Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Bakemeat, Fricassee, Frais, Rye Pie, Oat Cake – These were once common terms in the vocabulary of the early Pennsylvania house­wife. Indeed, her cookery would seem very strange to us today, quite as remote and curious as that of the Middle Ages. Traditional cooking underwent many changes in the second half of the eighteenth century and industrialization in the nineteenth century altered it even further. Thus, when we look back into the early days of Pennsylvania, we are in a sense peeking at an age when primitive folk patterns existed side by side with ostentatious wealth – and all the rare and wonderful edible things that sort of wealth could purchase.

Pennsylvania is fortunate in that a cookery manuscript belonging to William Penn’s wife, Gulielma, has survived from a 1702 transcription. As late seven­teenth-century English manuscript cookbooks go, its scope is not very great. But since manuscript cookbooks are often intended only as aids to memory – those things one was most likely to forget were the things usually written down – we are at least given some insight into the sort of dishes Gulielma Penn thought troublesome, unusual or worth remembering. The implication is that most of these recipes were not for everyday use or she would have known them by heart. Certainly her lemon cream (what we now call lemon butter), her fricassee of chicken (generally done in a chafing dish), her Naples biscuit, and any of the sweetmeats (things preserved in sugar) would fall into this category.

Her cookbook is notice­ably short on what we would consider basic dishes. Per­haps this is because in the context of seventeenth­-century English culture, the stewing and roasting, the menial side of cookery – the so-called “hot” cookery – was left to the household cook, a person who was more often than not illiterate. The gentlewoman took charge of elegant “made” dishes, sugar work, confections and those things generally associated with the pantry or “cool” kitchen. This was an avenue for status and self­-expression. It also required a knowledge of cookbooks because the recipes were often complex and exacting. In any case, this separation of kitchen labor was a pattern carried down to the middle class in the eighteenth century.

The genteel quality of Gulielma Penn’s recipes is evi­dent in the fact that a good number of them stem from earlier printed cookbooks, both French and English, among them Gervase Mark­ham’s English House-Wife (London, 1615). Markham was no cook. In fact, he was something of a literary hack in his day. Nevertheless, he had the good taste to know a worthy recipe when he saw one, and pirated accord­ingly. His book proved popular in England and re­mained so throughout much of the seventeenth century. Markham’s recipes, and a good many of Gulielma Penn’s, are Elizabethan in character, fashionable perhaps in the late 1500s, but hardly the latest thing for the 1680s or for 1702. This longevity of certain dishes or recipes in manuscript and printed books was commonplace in the pre­industrial era. For one thing, cookbook writers tended to publish late in their careers rather than at the beginning. Eliza Smith’s Compleat Housewife (London, 1727), very popular in the colonies, is an excellent example of this; her cookery spans fifty years of practice, and many of her oldest recipes go back much earlier than the 1680s.

If literate, cookbook­-oriented families like the Penns were slow to change I the character of their food, then what was it like for Pennsylvania’s middling folk, or for the illiterate or poor? Most of them never saw cookbooks, and very few left behind accounts of what they ate. The idea that their evening porridge might interest us today would prob­ably have struck most of them as amusing, if not peculiar. But history is not the story of the rich alone – we would certainly be misled to think that everyone lived like the Penns – so how do we reconstruct Penn­sylvania’s early food history so that it includes every­one, so that we may have a better understanding of how things really were?

There are many ways. With the help of archaeology, collections of culinary objects, tax records, account books, wills, diaries, inventories, letters and a close look at Old World historical patterns, the everyday table of everyday Pennsylvanians comes gradually into focus. Most of the early settlers wanted things to be like home, but they wanted to be materially better off as well. So we find in this early period an unusual combination of motivations at play, modified of course, by the realities of existence, of living in a new place that was certainly not at all like home.

In looking through the bills of lading in the Port Books of Bristol, England, for the late 1600s, we learn a great deal about the kinds of things Pennsylvania settlers were Laking with them, or were shipping to the colony as part of speculative ventures. It would appear from the Port Books that English­-speaking settlers imported large quantities of things they considered staple goods. For a number of years, indeed well into the eighteenth century, there were shortages of many traditional food­stuffs, particularly butter, cheese and oatmeal. Nearly every ship leaving Bristol carried extensive cargoes of these products, far more than was necessary for the Atlantic crossing. We may conclude from this that cheese, usually specified as Cheshire (cheddar) in type, and oatmeal dishes were con­sidered an essential part of everyday diet, the abundance of Indian corn (maize) notwithstanding.

