Garden to Table, Circa 1650
FARM TO TABLE. THAT PHRASE now appears on menus, websites, blogs—it sounds so up-to-the-minute, so modern. Yet, looking at Het Vermakelijk Land-leven (The Pleasurable Country Life), a seventeenth-century Dutch gardening book, it’s immediately clear that the concept is centuries old. The book contains De Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook)—the only cookbook left from the Dutch Golden Age, which explains how to prepare the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden to best advantage.
This 342-year-old book helps us understand the contents and purpose of kitchen gardens of the early Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley. It clarifies what seeds and trees were brought to the New World and offers insights into the colonial diet.
It seems probable that if Dutch settlers of the last quarter of the seventeenth century brought books with them to the New World, The Pleasurable Country Life might have been among them. Many copies are held in libraries all across America. First published in 1667, it contains a wealth of information on gardening, orchards, beekeeping, herbs, distilling, medicines and food preservation.
Why these kinds of gardening books were popular with the well-to-do, upper-middle class of the Netherlands is made clear in the introduction to the first section, “The Dutch Gardener,” by Jan van der Groen. He expounds that country life is pleasurable, as it lures people to where the air is pleasant and sweet, and where everything one needs “in food and sustenance has to be taken from the land, from the orchard, and the garden, which can be had fresher and [as] a better buy than in the cities.” Van der Groen also sees life in the country as healthier and perhaps “holier”—there are “multiple things with which to glorify, laud, thank and praise the great Creator.” Van der Groen even lists various people who have written poems about their country houses, including Dutch botanist Petrus Hondius and the country’s most famous poet of the era, Jacob Cats.
All of this makes clear that the upper middle class at the time thought highly of country living. People made their gardens into a lusthof, or Garden of Delight. There was a distinct difference between the French garden (this was when Louis XIV used 36,000 workers to create his gardens at Versailles) and the Dutch garden, with its simpler house and garden, which was walled or bordered by canals.
In this handy book, each plant and tree is discussed separately; the book even contains a planting calendar and advice on grafting and other techniques. There was a great interest in fruit and produce at the time. The first herbal, written in Dutch and therefore more accessible, was printed in 1554. The cities of Leiden and Amsterdam had (and still have) a Hortus Botanicus filled with native and foreign plants brought to Dutch shores by seafarers and traders from countries as far away as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the Americas.
Van der Groen’s information, combined with what was written by Petrus Nijlant in the second part of the book, as well as the recipes in The Sensible Cook, suggest what might have been available and known to the settlers who came to the New World. More information is contained in Adriaen van der Donck’s description of New Netherland’s kitchen gardens in A Description of New Netherland (The Iroquoians and Their World), recently re-translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys and edited by Dr. Charles Gehring and William Starna (University of Nebraska Press, 2010; $24.95 softcover). Jeremiah van Rensselaer’s correspondence (1651–1674) and Maria van Rensselaer’s letters give more contemporary impressions of New Netherland.
The Dutch colony was a vast area wedged between New England and Virginia. The settlers who came here brought with them seeds, tree stock and cattle. Kitchen gardens were started as soon as a house was built. The settlers contributed the foodstuffs we now readily associate with the Hudson River Valley: cabbage, carrots, peas, onions, parsnips and turnips; herbs such as parsley, rosemary or chives, and fruits such as apples, pears and peaches. Van der Donck reports that by 1655 they all “thrive well.” In his 1749– 1750 diary a century later, Swedish botanist Peter Kalm marvels at peach trees bearing such abundant fruit that roaming pigs gorge themselves.
The Dutch brought with them various apple and pear trees as well as cherry trees, which “thrive[s] remarkably well.” They also introduced peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, almonds, persimmons, cornel cherries, figs, several kinds of currants, Dutch gooseberries, licorice and clove trees. Van der Donck sums up: “[I]n short, many kinds of fruit trees and plant varieties that grow in this country [the Netherlands] are now  already plentiful in New Netherland or are being imported by fanciers.” Incidentally, he credits the English for introducing the quince.)
Van der Donck goes on to discuss the plethora of vegetables available: “The vegetables in New Netherland are many and varied, some known of old among the Indians, others brought over from other parts, though mostly from the Netherlands.” They comprise several varieties of lettuce, cabbage, parsnips, yellow and red carrots, beets, endive, chicory, fennel, sorrel, dill, spinach, radishes, horseradish, parsley, chervil, onions, chives and “whatever else is normally in a cabbage or kitchen garden” besides laurel, artichokes and asparagus.
He also lists what grows in the herb gardens: rosemary, lavender, hyssop, thyme, sage, marjoram, balm, garlic, wormwood, (an ingredient in absinthe, bitters and vermouth) toadflax, (a bitter herb related to the snapdragon) leek, clary (grown for its oils), burnet, dragon’s blood (a dye), cinquefoil (used to reduce fever and internal bleeding) and tarragon.
It’s often fascinating to see how some of those fruits and vegetables were prepared and brought to the Dutch table of the time. Apples, for example, were eaten with mutton, tripe or blood sausage, mixed with red cabbage as well as sauerkraut, and dipped in batter and deep fried. Medicinally, they were used against diarrhea and heartburn or used as a plaster on infections or to reduce the pain from breast cancer. The Sensible Cook uses apples in pancakes and has five recipes for raised apple pies. Small, young artichokes were eten raw with a little sauce of oil and vinegar with pepper, salt and sugar. The Sensible Cook uses them precooked in stews; Van der Groen’s co-author and physician, Petrus Nijlant, proclaimed “they increase carnal appetites.” Asparaus were boiled and then eaten with oil, vinegar and pepper or with melted butter and a sprinkling of ground nutmeg. The Sensible Cook also uses them in a hutspot (stew) of mutton. Beans, lentils and peas were the main ingredients for a mush or thick soup called potagie that was the daily fare of the poor. They were cultivated in the fields in the way of grain and were grown in our area, as well.
