An 18th Century Christmas in Odessa
What if Mary Randolph, her cousin Thomas Jefferson, Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy all gathered round your holiday table for a hearth cooked meal. Now there’s a romantic notion.
I daresay the conversation would be lively; but what would you serve? While Thomas Jefferson might bring along a recipe for that macaroni and cheese dish he discovered in Paris, you might try your hand at a couple of the recipes Mary Randolph created. She published her recipe book, The Virginia House-wife, in 1824, and rarely has it been out of print since. Today you can buy it at Amazon.com.
On your menu it would be appropriate to serve Mrs. Randolph’s “apoquiniminc cakes”, because we will be sitting down to table in your gracious redbrick Philadelphia-style Georgian residence up the hill from the Appoquinimink River in Odessa, Delaware. Your propinquity to the water deems it likely that many of your guests will arrive by sailing vessel up the Appoquinimink from the nearby Delaware River. Therefore, you should send a carriage and footman down to the dock to fetch them. Before sitting at table, though, while passing around the hors d’oeuvres, you might view it sensible to ply Mr. Darcy—who, to my mind, looks remarkably like Colin Firth—with some “genuine British punch” (a sherbet potion with liquor added involving a half-gallon of rum, a pint of cognac brandy, a ton (give or take) of sugar, and lemons and oranges).
It would seem a bit of a trick prying Jane Austen out of England; even so, the Women’s Club of Odessa and the Historic Odessa Foundation did well, creating “A Jane Austen Christmas,” their Christmas in Odessa tour theme for 2008. When you come into Odessa, population 280, from U.S. 13 on the northwest, you leave behind housing developments and strip malls littered across what once was mostly farmland, to enter an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century time warp—a town intact, untouched by urban development; you are ensconced within a sensual pastille, if you will, of scents, sights and sounds at once bringing respite. Main Street, the thoroughfare that leads southeast, down to where the bustling wharf stood, opens grandly before you, the broad avenue lined with old trees whose graceful branches spread shade that reaches across old brick sidewalks and rambles up deep lawns to dignified red-brick structures. Birds flit among the branches chirping, squirrels scurry after each other round and round thick tree trunks.
The Indian Village Appoquinimi was settled by the Dutch early in the 1600s, confiscated by the English in 1664 and deeded to Captain Edmund Cantwell in 1673. His son, Richard Cantwell, built a toll bridge over the creek there. In 1731 they named the village Cantwell’s Bridge and, located along the overland route that was the shortest distance between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, about seven miles, Cantwell’s Bridge became a vital grain-shipping port. Grain, peaches and other commodities were shipped up the Delaware River from surrounding farmland to Philadelphia, some forty miles north.
There wasn’t always a toll bridge there: A succession of bridges have crossed the Appoquinimink in that place—draw bridges, a revolving bridge; sometimes the bridges washed out, but none was left over. Where the present concrete bridge (no trolls lurking beneath, that I’ve seen) stretches tranquilly over the tidal creek and surrounding marshes at the foot of the hill, on the evening of your dinner stood a bustling port with wharves, docks and warehouses.
By 1846, after most of your dinner guests had passed through St. Peter’s gate to celestial pastures, bushels of grain shipped annually to Philadelphia by boat totaled 400,000. Six big granaries stored 30,000 bushels of wheat, six sloops sailed weekly to Philadelphia and three schooners sailed weekly to Boston, in addition to numerous transient vessels. Lining Main Street were a tannery, two hotels, a diversity of shops, and a new school, built in 1844, designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloane.
Farmers in the area raised a fine red winter wheat said to make an excellent pastry flour. But the land became depleted in the mid-nineteenth century. In those days, farmers didn’t use fertilizer and didn’t know about crop rotation.
In 1855 the railroad came through the adjacent farming town of Middletown, just to the west, sidetracking the busy port of Cantwell’s Bridge. While the bridge over the Appoquinimink didn’t collapse, the grain shipping trade supporting the village of Cantwell’s Bridge did. (Still, peach prosperity encouraged villagers to develop peach—until the late nineteenth-century peach blight—and agriculture related industries.) So in 1855, the citizens voted to change the name to Odessa, after the flourishing Ukrainian grain port on the Black Sea, effectuating a re-branding; nonetheless, a vain attempt to revive their river shipping trade.
