12/18/17 — Foods from the Past

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Foods from the Past

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on December 18, 2017 4:42 PM

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An apple pie is ready to go into the pie safe until the Christmas feast begins.

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Joshua Dacey cracks eggs to make a traditional plum pudding.

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Joshua Dacey makes a plum pudding in the old timey kitchen at Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace.

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Joshua Dacey makes a plum pudding.

Children -- and even adults -- look forward to presents under the tree at Christmas time. But back in the 19th century, the stars of the holiday were sweet treats.

"They didn't usually get sweets throughout the year," said Joshua Dacey, programs coordinator at Gov. Charles B. Aycock Birthplace in Fremont. "Sugar was one of the very few things that families in this part of the county would have to buy. And it was expensive. So sweets were a special treat."

Dacey gives demonstrations at the historic site to show visitors how various foods were made back in Charles Aycock's time.

One dish that was usually served at Christmas was plum pudding.

"Plum puddings date back to about 18th century England," Dacey said. "Back then, they were made a little bit differently. They would actually incorporate meat into the pudding itself. It was primarily a savory dish and not a sweet dish."

But over time and by about the mid 19th century, it became primarily a sweet dish.

"I think it might have been one of those things where they were running short on meat one time and they just stated using a little more raisins or something else, and it evolved into a sweeter dish," Dacey said. "Eventually is became a dessert."

He said plum pudding was a popular Christmas dish back then. And typically it, along with cakes, pies, cookies and other holiday goodies, especially in the south, were baked on Stir Up Sunday. That was the Sunday before Advent.

"They thought they had to have all their Christmas baking done by Stir Up Sunday so that everything would be ready by Christmas," Dacey said.

All this baking had to be stored somewhere. So people back then had pie safes, which resembled a small china cabinet of today.

"They would put their cakes, pies, cookies, the sweet stuff in the pie safe until Christmas," said site manager Leigh Strickland. "It had metal panels in which holes were punched, oftentimes in a design.

"What would keep the sweets fresh was the air circulating through those holes. They didn't have refrigerators back then to keep stuff in."

The plum pudding Dacey makes is kind of like a bread pudding. You start with a pound of whole wheat flour.

"Even flour back then was a little bit different than what we have today," he said. "It wasn't refined. When we do the plum pudding in a historical setting, we usually mix all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour and that gives us a historically correct blend."

Dacey said that whole wheat flour is a little denser than regular flour, so the plum pudding would have a denser, chewier taste.

"When we start looking at wet ingredients for the plum pudding is when it gets kind of interesting," he said. "The recipe actually calls for 10 eggs, a lot of eggs. But 10 eggs in the 19th century was not 10 eggs as we think of it today. Chickens have been specially bred in modern times to producer larger eggs. A recipe from the 18th or 19th century calls for 10 eggs, but we would use about seven or eight today."

Dacey said the people of that time period would not skimp on sugars or butters either.

"Recipes back then used a lot more sugar and a lot more butter," he said. "But it was a treat, and if you're only going to do it once a year, you might as well make it fantastic."

And they would have used butter that they churned.

When all the ingredients for the plum pudding were incorporated and it was ready to bake, Dacey got busy scooping out hot coals from the fireplace to put in a pile on the hearth.

"They didn't have traditional ovens they way we think of an oven today, a door that opens and you sit something inside," Dacey said. "They used Dutch ovens, which are basically cast iron pans set up on feet with a lid.

"You scoop out some coals from the fire and make a coal bed on the hearth the circumference of the pot you were going to use."

After transferring the plum pudding batter to a baking dish, Dacey put it in the Dutch oven, put the lid on and put the Dutch oven on the bed on hot coals on the hearth. Then he covered the lid of the Dutch oven with hot coals so the plum pudding would bake evenly.

"When they were cooking, they were not only making what they would be eating, but they'd also be keeping an eye on the fire the whole time," Dacey said. 'As the raw dough roasts over open coals, it kind of takes on a more earthy flavor. I like the taste much, much better."

In addition to the plum pudding, Dacey also made a sweet potato pie and an apple pie.

He said the three cookbooks from that time period that historians tend to use today are the Virginia Housewife Cookbook, Kentucky Housewife Cookbook and North Carolina Housewife Cookbook.

Ms. Strickland said jelly cakes were also popular treats at Christmas.

"They didn't have icing like we're used to," she said. "Sometimes sugar was in short supply. A jelly cake is basically a cake that uses jelly for the icing. They put it in between the layers, but not down the side. They used whatever kind of jelly they had on hand."

The women made  the sweets back in those days, while the men went out and got fresh meat and game, like venison, squirrel and goose.

"That was a big thing for the holidays, fresh meat," he said. "It was an all-day thing for the men. It was almost a break for them. The Aycocks owned an 1,100-acre farm, and it was a lot of work. So when the men got an excuse to go running around the woods trying to shoot something and have a big old bonding experience, they would be gone all day a couple of days before Christmas.

"Then they'd prepare the meat fresh, which was different from what they had in the winter time. Usually in the winter, they would be eating preserved meats and go over to the smokehouse, pull out a ham hock and carve it. Christmas was special with fresh meats."

Ms. Strickland said people today associate turkey with Christmas.

"They may have shot one for the meal, but if they didn't, it was no big deal back then," she said.

Baked Plum Pudding

1 lb. wheat flour

3/4 lb. butter

1/2 lb. sugar

1/2 lb. raisins

10 eggs

1 nutmeg

Beat the eggs quite light. Rub the butter and sugar to cream. Mix them with the eggs.

Add flour and nutmeg, then raisins, which must be stoned (seeds removed) and cut in two.

Bake half an hour in a quick oven.

Baked Indian Pudding

Boil a quart of milk.

Mix in it two gills (a gill is one quarter of a pint) and a half of corn meal until it's very smooth. Add seven eggs, a gil of molasses and a small piece of butter.

Bake two hours.