There is a hint of this in the Penn family cookbook, particularly in references to oatmeal pudding and oat cakes made on a stove. Of all the dishes in the manuscript, these two come closest to everyday food. Certainly, oat cakes took the place of loaf or leavened bread altogether in many households. But it was not the tough, dry sort of cake that is sold in packages today. Rather, after mixing the meal with water and salt, and working it into a thick paste, cakes were formed with the hands and set aside to ferment for a’ short period. This made them light and porous before baking. The baking was done on a flat iron plate called a bakeiron, in a wall oven or directly on the fireplace embers.

Small cakes like green corn fritters (small pancakes made with new maize), buck­wheat cakes, shortbreads, even certain types of ginger­bread and pastry were also baked on bakeirons, or on a hanging griddle known in Pennsylvania dialect as a lazy­back. Shortbreads, ginger­breads, small pies and such things that might require ovens today could be baked on a lazyback by inverting a pol or dripping pan over them, lowering the lazyback into hot embers (many lazybacks had feet for this purpose) and covering the inverted pan with coals. One’s cooking senses must be finely tuned for this method of baking, since it is impossible to see what is going on inside the pan.

Cooking senses had to be finely tuned for the boiling of porridges, too, especially the thick porridges that were so much a part of daily fare in this period. One of the most typical dishes was bean porridge thickened with oatmeal. Beans were cooked slowly in a kettle until soft, the broth thickened with oat­meal, then bits of salt pork, bacon or flitch (a Penn­sylvania dialect term for un­smoked bacon) were added and the whole cooked together until the desired consistency was achieved. Some­times milk or cream was added just prior to serving.

It was necessary to stir such porridges almost constantly to keep them from burning on the bottom. For this purpose, most households possessed a wooden utensil known as a mush stick or mundle. In Pennsylvania, mundle seems to have been the preferred term among the Quakers, although the Penn cookbook refers to it as a nooden, a term otherwise unknown here.

Oatmeal was used by early Pennsylvanians in much the same manner as wheat flour today, at least in common cookery. But unlike commercially processed oatmeal today, culinary oatmeal was kiln dried at the mill before it was ground. This controlled the degree of fineness of the meal, the best grade being very much like soft powder. Since the de­mand for kiln dried flour doubtless outstripped supply, this process was applied to other grains. It worked most successfully with cornmeal, which became a standard flour extender (and adulterant) in Pennsylvania throughout the eighteenth century. Parched cornmeal was extremely cheap and because of its distinctive flavor, it was used extensively in rye and middling (coarse wheat) breads. In time, parched cornmeal porridge or mush generally replaced oatmeal porridge. During the Revolution, many people in Philadelphia reverted to the use of oatmeal once the supply of other cereal grains failed. Contemporary diary accounts viewed this as an act of desperation, so we may interpret this to mean that by the 1770s, the widespread use of oatmeal in Pennsylvania had become a thing of the past, or at best, a thing limited to the tables of the very poor.

Importation of exotic foods and foodstuffs, however, did not diminish as the colony became more self-sufficient. It was as extensive in the late seventeenth century as it was after the Revolution; many of the same products were being sold. For example, in the summer of 1684, George Pierce, a settler in Chester County, shipped a large cargo of raisins and nutmegs to Philadelphia on the ship Bristol Merchant. Thomas Jacques, also on the same ship, sent over 150 pieces of earthenware utensils – a speculative venture doubtless destined for many a rural kitchen. Not intended for rural kitchens were the capers and olives advertised by David Evans of Phila­delphia in the American Weekly Mercury of April 1720. These costly articles garnished the culinary showpieces – the roast meats, the poached fish – gracing the tables of the affluent. But the very fact that there were customers for such trade goods in 1720 serves as evidence that elegant cooking was already being looked upon as a Phila­delphia prerogative- it remained so well into the nineteenth century.

Our traditional picture of the typical colonist making do under primitive circum­stances on Indian fare is altered somewhat by a con­stant flow of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps trappers did live that way, but nineteenth-century histories romanticized the poverty of the early days. As a rule, how­ever, English cultural preferences prevailed. Where supply or economics recom­mended a second choice, it was invariably the cheapest next-best thing, or something that could be disguised as the more expensive article, or a substitution that was alto­gether an improvement over the original.

