or serve a spoonful to an invalid


—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published. Alexandria: Cottom and Stewart. 1805. (First Edition publishing in London, 1747. This edition reprint of 1st American Edition, 1805, by Applewood Books, 1997).

History of Smallpox. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology (DHCPP). https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html Accessed 4/3/2021

O’Neill, Aaron. Child mortality in the United States 1800-2020. Mar 19, 2021 Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1041693/united-states-all-time-child-mortality-rate/. Accessed 4/4/2021

Raising Children in the Early 17th Century: Demographics. A collaboration between Plimoth PlantationTM and the new england historic genealogical society® supported by the institute for museum and library services  www.PlymouthAncestors.org  Accessed 4/4/2021

Smallpox. World Health Organization, 2021 WHO https://www.who.int/health-topics/smallpox#tab=tab_1 Accessed 4/10/2021

Mellifont Abbey

Mellifont Abbey Lavabo

Since St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, that religion has been an important part of the fabric of Irish life. Evidence of this early importance can be seen in the high stone crosses, monastic towers, and magnificent abbeys throughout the land. Even though many of these have fallen into ruin after King Henry VII dissolved the monasteries, their presence remains. One such ruin is Mellifont Abbey, located about ten kilometers northwest of Drogheda, less than an hour’s drive north of Dublin. Mellifont Abbey was built on the banks of the River Mattock in the style of contemporary French abbeys, with romanesque arches and impressive stonework. In its heyday, it must have been beautiful.

Called An Mhainistir Mhór –the big abbey– in Irish, Mellifont means ‘fount of honey’ in Latin. It was founded in 1142 by St. Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh. St. Malachy thought the monastic orders in Ireland at the time were lax and disorganized, so he established Mellifont Abbey as a Cistercian abbey. Cistercian monks were well known as hard-working and pious.

Indeed, the abbey quickly prospered. It became the biggest, most important Abbey in Ireland, hosting kings, bishops, and papal legates at the 1152 synod. By 1170, one hundred monks and at least three hundred lay brothers lived there. Eventually, over twenty ‘daughter’ abbeys  were established by monks from Mellifont Abbey throughout Ireland.

Unfortunately, the abbey’s wealth led to its downfall. King Henry was suspicious of that wealth and the power attending it. He dissolved the abbeys in Ireland in 1539. Mellifont Abbey became a fortified manor owned by various different families. William of Orange even used it for his battle headquarters during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

I visited the ruins of Mellifont Abbey many years ago on a drizzly day– typical Irish weather. There were few other visitors that day, and we enjoyed strolling along the gravel walkways between the stone foundations which marked the layout of the original buildings. At one end of the complex is the lavabo. The lavabo was a washroom, used by the monks for ritual (and practical) hand-washing before eating. Though it too is in ruins, three of the original eight beautiful Romanesque arches remain. Some of the ornate carvings from the lavabo and other buildings are displayed in the visitor center.

It seems fitting somehow that this spiritual place of cleansing has in some part outlasted the depredations of time, wars, and human greed. Though it’s deserted now, when I closed my eyes and listened, I could imagine the splash of water and the footfalls of the monks underneath the wind as they washed their hands, in a time-honored (and scientifically supported) ritual of purification.

Chocolate Biscuits

Chocolate is good for you! While many people make that claim tongue-in-cheek, there are actually a good many ways chocolate actually is a healthy choice, in moderation. (Unfortunately, no one claims the sugar and cream often mixed with chocolate are healthy.) Our ancestors also appreciated the healthful benefits of chocolate.

A little research into chocolate consumption turned up some surprising things. Most surprising, perhaps, is that chocolate was much cheaper in colonial America than it was in Europe at the same time. Though not as cheap as coffee, chocolate was a great deal cheaper than tea. One reason for this is the issue of transportation. Chocolate comes from cocoa beans (sometimes called cocoa nuts) which are indigineous to the Americas. It was easier and less expensive to acquire cocoa in New England, than it was to get the beans to Europe. Besides the shorter distance, it was easier to circumvent taxes and restrictive shipping laws. It’s likely that smugglers transported chocolate made in the colonies to Europe. While the cost of chocolate was too much for the common laborer or slave to indulge, any of the ‘middling sort’ could afford to buy chocolate.