Cabbage was cooked with milk and bacon or with some meat. There were many varieties in use:
- Red cabbage was cultivated extensively in the Low Lands and exported to Germany, France and England.
- White cabbage, conically shaped, was used for sauerkraut, which was served aboard ship to prevent scurvy.
- Savoy cabbage, from the area between southern France and Italy, is sensitive to spring frost. The Sensible Cook prepares it in mutton broth or serves it with the broth, olive oil and salt.
- Green cabbage was widely cultivated in or around the city of Leyden, earning this cabbage the moniker “Leyden cabbages.” From Albany, Jeremiah van Rensselaer asked his family to send him seeds for this variety. Red and green cabbages were used in coleslaw in Albany, as we know from Peter Kalm’s diary. Green cabbage leaves often were used as bandages or plasters.
Cauliflower was considered a fine (therefore expensive) vegetable. The Sensible Cook has two recipes—in one, cauliflower is stewed in mutton broth with pepper, salt and nutmeg and topped with minced cooked egg yolks. It is also used together with Jerusalem artichokes, endive and celery in an elaborate stew of chicken, mutton, pigeons, sheep feet, small meatballs and sausages. Cherries were cultivated in Flanders and around the cities of Breda and Utrecht. They were an expensive fruit in the Netherlands and settlers must have been very happy that cherry trees “thrived” in New Netherland. Cherries were used in jams or syrup, as well as in tarts. Cucumbers and lettuces were used for salads— the cucumbers often were cut ahead of time, sprinkled with salt and set aside until ready to use. (The Sensible Cook uses them that way and also gives a recipe for pickles; Petrus Nijlant suggests pickling them with fennel seed, horseradish and spices and says “they increase the appetite.”) Salads consisted of a large variety of greens with green herbs and edible flowers. They were eaten at the beginning of the meal “to open the stomach,” as a period physician advised. This might be where the American custom originated.
Gooseberries medicinally were used to prevent miscarriages. The Sensible Cook bakes the berries in a raised pie. Van der Donck marvels at the profusion of grapes that grew wild in New Netherland. He said that with some “human industry” these could be made into wines “as good as from any quarter of Germany or France” (where the Dutch purchased their wines). When those wines were sent to New Netherland they often were mixed with local wine (as we learn from the Van Rensselaer correspondence). Unripe grapes can be marinated in vinegar with mustard seed and served as a relish, or be used for verjus, a common flavoring at the time that is coming back into favor.
Petrus Hondius, who wrote a long poem about his country house, tells how he cultivated seven different kinds of melons in his garden (though period doctors advised against their use). All these varieties originated in southern countries like Egypt or Greece. Onions are among the oldest cultivated plants in the world; in the Netherlands, onions were a daily food. Farmers ate them raw with bread in the fields, and onions were used medicinally as well.
Parsnips were, together with carrots, cabbages, onions and turnips, the most usual vegetables and important food for the poor in a time when potatoes were not yet eaten. The Sensible Cook has a recipe for a mutton stew with parsnips and “all sorts of greens.” Yellow carrots were cooked, but others were eaten raw with salt and oil.
Pears usually were slow-cooked with a bit of pepper, a little sugar, cinnamon and saffron. They were also prepared as a syrup. The Sensible Cook has recipes for candying pears wet or dry, and one for a delicious pear tart with Zante currant. Plums, along with peaches and apricots, had long Sensible Cook bakes plums in an open-faced tart with egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and melted butter, and also makes them into preserves and fruit leather.
Pompioenen (pumpkins, squash or gourds) are discussed in Petrus Nijlant’s garden calendar. He separates two kinds: wijfkens (little women), which are long without ribs, and the mannekens (little men), which are round and have clear ribs. Van der Donck remarks that in the Netherlands they are considered poor, insipid food, but in New Netherland they were well thought of and said to taste like apples when baked.
Raspberries are known to be thirst-quenching and they were therefore made into syrup. The Sensible Cook has no specific recipe, but adds to the one for cherry tart “that in this way all soft fruit can be used.” Strawberries were eaten with cream and sugar but also used in tarts. Van der Donck marvels about their abundance—strawberry picking (armed with a bottle of cream) became a social occasion for young folks in the eighteenth century, as Anne Grant tells us in her Memoirs of an American Lady of 1809. In the late Middle Ages, forest strawberries were brought to castle gardens to be cultivated. In New Netherland, cultivated strawberries and other soft fruit were sold at market in earthenware cups with a hole in the bottom for drainage. These were layered about 30 to a basket and usually transported by boat to market. Native Americans used small woven baskets for transporting berries. Medicinally, strawberries were used against scurvy— they were made into jam to take on sea voyages. The Sensible Cook has recipes for a tart of strawberries flavored with sugar and cinnamon and another recipe for jam.
Through their food choices and preferences, the Dutch in the New World left a lasting mark on America’s kitchen, as well as on American life—settlers brought not only tree stock, seeds and cattle to the new land, but also their culture, customs and, of course, their recipes. Donuts, pretzels, coleslaw, pancakes, waffles, wafers and, above all, cookies—all part of America’s culinary heritage—were brought here by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The Dutch words koolsla (coleslaw) and koekjes (cookies) were even adopted into American English with only a slight transformation. Recipes for these and many other Dutch foods can be found in hand-written manuscript cookbooks, spanning more than three centuries, that belonged to the descendants of these settlers.