In this last category falls oatmeal flummery, that is, oat­meal porridge sweetened with sugar and made rich by the addition of milk or cream. This was once a common dessert food. After the rice plantations became pro­ductive in the Southern colonies, inexpensive rice became a common trade article in Pennsylvania. It was substituted for the oatmeal in flummery, thereby making the dish not only more elegant by contemporary stan­dards, but also more popu­lar. By the nineteenth century, rice flummery had become such a culinary cliche that it fell from fashion and found itself relegated to cookery for the elderly, in much the same way that rice pudding is offered today.

Naturally, flummery could be eaten hot like porridge, but it was generally the custom to allow it to cool and set. In this form it could be molded in elaborate shapes, hence its popularity as a dessert dish. A number of Philadelphia household inventories before 1715 list tin, copper and earthenware molds that could be used for this purpose. Rural inventories, however, generally lack copper utensils and very rarely mention molds until after 1800. This was due to different life­styles, different economic circumstances and certain dif­ferences in kitchen tech­nology.

In early seventeenth-cen­tury rural England, most yeoman farmers did not possess bakeovens. Bread baking was done directly on the hearth. Flat breads were often baked on the hot stones – some early Penn­sylvania farmhouses still retain immense hearthstones intact for this purpose. Otherwise, raised breads were baked in an iron kettle or by using two skillets, one upside down on the other. In either case, the utensils were covered with hot coals and left until the bread was baked. Such baking techniques were transplanted to Penn­sylvania and remained common here well into the nineteenth century.

By the middle of the seven­teenth century, well-to-do farmers in England began to acquire brick wallovens, or bread ovens as they were commonly called. There was still an aspect of novelty and status about the ownership of such ovens in late seven­teenth-century Pennsylvania, and doubtless that is one reason why colonists thought them an important part of kitchen architecture. Certainly, possession of a bakeoven was proof that one had improved one’s standard of living, because the bakeoven expanded one’s culinary repertoire.

Ash-baked breads were soon left for the poor to make, while better-off Penn­sylvania cooks could turn their attention to finer sorts of pies, pastries and baked puddings hitherto impossible on the hearth. Delicate puddings like quince pudding and custards baked in shallow earthenware dishes lined with wheat flour pastry became common in bake­oven households by the end of the seventeenth century. Many of these baked puddings are now called pies in modern American idiom, but pies they were not. Pies were flat-bottomed with standing sides and a removable top crust, doubt­lessly filled with some sort of meat.

What of meats? These were always considered the centerpiece of the table. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most people ate boiled rather than roasted meat. We know from period accounts that large game, even wild turkeys, were fairly well decimated throughout the Delaware Valley by 1720. Most people, if they ate small game at all, ate such things as opossum, raccoon and squirrel. Such game generally required lengthy stewing to make it palatable.

Lengthy stewing in porridge was the traditional method for cooking fresh meat in the British Isles. The idea of boiling meat, oat­meal and root vegetables such as turnips or parsnips all together in one pot does not strike us as too appetizing today, but that was understood to be the most practical way to make a meal before the theories of French cookery filtered down to the folk level. In the seven­teenth century, the French cook and writer Nicolas de Bonnefons had advocated the separation of meats and vegetables into individual dishes as opposed to the common practice of stewing everything together. But even middle-class French cooks did not begin to follow de Bonnefons’s advice until the middle of the eighteenth century. Surprisingly enough, some Pennsylvanians still cooked in the older, medieval fashion at the turn of the nineteenth century. Some of these dishes are still with us today under the name of “Irish” stew.

Tradition often resists change because of cultural attitudes and one of the most deeply rooted in Anglo­American culture was that of the desirability of white foods, especially “white” meats, what is known in Ireland as banbidl. It has equivalent names in Wales and Scotland, and may derive from a long cultural asso­ciation with milk and dairy­ing. Whatever the case, boiling meats until they were “white” was considered the most appropriate and health­ful method of preparation. It is not rare in American culi­nary literature of the nine­teenth century to find recipes that specifically mention boiling meat until it is white, even though this attitude had begun to change by the end of the eighteenth century in favor of roasted meat and fleshy color.