Throughout the 18th century, chocolate makers thrived in the northern colonies where the weather made it possible to grind chocolate without it melting. One reason for the success of this cottage industry was that there were far fewer barriers for colonial entrepreneurs than for those in Europe. There were no guilds or monopolies restricting millers. A chocolate mill could be a small, foot-powered operation or a much larger water-powered manufacturer, or something in between powered by one or more horses. Millers could diversify, milled oats, coffee, spices, mustard or even tobacco at the same time, so that they didn’t have to rely on the supply of just one product. Each manufacturer had a unique recipe, making spiced or unspiced chocolate bars. Colonial Americans bought their chocolate based on who made it and where the beans came from, with a strong preference for locally made chocolate. Local chocolate was less likely to be adulterated or to have soaked up the smells and tastes of products transported beside the chocolate.

The second surprising fact I learned is how important chocolate was to colonial men and women. While we’ve all heard stories of the importance of tea, less attention has been given to chocolate. Many religious groups approved of chocolate because it was stimulating without being alcoholic. It was thought of as wholesome, nourishing, and medicinal. At least one religious leader in 1707 doled out chocolate bars and sermons to the sick of his parish. Colonial Americans appreciated the energizing effects of chocolate, while much of Europe though chocolate was a sign of decadence.

From the time of the Aztecs to WWII, soldiers have carried chocolate as a lightweight and satisfying food. During the French and Indian War, both the French troops and the British troops, and even some of the various Indian allies, counted on chocolate provisions. Ben Franklin organized shipments of chocolate to General Braddock’s troops, and a few decades later, during the Revolution, chocolate was considered a ‘necessity’ for American prisoners, and was included in the provisions sent to the Continental Army.

My third surprise was the many different ways chocolate was prepared during the 18th century. While it is uncertain exactly how the various groups of soldiers consumed their chocolate rations, recipes for common use abound. As we have seen before (see ‘Tis the Season for more chocolate history) chocolate was frequently a beverage. As such it was most popular as a nutritious and stimulating breakfast drink. Chocolate shells, or the husk of the cocoa bean after it has been roasted, were also steeped to make a sort of ‘tea’ that tastes like chocolate. This was apparently a favorite drink of Martha Washington. Finally, chocolate was grated to make cakes, cookies, and candies. A recipe for chocolate almonds (chocolate candies shaped like almonds) dating from 1705 calls for scraped chocolate, sugar, gum tragacanth, and orange water. Other contemporary recipes include almonds or rose water. 

The recipe included here is for chocolate biscuits. Don’t be put off by the name. In this context, biscuit (deriving from the French for ‘twice baked’) follows the British and Irish usage: a biscuit is a type of cookie.

This recipe comes from the 1778 edition of La Science du maître d’hôtel, confiseur, but a similar chocolate biscuits recipe was also included in the 1750 edition. 

My translation of the recipe is as follows: (Note, I have added periods for clarity. The French author connected all of the sentences with commas only.)

BISCUITS OF CHOCOLATE. Put two tablets of grated chocolate in a bowl, with a half pound of sifted sugar, four egg yolks.  Beat it all together with a spatula. Then put in eight egg whites beaten stiff and mix them well with the chocolate and sugar. Take a handful* of flour that has been dried in the oven, and sift it over the biscuit batter, stirring as it falls in order to mix it in well. Put your biscuits in paper molds. Sift a little fine sugar on top. Cook in a soft oven.

