Strange, isn't it, we remark to Sandra L. Oliver — founder and editor of Food History News — that Americans in the 19th century ate foods such as robins and calf's foot jelly and boiled eels.
She cautions against criticism of previous generations or other cultures. "You are safer not talking 'strange' but rather, perhaps, neglected or abandoned eating habits," she says. "That would include almost any offal — that is, livers, spleen, kidneys, heart, brains, sweetbreads, et cetera."
In fact, says Oliver, author of several books, including Food in Colonial and Federal America, Americans once feasted on fish heads. And folks in other parts of the world still do. But "we seldom eat boiled puddings — batters made from flour, sugar, suet, eggs, et cetera, boiled in a cloth," she says. "Most people don't like a gummy texture — we don't eat marrow very much, not at table. If we eat it, the chef has extracted it and included it."
Like us, she says, "19th century Americans liked meat, potatoes and a side of vegetables with dessert to follow and bread and butter along with."
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But they did have some surprises in their cookbooks. Here are four:
1) Robin Pie. Robins must have been popular on American tables in the 1800s. "The robins of the North have been driven South by the severity of the weather," reported the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette on Feb. 8, 1868, "and the people of Pensacola are shooting and eating them." Here's a recipe from Wehman's Cook Book, published in 1890: "Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins, previously rolled in flour, stuffed as above, season with a teaspoonful of salt, a quarter ditto of pepper, one of chopped parsley, and one of chopped eschalots, lay a bay-leaf over, add a gill of broth, and cover with three quarters of a pound of half puff taste, bake one hour in a moderate oven, shake well to make the gravy in the pie form a kind of sauce, and serve quite hot." Today robins — and scores of other birds — are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 2) Terrapin Stew. During the Gilded Age and some years after, one of the "nastiest and most difficult jobs" in the American kitchen — writes food historian Barbara Haber in her 2002 From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals -- was "preparing stewed terrapin, a mud turtle dish that was much in demand a hundred years ago but now has all but disappeared from the American table."
She cites instructions from the 1902 volume, Mrs. Seely's Cook Book, to "select live female terrapins, cover them with boiling water, and cook for ten minutes. Remove from the fire, and when sufficiently cooked, scrape the skin and pull out the toe nails."
Terrapin was an acquired taste and much enjoyed by Grover Cleveland and Franklin Roosevelt and members of private men's clubs around the country, Haber says. The dish has fallen out of favor because few folks are inclined to eat reptiles these days — and "would not know how to cook them even if they were."
3) Calf's Foot Jelly. Though calf's foot jelly is not talked about much anymore in the nation's kitchens, Sandy Oliver says that many contemporary Americans are still eating variations of calf's foot jelly — whether they know it or not. "Gelatin comes from ligament-rich animal parts," she says, "a byproduct of slaughterhouses." Home Cookery: A Collection of Tried Receipts, Both Foreign and Domestic by Mrs. J. Chadwick, 1853, offered this recipe: "Boil four feet in one gallon of water till reduced to two quarts. Strain and let stand over night. Take off the fat and add to the jelly one pint of wine, the juice of four lemons, and the whites of eight eggs. Stir it well together and sweeten to your taste. Let it boil half an hour, then skim and put into a flannel bag to drain. Should it run through in a stream, it must be returned again and again, until it will pass the bag only in quick drops."
4) Boiled Eels. From The American Home Cook Book: With Several Hundred Excellent Recipes by An American Lady, 1864, comes this method: "Use small ones; stew with plenty of parsley, in very little water. The parsley must be served as well. For sauce, use parsley chopped fine, and melted butter with it."
The Future Of American Cuisine
OK, sure. Some Americans somewhere may still eat some of these foods. But finding recipes for these dishes in today's basic cookbooks is a challenge.
So we ask our food historians one more question: "Can you think of some foods that we eat today that we might consider strange in 100 years?"
In the future, says Sandy Oliver, "I hope they think bright-colored children's cereal will be considered peculiar, or all these fluorescent vitamin waters."
And Barbara Haber tells NPR, "As for what I think will be considered strange in the future, I would turn to 'modernist food,' sometimes known as 'molecular gastronomy' in which recognizable foods are transformed through chemical intervention into strange and novel creations."
Many current top chefs are followers of this trend, she says, "but I would expect that it will run its course and we will get back to foods as they are found in nature."