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Eating with Edgar Allen Poe

The New Yorker’s current issue has an intriguing piece by Jill Lepore called “The Humbug,” examining recent works on the controversial and short-lived American writer Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe’s life is as enigmatic today, the bicentennial year of his birth, as it was when he died in 1849 at the age of 40. The mysteries surrounding his life and death have inspired numerous works of scholarship as well as countless fictional works, one of which, “The Murder of Edgar Allen Poe,” (George Egon Hatvay, 1997) suggests he was a victim of foul play. He was stricken in a tavern and carried to a hospital in Baltimore where he died four days later.

The facts and fiction surrounding the life of Poe are muddled at best, in part because of Poe’s own embellishments. Indeed, much of Poe’s lifetime of misery, it is generally conceded, was self-inflicted.

There are accounts of his wandering the streets of Baltimore, begging for 50 cents to buy himself a meal and of his living for stretches on bread and molasses.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the piece got me to thinking about what Poe and his contemporaries ate, besides bread and molasses, and how it differs from what we eat today.

A good source for such information is the Web site Feeding America which you can find here. It is a project funded by the federal Institute of Museums and Library Services, and it has produced a splendid online collection of important and influential cookbooks of the late 18th through the early 20th century.

One such compilation is “The Cook Not Mad,” published in 1830 by Knowlton & Rice in Watertown, N.Y. The author is unknown.

Its subtitle is a mouthful: “Rational Cookery; Being a Collection of Original and Selected Receipts, Embracing Not Only the Art of Curing Various Kinds of Meats and Vegetables for Future Use, but of Cooking in Its General Acceptation, to the Taste, Habits and Degrees of Luxury, Prevalent with the American Publick, in Town and Country.”

The Web site notes the book stresses the importance of American cooking and denigrates foreign influences such as English, French and Italian. The author offers “Good Republican Dishes,” and he or she does in fact present many American dishes. There are recipes for the very American turkey, pompion (pumpkin), codfish, cranberries, A Tasty Indian Pudding, Federal Pancakes, Good Rye and Indian (cornmeal) Bread, Johnnycake, Indian Slapjack, Washington Cake and Jackson Jumbles.

Here’s a glimpse into our culinary past:

A good pickle for Hams.

One ounce of salt petre, one pint of salt, half pint of molasses to each ham; put your salt petre into the molasses and rub your hams in it, then put your hams into a sweet cask, put your salt into water enough to cover your hams, turn it on to them and turn them often for six weeks. If the hams are large, add more salt, then smoke them ten days. Beef for drying, done in the same way, also Beef tongues.

To Roast Beef.

The general rules are, to have a brisk hot fire, to be placed on a spit, to baste with salt and water, and one quarter of an hour to every pound of beef, though tender beef will require more roasting; pricking with a fork will determine whether done or not: rare done is the healthiest, and the taste of this age.

Roast Veal

As it is more tender than beef or mutton, and easily scorched, paper it, especially the fat parts, let there be a brisk fire, baste it well: a loin weighing fifteen pounds requires two hours and a half roasting; garnish with green parsley and sliced lemon.

To Stuff and Roast a Turkey or Fowl

One pound soft wheat bread, three ounces beef suet, three eggs, a little sweet thyme, marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith, and sew up; hang down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with butter and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast; put one third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird, and baste with the gravy; served up with boiled onions and cranberry sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery.

The next one seems particularly appropriate for Poe, who lived his final days on the Chesapeake Bay.

To Smother a Fowl in Oysters

Fill the bird with dry oysters and sew up and boil in water just sufficient to cover the bird, salt and season to your taste; when done tender, put it into a deep dish and pour over it a pint of stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered, if a turkey, garnish with sprigs of parsley or leaves of celery; a fowl is best with a parsley sauce.

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