Since Odessa is a water town, with the coming of the railroad, growth stopped; everything just stopped, leaving the town in a kind of time capsule, an eighteenth-century townscape. Over the years, Odessa citizens consistently have focused on maintaining this historic integrity.
Thus, at the turn of the nineteenth century, the night we loosen up Mr. Darcy with British punch, we are in the bustling port town named Cantwell’s Bridge.
Momentarily traveling to twenty-first century Odessa, we see some of Mary Randolph’s recipes appearing at table on the occasions The Historic Odessa Foundation culinary experts prepare late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century open-hearth-cooked meals for upper level Foundation members. The cooks give diners the recipes afterwards.
The hearth-cooked meals typify an upper-class Odessa holiday menu such as you will serve on the evening of your dinner.
Working class diets in those days were plebeian. They had little variety, consequently not an entirely healthy diet. They handed down recipes by oral tradition from mother to daughter, because most working class women could not read.
At your table, plan to serve a variety of foods—even citrus—and interesting recipes from recipe books because you can afford the ingredients and can read. You’ll probably want to bake something with that wonderful red winter wheat. Most of the people in Odessa in those days were Quakers who were well educated and drew others in by educating them. Yet, even with Odessa’s close ties to Philadelphia, culinary ties were and are to the South.
The apoquiniminc cakes recipe looks pretty good, but you have to beat the ingredients for a half hour. The Historic Odessa Foundation members have the kids make them when the teachers bring them on educational tours. Heh-heh. What are kids for? My mother used to make me stand in front of a bubbling pot of pudding or sauce and stir nonstop for about twenty minutes. “Just stand there and keep stirring,” she’d say. “Don’t stop.” Ah, but I digress. Where’s that Mr. Darcy?
While I grab another glass of punch and go looking for him, I will tell you that the Historic Odessa Foundation keeps a food history for the region from about 1760 to 1830. Mr. Darcy might have dined on dishes familiar to us today but seasoned distinctly. The melding process of flavors was different; they mixed sweet and savory foods; they used different seasonings suitable to the eighteenth-century palate; for instance, many of the recipes called for variously combined flavorings of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, rosewater, orange-flower water and almond extract.They served only three courses and included the puddings with the main course, rather than separately as a dessert. Thus, they would serve fowl, meat, or fish with pumpkin or sweet potato pudding. It was not until later in the nineteenth century that the many course meals common today became fashionable.
The time spent whisking and beating ingredients explains at least in part why you wouldn’t whisk the family off to a workout facility around town. As an example, Maria Eliza Rundell, in The American Domestic Cookery (New York: Evert Duykinck, 1823) states in her recipe To Ice a Very Large Cake, “Whisk it for three hours till the mixture is thick and white …”. (From The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900 by Louise Condon Belden, A Winterthur Book, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983). Hmmm … could she have meant three minutes? One would hope. Nevertheless, after all, those were the days when women scrubbed the family laundry in a washtub out on the back porch—that probably includes the table linens—even in December. Anyone up for arthritis?
Meanwhile, back to the table with Mr. Darcy: The Virginia House-Wife is said to document cookery in the early days of the American republic. It affords superb insight into eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Odessa tastes. In her book, Mrs. Randolph provides practical tips for the beginning housewife—”The prosperity and happiness of a family depend greatly on the order and the regularity established in it. Management is an art that may be acquired by every woman of good sense and tolerable memory”—and recipes she served at the Randolph’s Richmond home, Moldavia, where invitations were coveted, and later at her Richmond boarding house, where, according to historical accounts, “wit, humor, and good-fellowship prevailed, but excess rarely.”
Mary Randolph developed practical specific weights and measurements that yielded recipes, calling on Virginia’s bounty of fish, fowl, fruits and vegetables, simpler to follow than those in English cookbooks and especially popular in the South. She believed it better to serve a few tasty dishes than the many traditionally served on an upper-class English table.
Plantation Life at Rose Hill: The Diaries of Martha Ogle Forman, 1814-1845(The Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington, 1976) reveals an intimate look at local upper-class culinary tastes and household order of the day. In her diaries, Mrs. Forman, wife of Major General Thomas Marsh Foreman, a Revolutionary War officer, meticulously recorded daily life on the plantation—“Dec. 26, 1817: pickled oysters today. March 30, 1838: My husband and self went to Church. Mr. Mercer and Mr. George Biddle here [travel being tedious, families commonly hosted overnight guests], the first asparagus this day. Dec. 20, 1830: We got from Baltimore 7 bushels of oysters …”.
