Autumn receipts: An umble pie, and some humble thoughts on food and technology

An Umble Pie, as found in Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook (1772), 111-112:

Take the humbles of a buck, and boil them, and chop them as small as meat for minced pies, and put to them as much beef suet, eight apples, half a pound of sugar, a pound and a half of currants, a little salt, some mace, cloves, nutmeg, and a little pepper : then mix them together, and put it into a paste ; add half a pint of sack, the juice of one lemon and orange, close the pie, and when it is baked serve it up.

Keep this one in mind while you’re field-dressing your buck this year, boys and girls!  (This one’s for you, Erica:  I double-dog dare you to make this pie!)  Won’t that make for an unforgettable dish this year at the Thanksgiving table?  I admire the determination not to let a sacred scrap of protein go to waste.  Yea, verily:  we are a slothful and prodigiously wasteful generation!

I bring this to you not in mockery or with an attitude of mock-sophistication encouraging laughter at colonial palates, but rather in the sperrit of thanksgiving for modern kitchens with electricity-powered refrigerators and freezers, and petroleum-fueled trucks to bring us fresh fruits and vegetables from California and Florida all winter long.  These marvelous technologies are largely responsible for the fact that we no longer have to rely on salts, pickles, and prodigious amounts of sugar and fat to preserve fresh foods.  Here are a few “receipts” for you vegetarians and vegans that suggest the lengths to which eighteenth century women went to preserve fresh vegetables:

To Keep Green Peas Till Christmas, p. 152:

Take fine young peas, shell them, throw them into a cullender to drain, then lay a cloth four or five times double on a table, and spread them on ; dry them very well, and have your bottles ready, fill them and cover them with mutton suet fat ; when it is a little cool, fill the necks almost to the top, cork them, tie a bladder and a lath over them, and set them in a cool dry place.

This pea-preservation is akin to making potted meats (as the English say), or rillettes, rillons, and pâtés, which were invented to preserve meat without refrigeration, and all relied on a thick layer of goose (or other animal) fat to keep it well.  I guess all of that “mutton suet fat” on top doesn’t make these peas a vegetarian dish exactly, but the next one surely is, borrowing from salt fish preservation techniques:

To Keep French Beans all the Year, p. 152-53:

Take young beans, gathered on a dry day, have a large stone jar ready, lay a layer of salt at the bottom, and then a layer of beans, then salt and then beans, and so on till the jar is full ; cover them with salt, and tie a coarse cloth over them and a board on that, and then a weight to keep it close from all air ; set them in a dry cellar and when you use them, take some out and cover them close again ;  wash them you took out very clean, and let them lie in soft water twenty four hours, shifting the water often ;  when you boil them do not put any salt in the water.

I like that final reminder not to salt the beans further.  Both of these methods of extending one’s garden bounty into autumn and winter would seem to run the risk of being destroyed by mold, but then again blanching or cooking them like potted meats would make them more vulnerable to other kinds of rot.

Something I’ve observed over the years is that very few professional historians are historical reenactors too.  The Society for Creative Anachronism and Civil War battles are things we steer clear of, at least as participants, perhaps because we have no illusions about the glories of the past.  I appreciate the work that dedicated reenactors do, and I admire their interest in using their hobbies to educate other people about history, but it’s not how I want to spend my weekends and vacations.  Give me refrigeration, vaccination, sterile surgery, central heat, ice cubes, and all of the wonders of the modern world.  I like it here.  I’m not going back.

18 thoughts on “Autumn receipts: An umble pie, and some humble thoughts on food and technology

  1. A close family member (okay, I’ll be clear, it’s my mother) tells of growing up on a farm in Ohio and being sent to school with cold fried sausage sandwiches preserved by the lard-immersion method. One simply pulled the pre-fried sausage patties out of the crock, scraped off as much congealed lard as one could, and built a sandwich around it. She remembers her grandmother standing over the stove for hours, frying patty after patty of sausage to make it all possible.