There are few difficulties with this recipe. The recipe writer kindly specifies the amount of eggs and sugar, but is less clear on the quantities of chocolate and flour. However, in pages preceding the recipe, the writer explains how to process chocolate into tablets that are one ounce each, so I can assume two tablets means two ounces. So the only problem with quantities is the amount of flour. A quateron can mean a quarter (of something, perhaps a quarter of a pound) or a handful. A quarter of a pound of flour is nearly 1 cup, which is much more than a handful. I opted for just enough flour to help the biscuits keep their shape. I made half of the original recipe for about 2 dozen cookies.

Finally since chocolate was sold both spiced and unspiced in the 18th century, I added cinnamon and pepper to the mix to replicate a simple spiced chocolate. The result was a delicious cookie with good chocolate flavor. For a crisp cookie, similar to a meringue, let the cookies cool, and keep in a very dry place. For a softer cookie, more like a sponge cake, bake for a shorter time and store in a sealed container to keep the moisture in.

Chocolate Biscuit Recipe 

2 ounces chocolate (unsweetened baking chocolate) 
1/2 c. sugar 
1 t. Cinnamon 
¼ t. Black pepper 
2 eggs yolks
4 egg whites
1/3 c. flour 

Grate the chocolate. Mix with sugar, cinnamon and pepper. Add the egg yolks and stir well. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the chocolate mixture. Gently add the flour. Drop by spoonfuls onto parchment paper (for a flat drop cookie) or fill paper muffin cups ¼ to ⅓ full. Bake at 325 for about 20- 25 minutes. (The time will vary based on how thick your cookies are and how crisp you like them.) 

The cinnamon and pepper add a nice, subtle ‘bite’ to the cookie. For a stronger, darker chocolate flavor, double the amount of grated chocolate.  

Though chocolate has a reputation for decadence, this recipe offers more pleasure than guilt. After all, chocolate IS good for you.


Farmer, Dennis and Carol. The King’s Bread, 2d Rising: Cooking at Niagara 1726-1815. Old Fort Niagara Association, 1989. p.30.

Gay, James F. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Edited by Grivetti and Shapiro Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Chapter 23: Chocolate Production and Uses in 17th and 18th Century North America , p. 294.

La science du maître d’hôtel, confiseur, à l’usage des officiers, avec des observations sur la connoissance & les propriétés des fruits. Suite du Maître d’hôtel cuisinier. (Anonymous). Paris. Par la compagnie de Libraires Associeés, 1778

A Pair of Possets

Posset #1

If there is anything that can drive away the chills and ills of a dark January day, it is a posset. Why is that, you may ask, or even, what is that? Shakespeare wrote of possets most famously in the scene where Lady Macbeth gave the king’s guards drugged possets to make sure they were asleep for Macbeth to kill the king. Samuel Pepys mentioned eating or drinking a sack-posset at least ten times between 1660 and 1668 in his diary. Often his posset was part of a late night supper or a remedy for an illness or a hangover. 

So what exactly is a posset? At its simplest, it is a warm drink/dessert traditionally made of cream, eggs, and alcohol, often flavored with nutmeg. Think warm egg-nog. Twenty-first century possets are often flavored with anything from lemon to chocolate, but we’ll stick to the possets of the 18th century and before. To be sure there are many drinks made with milk or cream and eggs, so what makes a posset different from a syllabub or a cawdel or even gruel (see earlier post). Actually not a lot. All are variations of custards, with a few differences in thickness, richness, and temperature.

My own interest in possets stems from its similarity to eggnog. I have always loved homemade eggnog (much more than the thick, overly sweet kind you find in the store.) My fondness for eggnog might have started when I was a baby, and the doctor told Mom to put egg yolks in my milk since I didn’t much like eating. In any case, I grew up on homemade eggnog, made with milk, raw eggs, a bit of sugar, nutmeg, and rum flavoring. (Never any real alcohol.) I also gave my kids eggnog. Then health officials began talking about how bad it was to eat (or in my case, drink) raw eggs, and my beloved eggnog was purged from my diet.