Oysters in the region, scarce in today’s market, were plentiful and common in those days. They were available to wealthy and working class alike at a reasonable price. Because Rose Hill Plantation, on the Sassafras River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, is so close to Middletown/Odessa, the Historic Odessa Foundation uses Mrs. Forman’s diary as a primary source document, frequently.
By the way, you will want to invite William Corbit, a tanner and the town’s leading citizen, and his family to dinner, especially since Jane Austen will be there. (Incidentally, Mr. Corbit died just fourteen days after Jane Austen, on August 1, 1817. Was it something they ate?)
Madame de Staël, who kept up a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, sent her regrets. She wanted to come, for she relished such brilliant company and had purchased land in America, intending to travel here; however, her poor health and her protracted oblique travels across Europe dodging the sphere of Napoleon precluded her visit. Despite having not sat at your table, coincidentally Madame de Staël died July 14, 1817,
François-René de Chateaubriand, too, wanted to come (and bring his chef to prepare that beef dish with the béarnaise sauce), but he had recently been in America and was traveling elsewhere.
The morning of your dinner party, a huge wagon hauled by a pair of dapple-gray work horses and heaped with oysters, winter vegetables and citrus crunches laboriously up the gravel driveway around the corner of your house and arrives at your back door. Your small staff of paid help hurriedly unloads the flatbed, taking all inside, through the pantry and kitchen.
The 2008 Christmas in Odessa tour marked the grand unveiling of the National Historic Landmark, the Corbit-Sharp House. “A Jane Austen Christmas” was exhibited in this Philadelphia-style Georgian, designed by Samuel Sloane. William Corbit built the house in 1774, the year before Jane Austen was born. The house had been closed since January 2008 for major restoration. New paint colors were matched through advancements in scientific analysis to the original colors of the house, colors dramatically different from the colors thought after the last study done in the late 1970s to early 1980s.
William Corbit was a Quaker. His family sent him to Philadelphia where he learned about Philadelphia architecture and learned to be a tanner. Odessa was an early Quaker settlement; therefore, Odessans have always held familiar ties with Philadelphia.
The Corbit-Sharp House is considered one of the most magnificent and significant Colonial houses in the United States. It is a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Park Service Network to Freedom in the spring of 2008 when recent research uncovered evidence showing that, as suspected, the house was a stop along the Underground Railroad.
Walk back off Main Street in Odessa up the low hill, through the old trees around to the front of the Corbit-Sharp House and the view from the house opens stunningly before you, running down across the green lawn through the little copses of trees to the silver Appoquinimink meandering though the golden marsh below. You might imagine yourself momentarily as William Corbit standing there, turning to Samuel Sloane and saying, “Let’s put the house here.”
“Let’s pour some more punch and carry it over to Mr. Darcy, standing aloof across the room.”
Oh, here’s a knock at the door. Why, it’s the boy Thomas Garrett and his family, come down from Thornfield, their farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia. How wonderful to see these good people. William Corbit, broadly smiling, eyes dancing, arms open, frock coattails flapping, hurries over to greet them.
In a mystic moment of reverence for place, of telepathy, and transcendence of time and thought, I should note briefly that I grew up on the land that once was the Garrett farm, in Drexel Hill, Upper Darby Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Upper Darby High School, from where I graduated (so long ago it’s a wonder I didn’t run into Thomas Garrett in person), is located just off Garrett Road. The Garrett family’s Thornfield home still stands in a section of the community called Garrettford. There’s a trolley stop there, at Maple Avenue and Garrett Road. I remember from the days I rode the trolley home from high school: I’d board the trolley at Lansdowne Avenue and Garrett Road, and a short distance up the track, the next stop was Maple Avenue.
Back in Odessa, you remind your maid, as she helps the Garretts off with their coats, that when she takes the coats upstairs and lays them on the guest room bed, to light the lamp in the window. In the reception hall, the Garretts are all talking at once, animatedly. Someone had come to their farm and kidnapped the black servant they employed, intending to force her into slavery. Young Thomas looks shaken and pale as the cream in the celery sauce. “We went after her and got her back,” he said, his words spluttering out like creek water over cobblestones.