    In my generation, we had a chest freezer, so I missed all that kind of fun, and the blood sausage, too. I’ll never forget my grandfather making ground beef, however, by hooking the meat grinder to the flywheel of his old John Deere. No sore arms from cranking the meat grinder that year!

    [I hope that makes me sound so much older than I am.]

    And if you love pickles or sauerkraut, of course, you’re eating the results of the brining method: only a small step away from the salted beans. These, too, are now year-round consumables.

    And, believe it or not, I knew a Medievalist who was a Civil War re-enactor. He died on a camp-out on such a re-enactment, unfortunately (of natural causes, not related to either battle or old-fashioned food preservation!).


  2. The other day one of my students asked me whether I’d rather live in the Roman Empire or medieval Europe. To which I said, neither, though if I was an aristocrat, maybe Rome.
    So I’m so with you on not going back. Indoor plumbing is a great thing, I think. I don’t mind trying some medieval recipes, but otherwise? Nah.

    I’ll can some jam, though. . .


  3. I’ve tried Hot Dogs in Jelly, you can’t scare me!

    But even after a double-dog dare…… I’m trying to picture walking into the grocery store meat department and asking for “buck humbles.” (Hell, I’m trying to picture asking for “buck humbles” in an actual butcher shop!) I would have had better luck doing this a year or so ago; I knew a lot of guys in the factory who hunted and would presumably have a surfeit of humbles for the asking.

    Modern methods of preservation are one of those things I’m incredibly grateful for, too. (Just Say No to Botulism!) While not a professional historian, I know enough that it was a pretty disgusting time to live. (I wrote that sentence and then wondered, “Well, which time do I mean by ‘it’?” All of them, really.) Nice to learn about, not so nice to experience!


  4. Okay, I don’t know what a humble is, but thanks for the detailed etymology.

    This “where would you live” thing brings up the interesting subject of historical fiction of the bodice-ripper type. If you read the backs of these (and I occasionally do so), the female heroine is always iconoclastic: bucking convention to own her own land, marry who she wants, wrestle wild alligators, whatever. It seems that there are plenty of people (I’m assuming a mostly female audience for this) who would like to project themselves onto the past, but with their present-day rights and values intact.

    Moral of the story: The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.


  5. Why does everyone assume that us historians would perfer to live in the places we study? I’ve never understood that question.

    I was once asked by someone what my favorite war was–to which I replied I wasn’t a big fan of war–I never understood that question either.


  6. Erica, I think anyone who wants to make “umble” or humble pie is going to have to get a hunting license or make friends with a hunter! So, you can try the Piggly Wiggly, but I think the meat counter people will just laugh at you!

    Tom, your stories about life on your family homestead do make you sound much older than you are. And Notorious, I think you’re right about the attractions of historical romances. It’s so easy to flatter readers into thinking they’re forward-thinking, cutting-edge gals if you set a character in the past!

    Susan: Since Joe quotes The Simpsons, I’ll go all Life of Brian and ask, what have the Romans ever done for us? (Although I take your point about indoor plumbing–it really is a marvel, isn’t it!)

    Joe–that’s one of my most favorite Simpsons episodes ever, natch!


  7. Ohhhh, this gives a whole new slant to the proverb “eating humble pie!” It has much more of a twist of humiliation than “eating crow,” now, doesn’t it? (Unless there’s secret info about that phrase too.)

    But don’t people in your neighborhood do the whole “rocky mountain oyster” thing? So this recipe wouldn’t seem _too_ weird to them.


  8. Yes, indeed, Sis–Rocky Mountain oysters (also known as “bull fries”) are a local specialty, although the big joint around here that was famous for them closed last year (Bruce’s Bar, in Severance.) I wouldn’t know where to get them, and as you may have guessed, I’m not in a big rush to try them.


  9. Hey, thanks for the intel, Roger. I’ll have to mosey on up there with the excuse of doing a post on it! (You may have to find some hunter friends, Erica, if it’s too late for you to get your license…)

    And Profane–I’m totally with you on veal. I’ve never understood what people find so great about it, even aside from the animal cruelty angle…I’d rather have something grown up, medium rare, and still bloody…


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