Friday, January 30, 2009

Pioneer Foods Inspired by Sarah Jane's Story

As I develop one of my favorite stories, “Sarah Jane’s Daring Deed,” into a picture book, I consider recipes this 10-year old girl and her family might have prepared in their log cabin in the woods. This would be a good activity to accompany the story when youngsters are reading it, either in picture book format or the longer version in the anthology, Tales of Adventure & Discovery.

I wrote this story, which has appeared in four children’s magazines and the anthology, after researching the history of the Plymouth, NH region for a series on New Hampshire history. It’s also a favorite story with children when I give presentations in schools and libraries.

As I read about the early pioneers while doing research for the history columns, I wondered what life would be like for youngsters in those days. Thus, Sarah Jane’s story evolved.

What Would Her Mother Prepare?

So, what would Mother have prepared over the fireplace? They had to raise most of their food, bringing items like sugar and coffee and tea from stores in Concord (45 miles away) or even Boston (more than 100 miles).

Their flour probably was ground at a local mill from grain they grew themselves. The girls and Mother gathered and dried berries for winter use. Sarah Jane was engaged in picking berries when the story opens. (I was familiar with picking berries from prickly bushes in the hot sun during my childhood on a farm. Although not in the 1770s!)

The family’s meat would consist from what Father and brother Steven caught or shot in the surrounding forest. This might include deer, bear, moose, rabbit and raccoon. The family also would make clothing and blankets from the fur and skins. Fish from nearby streams or river could expand the diet.

Drying Berries – In those days, before canning and freezing, pioneers dried berries and fruit to use during the winter months. Sarah Jane picks and dries berries during the story.

When cooking, Mother simply might stir the dried berries into her recipes. Or she could soak them in water to plump them before use.

Corn Meal – In early pioneer days, the settlers took corn and wheat to the local mills to be ground. The mill was one of the first businesses established in a settlement. From the ground corn, Mother might make corn bread, corn mush and corn cakes. Find your favorite Corn Bread recipe for your pioneer meal. (However, you can bake yours in the oven or in a skillet unless you want to try it over a fireplace.)

Dried Corn – The pioneers also dried corn kernels, on the cob or shelled, to save for winter food. To use, Sarah Jane’s mother would soak the kernels and boil them until they were tender. Then add cream or butter and milk of desired amount, salt and pepper to taste (if she had them).

Corn Potato Soup – To make a soup, she might add cubed, cooked potatoes to the creamed corn mixture. (Or cube raw potatoes and cook them with the corn.) Then stir in more milk until soup consistency.

Succotash – In summertime, Mother might make succotash by cutting fresh corn from the cob and cooking it with lima beans from the garden. Add some butter and small amount of milk to this. Some cooks only add butter.

©2009 Mary Emma Allen

(Mary Emma Allen researches and writes from her multi-generational home in Plymouth when she isn’t traveling. Visit her heritage quilting site at:; also: . )

Monday, January 26, 2009

Soups & Stews & Winter Foods

With the weather below zero the past few days in our part of New Hampshire, thoughts turn to warm, easy to prepare meals. Soups and stews long have been a winter tradition in my family. They’re filling, easy to prepare, a good way to use up leftovers and a method of stretching the budget.

So leftover meats (chicken, turkey, beef and pork) go into the brew, along with veggies that may be left from a meal. My soups never taste the same nor follow an exact recipe.
That’s the way my mother made soups and stews…using what she had on hand. Usually they taste delicious except when we try a new ingredient so may not turn out just the way we envision.

Main Meal Pies

I also like to make chicken and beef pies with leftover foods. Usually I simply prepare them with only a top crust. This results in fewer calories and eliminates a soggy bottom crust. (Actually my hubby often makes the crust while I stir up the filling for the deep-dish pie. He’s perfected this phase of cooking!)

I like to serve cole slaw or tossed salad with meat and vegetable pies. For anyone who doesn’t like a meat pie, simply use vegetables and perhaps some tofu.

Soups from Leftovers

Soups provide a good way to use leftovers so they don’t go to waste. One friend keeps a container in her freezer. Into this go leftover vegetables and meats. When the container is full, she thaws the contents to make soup.

By adding chicken or beef stock, some noodles, potatoes or rice, seasonings, and other vegetables if necessary, she had a filling meal for autumn and winter days. You might call this a modern day version of my mom’s black pot into which she stirred leftovers.

Chicken Soup

For my chicken soup, I cut up the leftover chicken breast and added it to four cups of water. Then I stirred in cut up carrots, a diced potato, a diced onion, a handful (about ½ cup) of brown rice and ½ cup frozen green peas. I added seasonings…salt and pepper and a dash of poultry seasoning to taste.

Because the soup seemed too thick as it simmered, I added more water until it was of the desired consistency. Cook until vegetables are tender. This is good made ahead (early afternoon in my case) and set in the refrigerator until supper/dinner time. Then reheat.

This is the type of recipe that you can vary depending on what you have on hand and what ingredients you like to eat. For instance, I simply couldn’t tolerate (I guess, unless I was starving) beets in my soup. Someone else might not like the carrots or onions Jim and I do in our soups.

What are your favorite soups for winter?

©2009 Mary Emma Allen
(Mary Emma Allen writes from her multigenerational home in NH. This morning she’s contemplating warm foods to cook today when the temperature is hovering around zero at mid-day. )

Monday, January 19, 2009

Old Kitchen Woodenware Stirs Memories

As I was sorting through some memorabilia, I came across an oblong wooden bowl, about 18 inches in length and 12 inches in width. As I held it in my hands, this wooden chopping bowl evoked many childhood memories. Scarred from chopping many foods, this bowl had been involved for preparing numerous meals.

My thoughts drifted back to cooking in the farmhouse kitchen with its wood fired stove. Many times, I chopped cabbage, carrots and onions for coleslaw or potatoes and meat for hash, in that bowl.

We couldn’t run to the store for ready-chopped cabbage or cans of hash. Everything was handmade and often mixed in the oblong wooden bowl or a smaller round one Mother had.

Bowls of Great Variety

The wooden bowls of early America were of great variety, ranging from small salt dishes to round and oval bowls for preparing and even serving the main dish at mealtime. Large round and oblong ones, often 20 inches in length were used as chopping and mixing bowls.

Not many of these old bowls exist today. Those that do are considered antiques and collectible. They were made for daily use, so wore out.

However, if you have one from childhood, treasure it, more for its nostalgic value than anything monetary. It probably will have nicks and scratches from the metal chopping tool, but that gives it “character,” as someone once told me of old woodenware and furniture.

The Early Wooden Bowls

The pioneers shaped the earliest bowls with simple tools, such as chisel, knife and plane. Later, especially in the 18th century, as colonial tradesmen began to make woodenware, they used lathes for turning the insides of bowls, cups, and mortars. From this came the name of “turner’s ware” for such items.

Another early name for wooden items was “treenware.” This supposedly came from “tree,” from which they were made. The men who made the wooden items for a living, whether kitchen utensils, boxes, stools, etc. by lathe and hand, were called “coopers.”

HASH BROWN CASSEROLE might be considered a variation of hash, but without the meat. However, you could add chopped corned beef if you had any.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. Stir in 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese until melted. In bowl, mix together 1 pint sour cream, ½ cup chopped onion, ¼ tsp. pepper. Add to cheese mixture. Lightly stir in 30 oz. frozen hash brown potatoes.

Spread this mixture into a baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes, until potatoes are heated through and top is bubbly.

©2008 Mary Emma Allen