Thomas Jefferson rushes over to hear. He stands, hand on hip, appalled. Jane Austen asks for pen, ink and paper and is writing something.
Thomas Garrett in later years characterized this kidnapping incident as transcendental in directing his life’s work toward the abolitionist cause. He became one of the most prominent figures in the history of the Underground Railroad. The Garretts were Quakers and the family hid runaway slaves in their Delaware County farmhouse when Thomas was a child. When he was an adult, as a Station Master for forty years, living in Wilmington, Delaware, Thomas Garrett is credited with helping more than 2,700 slaves escape to freedom.
In 1816, Madame de Staël wrote to Jefferson that if America could do away with slavery, “there would be at least one government in the world as perfect as human reason can conceive it”.
Meanwhile, soon after the Garretts have arrived for your dinner party—and I think Mr. Darcy was the first one to spot this, lurking in the shadows, observing, in the corner by the window as he was––out in the marshes another drama unfolds.
The night is black as pitch. In the eaves of heaven, deep behind an unfound door in the chambers of the earth’s shadow, the moon hides. Jim runs through the woods, he runs over the fields, down the lost lanes between the corn rows and out across the swamp, keeping in the high reeds, crouching low, hoping a snake won’t rise up and inject venom into his blood. His lungs ache. His heart is in his throat and his throat is dry. The tide runs up fast. It seeps in through the hole in the sole of Jim’s shoe. The wind kicks up, but Jim has no time to wish for a coat. The sheriff is hot on his heels, his shotgun ready, his bloodhound’s nose to the ground. Jim keeps his eyes on the yellow light in the distant upstairs window. If only he can reach it. Keep runnin’, keep runnin’, runnin’ to freedom. Huff, huff.He stumbles, catches himself; then he reaches the broad creek. He plunges in. The sheriff reaches the sandy bank, unties his skiff stashed in the reeds. The bloodhound jumps into the boat, settling between the seats, his nose wet and quivering with anticipation. The sheriff climbs in after him, laying his shotgun on the bench beside him. He picks up the oars and rows. Yes! He is gaining on Jim. Soon. Soon he will have him; the bounty high for runaway slaves, even here, north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The sheriff swiftly reaches the far bank. He leaps out into the woods, his bloodhound dashes ahead. After Jim—but where is he? The dog runs here and there, wags his tail, yawps, runs in circles. No Jim. Lost, a ghost. It’s as if he has gone on some railroad underground, thinks the sheriff.
This story is common among runaway slaves: the light in the window, the run through the woods and the swamps, a kind hand, and a mystified bounty hunter reckoning the term and the invisible lines of the “Underground Railroad” into being. Fugitives arrived in the North mostly on foot or in secret compartments beneath vegetables in hay wagons, but also in coaches, onboard trains, steamships and even Mississippi paddleboats. Most came from the border states of Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. He or she who undertook to run from the deep South up through all the other Southern states did so at great peril. And their protectors were subject to severe fines. And years after the night of your dinner but before the railroad came, even federal marshals neglecting to capture and return fugitives were fined $1,000 under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a law proposed largely by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.
The punch has ebbed in the bowl. The guests assemble in the dining room, gowns rustle, coattails flick as they draw their chairs beneath them at the table. Candle flames flicker on sterling silver, crystal, fine china, and betray a glint in the eyes of some among the guests, while shadows loom large on the wall.
Just as you’ve passed the pumpkin pudding to Mr. Darcy, and Thomas Jefferson has dipped his napkin into his glass of water and is dabbing at the cheese stuck on his lapel, comes an urgent rapping at the back door. It is a runaway slave from a tobacco plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore needing to be hidden upstairs in the eaves behind that low door in the wall behind the chifforobe.
The Corbit-Sharp house has just such a door. Many structures in the area do.
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Apoquininminc Cakes (Beaten Biscuits)
Put a little salt, one egg beaten, and four ounces of butter, in a quart of flour; make it into a paste with new milk, beat it for half an hour with a pestle, roll the paste thin, and cut it into round cakes; bake them on a gridiron and be careful not to burn them.
— The Virginia House-wife, Mary Randolph, Virginia, 1824
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That is Odessa, Delaware. But I wouldn’t mind going to Odessa, Ukraine, on the Black Sea, and touring Istanbul on the Bosphorus.