A posset pot circa 1687, tin enamled earthen ware,  Metropolitan Museum of Art. Picture in public domain, retrieved 1/9/2021 Wikimedia commons

But possets, using more or less the same ingredients, are cooked, so the problem of raw eggs is eliminated. The alcohol curdles the dish, while the egg or egg yolks thicken it. Taken warm, a posset is thin enough to drink. It thickens as it cools, which is why several sources refer to ‘eating’ the posset rather than drinking it. Posset pots were specially made with a spout so the liquid settling to the bottom could be drunk, while the more solid, custardy part could be eaten with a spoon.

I used a recipe from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery that called for a quart of cream, a half pound of sugar,  a half pint of sack (similar to sherry), 7 whole eggs and 7 additional yolks, nutmeg and musk (from the scent glands of a male deer, many species of which are endangered) or ambergreece (produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and illegal in the United States). Since not all posset recipes called for the musk and ambergreece (ambergris), and since obtaining such ingredients would be not only illegal but quite difficult, I decided to leave them out of my own version. The recipe calls for warming the sack, then stirring in the eggs, sugar, and nutmeg. Finally the cream is poured into the mixture and cooked on low until it is thickened. Some recipes suggest strewing cinnamon on top before serving.

Fourteen eggs to make myself a drink or dessert seemed excessive, so I reduced the recipe, and used the following.

Posset #1
1 c. cream
 ¼ c. sherry
 ¼ c. sugar
 3 whole eggs
 ½ t. Nutmeg
 A sprinkle of cinnamon.

Mix the sherry, sugar, eggs and nutmeg. Beat well until the mixture is smooth and frothy. Heat slowly until it thickens. Add the cream and continue heating, stirring constantly. When the mixture is thick enough coat a spoon, pour into a cup. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve. 

Note the slightly curdled consistency.

At this point the mixture is still liquid. The result is very sweet and very rich. This recipe makes at least two servings. I put half of the mixture in the refrigerator.  By the next day, it had thickened to a very rich, sweet custard that I ate with a spoon. Both the warm drink and the cooled custard had a slightly curdled texture. It was delicious either warm or cold, but so rich, I couldn’t imagine having it often.

So how to enjoy a more modern (moderate) posset today? I decided to use my own eggnog recipe, but cook it like a custard to solve the stricture against raw eggs.

Posset #2
Posset #2
 1 c. milk (I used skim)
 2 T. sugar
 1 whole egg
 ½ t. Nutmeg
 2 T. sherry.

 Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan. Whip until smooth and frothy. Cook on low heat until the mixture thickens. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Drink warm or cooled. Like the possets of previous centuries, the result has a slightly curdled texture and a delicious flavor.

As a mid-winter treat, this really hits the spot. Enjoy.

Sources: —–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Bûche de Noël

This year I decided to celebrate the holiday season with a good, old-fashioned Bûche de Noël. To my surprise this delightful chocolate cake shaped like a log is not really all that old-fashioned. Although the methods and ingredients for sponge cakes, the base cake of the Bûche, were known at least by 1615 (see The English Huswife, by Gervaise Markham),  the earliest mention of a Yule log meant to be eaten is from over two hundred years later. (see Alfred Suzanne’s La Cuisine Anglaise et la Pâtisserie, 1894). The earliest recipe recorded for such a confection is from 1898, in Pierre Lacam’s Le Mémorial Historique et Géographique de la Pâtisserie. It wasn’t until 1905 that the earliest recipe resembling the cake we love today was recorded, in Joseph Favre’s Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique. From the cake’s name and the first places a recipe was published, it’s easy to see that French bakers popularized this treat in the 19th century. No one seems to know exactly how the tradition got started, but it probably has to do with the ancient tradition of the Yule Log.

Buche de Noel is often translated at Yule Log, but there is an important difference. Noel is FRench for Christmas, stemming from the Latin ‘natalis’ or ‘birth’, and can also be connected to the French phrase ‘bonnes nouvelles’ or ‘good news’, specifically the good news of Christ’s birth.  It is a decidedly Christian sentiment. Yule, on the other hand, comes from much earlier times, before the spread of Christianity, even though now Yule means Christmas in many places. Jol (yul) from old Norse refers to a pagan feast or time of feasting in December and January, a mid-winter celebration.