In seventeenth-century England, roast meats or fowl prepared on spits were generaUy foods for the nobility or the upper classes, and not daily fare for them either. Red meats (as opposed to fowl, veal and pork), when “roasted,” were technically steam-baked rather than roasted over open flames. The general technique was to encase the meat, a shoulder of mutton for example, in an envelope of brown pastry. This pastry was usually made with water and rye flour or middling flour (a coarse whole wheat flour), or a mix­ture of both. Since the meat was totally sealed, it cooked in its own gravy, as the natural juices were called. In Pennsylvania, such meat was generally referred to as bakemeat.

An alternate method was to bake the meat in a raised or standing crust, what old cookbooks refer to as pies. Such standing pies were often called rye pies in Penn­sylvania to distinguish them from sweet pies made with rich (edible) crusts. Rye pies were sometimes very large. Among the well-to-do, a typical meat for a festive rye pie was elk or Wapiti (often called red deer in Penn­sylvania, as opposed to Virginia deer or venison), abundant in the state’s high mountains until about 1800.

Whether meat or sweet, a pie was understood to have sides and removable top crusts – usually referred to as lids. In a sense, rye pies were pastry substitutes for utensils because they were intended to serve as cooking vessels rather than as food. Most pie crusts for meats were made with water or suet pastry, often so tough after baking that they resembled wood or cardboard. Toughness was necessary because the idea was to bring the baked meat to the table in its pastry shell. Often these standing crusts were elaborately decorated and sculpted. Just before serving, the lid was removed and the shell was filled with a quantity of rich gravy or broth. Since the contents of the pie were not always consumed at one sitting, the lid could be replaced and the whole affair sent to the cellar where it stood on the cool floor (preferably a brick one) until needed. It was not customary to reheat meat pies. Most food was not absolutely hot when first served in any case – it was not thought healthful to eat things that were too hot or too cold.

In rural households that did not possess bakeovens, it was more customary to make one’s pies in a pot. Pot-pie took the place of the baked pie. Like baking bread in a kettle, pot-pie eliminated the need for a bakeoven. Certainly it is a dish of ancient origin in Britain, and one which held a prominent place in the diet of early Pennsylvanians.

The crust lining the pot was not intended so much for eating as it was to protect the edible part of the dish from direct contact with metal. Iron or bronze (bell metal) pots were in common use and could impart bad flavors to food, not to men­tion unhealthy precipitates if the dish were particularly acidic. But the pieces of crust laid between the layers of meat inside the pot-pie certainly were intended for consumption. Made with suet and flour or flour and leaf lard (called flead in Penn­sylvania dialect), these shaped pieces of crust were the medieval equivalent of the noodle. Today, many people in Pennsylvania refer to the pieces of crust (or their square noodle substitute) as the pot­pies. Originally, the term applied to the entire dish and was used in this more limited sense well into the nineteenth century.

Other popular hearthmade dishes were the fraise and what Pennsylvanians called panperdy. Both were prepared in skillets, shallow cooking utensils with bowled bottoms. The best quality skillets often had three legs for con­venience and better heat control. Heat control was especially important because of the delicate nature of the ingredients in these dishes.

A fraise is a hybrid form of omelet, made with milk, flour, eggs and some form of chopped meat, usually bacon or chipped beef. It was the Englishman’s equivalent of the Italian frittata, although it is not quite so light, more like a pudding in consis­tency. And since it is fried in liberal quantities of butter, it can be a bit too rich for modern palates.

Popular as a fast food, most probably because it was easier to make, was panperdy, from French pain perdu. Manchet breads (wheat rolls) were sliced and dipped in egg batter, then fried in butter in the skillet until golden brown. Before serv­ing, each slice was dusted with a mixture of rolled sugar and powdered cinnamon. Today we call this French toast, but there is a recipe for the dish in Markham’s English House-Wife, and it can be found in English cookery books a great deal earlier. We may presume, however, that because of the use of white bread, eggs, and rolled sugar, this was a con­venience food more for the urban dwellers and well-to-do than for plain country folk. It was not until the late eighteenth century that pan­perdy began to appear on rural tables in Pennsylvania. By then, it had acquired a number of local names, among them Mennonite toast.

