Salem has a brand new cookbook out just in time for the holiday season: Salem’s Cookin‘, the Official Chamber of Commerce Cookbook. I kind of wish it had more historical recipes, as Salem has quite a few culinary claims to fame, but I’m sure I’m the only person with this wish as it features a range of recipes for dishes served at the city’s most popular restaurants and offerings from other establishments and individuals which seem surprisingly doable. It’s a very practical cookbook as well a showcase of Salem’s culinary landscape. Still, I’d rather read about food than attempt to make it so I thought I would mark the occasion with a survey of Salem cookbooks, beginning with the serious and mysterious The American Matron; or Practical and Scientific Cookery published in 1851 by an anonymous “housekeeper” who lived in Salem. This housekeeper was quite the cook, quite the chemist really, and quite the writer, and I’ve been trying to find out who she was for quite some time, with no success.
As its title implies, The American Matron is a very practical cookbook as well, so practical that it often seems as concerned with preventing food spoilage and consequential poisoning as offering up recipes that are easy to make and pleasant to eat. The instructions for pickle storage below are very representative of its author’s tone throughout: warning her readers not to keep their pickles in pottery or metal containers due to arsenic and acid, she concludes that One may not be instantly poisoned after eating pickles prepared or kept in such vessels; but if constantly used, a deleterious influence must be operated on the health from this cause, even when lest suspected. This is a text which begins with the proper storage of water and reads more like a public health manual than a cookbook in places, but it also includes scores of recipes for both traditional New England dishes as well as more exotic concoctions featuring ingredients from around the globe, highlighting Salem’s continuous seaport status. There are a lot of interesting seafood recipes in particular, all stressing the necessity of using just-off-the-boat ingredients. It is also a manual for housekeeping, containing instructions for dyes, cleaning agents, and pest control that one might see in the more random printed recipe collections of the early modern era: my favorite is her very nineteenth-century prescription for how to remove the black Dye left on the skin from wearing mourning in hot weather. That’s a predicament I never considered before reading this book!
I can’t find any Salem cookbooks from the later nineteenth century, so I guess that brings us to a collection of historical recipes gathered together under the title What Salem Dames Cooked and published as a fundraiser for the Esther Mack Industrial School in 1910. Like many Salem creations of this particular time, this little volume expresses a Colonial Revival view of the past with its ye olde type and terms, and it was reissued about a decade ago in a glossy reprint so it is widely available. Moving forward another half century, the Hamilton Hall Cook Book was published by the Chestnut Street Associates as a fundraiser for Hamilton Hall just after World War II. Its recipes are quite minimalist, but as it contains both the iconic 1907 photo of Hall caterer Edward Cassell and a lovely illustration of the Hall’s Rumford Roaster I think it must be my favorite Salem cookbook. Old copies turn up on ebay rather regularly but I think Hamilton Hall should reprint it!
A Mary Harrod Northend photograph of the students at the Esther C. Mack School, Historic New England; Mr. Cassell making his deliveries in front of the Peirce-Nichols House.
I am sure there must be more later twentieth-century Salem cookbooks: perhaps issued by ladies’ committees of a church or the Hospital? But the only one I have in my possession is Served in Salem, published in 1981 by the Ladies Committee of the Essex Institute. Both the Hamilton Hall Cook Book and Served in Salem feature lots of recipes with ready-made, canned and frozen ingredients, in stark contrast to The American Matron: twentieth-century cooks didn’t have to worry about preservation and were apparently interested in as many shortcuts as possible. Served in Salem emphasizes entertaining: there are many “party” dishes and featured table settings which showcase the Essex Institute’s collections. Like its Chestnut Street predecessor, however, Served in Salem also features several nods to the past, including a letter from Sally Ropes Orne to her brother Nathaniel which reveals in great detail the Christmas dinner she served to her guests in the family mansion in 1848. It’s so great, and brings us back to the time of of The American Matron, though Sally writes from the perspective of a gracious hostess rather than a practical housekeeper. The dinner began with a toast with sherry, Maderia and hock (which she disdains as too expensive for the taste), then came in the oyster soup, followed by boiled chickens and a ham with caper sauce, mashed potatoes and squash. The next course featured a “noble turkey” accompanied by gravy and liver sauce and more mashed potatoes, this time “browned on top and marked off in diamonds,” which was followed by deserts: plum pudding with hard sauce, mince pies, and cream pudding. Everything was then removed, including the white tablecloth, and the meal was completed with Baldwin apples, grapes, nuts and raisins, along with more sherry. She concludes that “every article was charmingly cooked” and assures her brother that the day went off finely.
Christmas Dinner Service in the Ropes Mansion, from Served in Salem (1981).