In many pre-Christian cultures, especially Germanic and Celtic, the tradition of a Yule log was important. Not a log-like cake, but an actual log, or in some cases a whole tree, to be burned, not eaten. The log was brought in and kept burning throughout the darkest time of the year, the Winter Solstice, and the days following. Winter Solstice, around December 22, is the shortest day of the year. Following the solstice, the days gradually grow longer and thus lighter. The burning log was thought to cleanse the air and welcome the coming of Spring, or at least the time of year when the earth turns toward Spring, rather than away from it.

The carefully chosen log was imbued with certain powers to protect and predict. Oak, a magical tree in Celtic tradition, was often used. Other special trees included beech, elm, or fruit trees. In some places the ‘log’ was actually a huge tree, including the roots. 

Various rites and traditions accompanied the burning log. Often it was sprinkled with wine, salt, or oil (and later, after Christianity spread, with holy water.) The log might be decorated with holly, pinecones, or ivy, all plants which have importance in both Germanic and Celtic mythology. 

The importance of the tree did not end with the burning. The ashes were said to have medicinal value, guard the house against evil, and even protect from lightning. Ashes buried in the garden helped insure a good harvest and prevent crop diseases. These ashes could also deter pests–foxes away from the chicken coop, and rats and weevils out of the barn loft.

In some places it was also thought that the burning log could predict the future. Striking the log to produce a shower of sparks gave insight to the coming year’s harvest.  The sparks represented the grain. A lot of sparks promised more abundance.  On the other hand, if the flames of the burning log cast shadows on the walls, someone in the family would suffer death in the coming year.

It’s unlikely the Buche gracing my table will predict anything, good or bad, though I do hope it brings a 2021 better than this year has been. Whatever the next year brings, however, this yule log will be thoroughly enjoyed!

There are vast numbers of recipes for Bûches de Noël. For my cake, I translated and adapted the recipe from from Bûche de Noël facile, Marmiton (accessed 12/9/2020) https://www.marmiton.org/recettes/recette_buche-de-noel-facile_18219.aspxt

I added ¼  cup. cocoa to the cake for more chocolate, and one additional egg to make the batter moist enough. I filled the log roll with whipped cream, and used chocolate buttercream frosting to decorate the log. For garnish, I used cranberries and dried sage leaves.

My Recipe:

5 eggs, separated

½ c. plus 1 T. powdered sugar

2 T. water

1 c. flour

½ c. cocoa

2 t. Baking powder

½ t. salt


1 c. whipping cream

1 t. Vanilla

2 T. sugar 


1 c. butter

¼ c. cocoa

2 c. powdered sugar

2 T. milk

For the cake: beat the eggs with the water and egg yolks. Mix the baking powder, cocoa, and salt to the flour, and add this to the egg mixture a little at a time. The dough will be stiff.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter. Spread gently into a parchment-lined jelly roll pan so the batter is about ¼ to ½  inch thick. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick. Cake is done if the toothpick comes out clean.

While the cake is still warm, sprinkle powdered sugar on a kitchen towel. Turn the cake out onto the towel. Remove the parchment paper, and roll the cake up in the towel, starting at the short end. Let the rolled cake cool completely.

Prepare the filling: Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Mix in sugar and vanilla. 

Prepare the frosting: Mix all the ingredients until smooth. Add either more powdered sugar or more milk, a little at a time, to achieve a spreadable consistency.

To assemble the cake: Gently unroll the cake. Remove the towel. Spread the whipped cream on the cake and reroll it. Cut a 1 -2” slice off of one end of the cake. Set the slice along one side of the cake. Frost the cake, leaving the ends (and cut end of slice) unfrosted. Use a fork to mark lines in the “bark.” Decorate as desired.