Fricassees could also be done on the hearth, although it was better to prepare them over a brazier, since the heat must be extremely gentle. Otherwise, the eggs and cream in the sauce will quickly curdle. In the Elizabethan period, fricassees were generally thought of as court dishes, food for only the highest nobility. By the end of the seventeenth cen­tury, they had found their way into upper-class cookery, and since they required the use of a fork, they were con­sidered delicate and genteel. It was not unusual for the mistress of the house to pre­pare fricassees at the table in fine silver chafing dishes. There was considerable pomp involved in this, for a woman could show off her domestic talents to excellent advantage.

Tn any case, fricassees con­sisted of finely chopped meat, usually white meat such as veal, rabbit or chicken, that was gently fried and then simmered in a rich sauce. Sauces were usually classified as white or brown depending on their color. Most popular were the white fricassees made with cream and egg yolks and sometimes with white wine. While similar to Bechamel sauce in consistency, these white “gravies,” as they were called, were somewhat dif­ferent in structure. Unlike Bechamel, they were not prepared in a separate pan, and quite often they used no flour or roux at all, but most importantly, they used as their liquid base the natural juices or gravies of the thing cooked. This distinc­tion was important because the term white gravy always implied that there were natural cooking juices present.

As the fricassee was gradually acculturated into middle-class diet, it underwent considerable alteration. By the 1840s, it was applied to tomatoes, for example, in fried tomato gravy, a popular breakfast dish in Pennsyl­vania. Much earlier, it had been adapted to ham, for the well-known supper dish called ham-in-gravy, or simply ham gravy, which was served over fried bread or toast.

As the fricassee technique was adapted to plain cooking, cream and eggs were eliminated in favor of milk and flour, and by the late nineteenth century, ready-made white sauces, or sauces made with corn­starch, eventually replaced true white gravies altogether. From the standpoint of good cookery – cookery as an art form – the nineteenth-century commercial debasement of white gravy sealed its fate. Many people today shudder when they recall the creamed corn or similar milk and cream dishes of their child­hood. Eighteenth-century cooks would shudder, too, if they could see the bland descendants of their elegantly proportioned fricassees. Regardless, we should recognize that the white gravy cookery that developed out of the seventeenth­-century fricassee became a standard feature of rural cooking in Pennsylvania, certainly by the 1840s.

White gravy was accepted by all the ethnic groups living in the state, especially by those who settled here before the Civil War. For example, white gravy was adapted by the Pennsylvania Germans for such dishes as “shaken potatoes” (g’schittelte Grumbiere)­ – chopped fried potatoes cooked in white gravy, and in liver sausage fricasseed in cream. Even poor blacks coming from the South adapted it to their cooking, as for example, salt pork and hominy cooked in milk. In­deed, the number of Ameri­can dishes that evolved out of this cooking technique was vast. The interesting thing is that, like white gravy, so much of what we take for granted today in our traditional diet has its roots in the seventeenth century. As the story of this early cookery gradually unfolds, we are certain to learn a great deal more about ourselves as Americans. Certainly, we will gain a better appreciation of what it means to be a Pennsylvanian.


For Further Reading

Balston, Thomas, ed. Susanna Whatman: Her Housekeeping Book. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

Benson, Evelyn Abraham. Penn Family Recipes: Cooking Recipes of Wm. Penn’s Wife, Gulielma. York, Pa.: George Shumway, 1966.

Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginia Cookery. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1968.

Davidson, Caroline. “Historic Kitchen Restoration, the Example of Ham House: Part II.” Petits Propos Culinaires 15 (London, November 1983): 17-28.

Hess, Karen, ed. Martha Wash­ington’s Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 7981.

Masson, Madeleine, ed. The Compleat Cook or the Secrets of A Seventeenth-Century Housewife, by Rebecca Price (1681). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Saintsbury, George, ed. The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe A.D. 1694. London: The Adelphi/Guy Chapman, 1925.

Tibbott, S. Minwel. Welsh Fare: A Selection of Tradi­tional Recipes. Cowbridge/Bridgend: D. Brown & Sons, 1976.

Weaver, William Woys, ed. A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook: The Domestic Cookery of Elizabeth Lea. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974.


William Woys Weaver is a writer and food historian. He recently edited Elizabeth Ellicott Lea’s Domestic Cookery under the new title A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook (1982), and for the German-American Tricentennial, wrote n history of Pennsylvania-German cookery entitled Sauerkraut Yankees (1983). A German edition of Sauerkraut Yankees will be published in West Germany this year.