Hey, Henry, What's for Dinner
IN THIS QUADRICENTENNIAL YEAR OF Henry Hudson's accidental discovery of the river that would eventually bear his name, it is interesting to think about what food might have been like in his homeland in the early seventeenth century, and what the Dutch settlers who followed in his wake may have brought with them to the New World. Using period cookbooks, menus from orphanages, diaries, letters, and other sources from both the Old and New World, we can not only learn what was eaten at the time but, better yet, we can recreate it.
When the Dutch came to New Netherland (the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Connecticut and Pennsylvania), they brought seeds for garden vegetables, fruit tree stock, cows, horses and pigs. When a house was built, a kitchen garden was immediately planted, as apple, pear, peach or quince trees. Cows also were part of the farms—there is a record of a cowherd in Haarlem who got a stipend of a half-pound of butter per cow. Records in the Amsterdam Maritime Museum list the cows on each New Netherland farm. Implements needed for cooking familiar dishes also were shipped here—many waffle or wafer irons have been handed down in Dutch families from generation to generation. The Dutch settlers along the coast marveled at the abundance of oysters, as well. Pearl Street in Manhattan, for example, is named for the heaps of oyster shells found there—in 1655, Adriaen van der Donck described how he saw some "a foot long and broad in proportion." A favorite Dutch dessert, olie-koecken, became the forerunner of the doughnut and the edible symbol of the Dutch in America [see "How the donut got its hole," Valley Table 7].
Besides the tangible items, the Dutch also brought us celebrations such as open houses on New Year's Day (a custom that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century), Pinxter (Pentecost), which became an African-American holiday also long celebrated, and, of course, the feast of Saint Nicholas. (Only in the last decade or so was proof of this celebration obtained: A baker's account was found in the New York State Archives that lists sinterklaesgoet, loosely translated as "Saint Nicholas goodies," sold to the Van Rensselaer family in Albany in 1676.)
Dutch artists were fond of depicting foodstuffs, many of which might have been eaten on this side of the Atlantic, as well, and we are lucky to have abundant visual examples of seventeenth-century Dutch food. In The Milk Maid, Johannes Vermeer depicts a young woman making zoete melk met broken, or porridge of milk with crumbled pieces of bread—a dish still prepared by some in the Hudson Valley.
Recently, close to 70 guests enjoyed an "historical dinner" at Crabtree's Kittle House in Chappaqua. This wasn't, of course, a true seventeenth-century meal—after all, though the Kittle House was built in 1790, it is a thoroughly twenty-first-century setting. Further, the meal was served in courses, a relatively modern serving style; modern ingredients were used in its preparation, and it was interpreted by practiced, modern taste buds. On the other hand, each dish served was part of a "story" that explained some element of Dutch foodstuffs of 400 years ago. As the meal progressed, more of the story was revealed—by the end, each diner not only had had a satisfying culinary experience but also was able to unravel some of the culinary secrets of the past.
The meal began with hot mulled "Bishop's wine" (red wine, simmered with oranges, cloves and cinnamon), named for Saint Nicholas, an Eastern Orthodox bishop (later America's "Santa Claus"). Wine and ales were accompanied (as we expect today) by various hors d'oeuvres, including Dutch cheeses, Gouda cheese taert, smoked trout, veal meatballs seasoned with orange zest, oysters poached in verjus (the juice of unripe grapes), and olie-koecken (warm fritters with raisins and almonds).
The four-course dinner consisted of chervil soup, artichoke-and-radish salad and "a Sweet young Chicken Pastey" (the Dutch word for raised pie) served with asparagus, parsnips and carrots. (Think of the chicken dish as a forerunner of today's popular chicken pot pie. In addition to cubed poached chicken pieces, the traditional Dutch version includes pine nuts, pears, prunes, dried cherries and citron and is seasoned with ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and encased in a buttery crust. As the 1683 recipe indicates, it was served with a warmed cream-and-egg liaison poured into a round opening of the top crust at the time of serving.) The meal was finished with apple custard with caraway cookies and Jordan almonds.
In reply to a question whether preparing a recipe hundreds of years old had been difficult, Kittle House Chef Kevin Bertrand laughed, "You have to forget everything you have learned and just do as they tell." Glenn Vogt, partner at the Kittle House, added, "Chefs like challenges, and [they] like to do things they have not done before." The chervil soup, for example, is not thickened with a roux, but with an egg-milk liaison whisked in at the end, making the soup very light and a colorful, pretty green. If necessary, spinach is used as a coloring agent, a fact that surprised the chef. "They did that?" he quipped. "I thought the food in those days was gray." (Actually, food in times past was more entertainment than it is these days, and food highly colored with natural juices added to the excitement of the meal.) Chef Bertrand's favorite dishes were the custard ("My kid will love that") and the caraway cookies.
Although the food duplicates period recipes, the serving style definitely was not seventeenth-century (and neither were the quantities of food or the table manners). The Dutch have been known through the ages as big eaters (and drinkers), though frugal in everyday meals. For "strangers, a great display was made," says Anne Grant in a memoir about her time spent with the Schuyler family near Albany in the late eighteenth century. A much-quoted catering bill still exists for a 1664 meal for 12 people in Groningen, in the northern Netherlands. It lists a hare, a haunch of mutton, roasted veal, a Westphalian ham and half a lamb served with bread, butter, cheese, mustard, anchovies, lemons and wine. Those attending would have brought their own knives, but the hosts might have furnished enough spoons for everyone (forks were not common at the time).
In 1530, Desiderius Erasmus (of Rotterdam) wrote De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (A Handbook on Good Manners for Children). Jacob Cats, a Dutch poet so popular he was referred to as "Father Cats", reiterated Erasmus's advice in one of his poems, noting that one should use only three fingers when taking food from a dish and, further, one should not take the best piece in a dish or stick one's fingers in the salt stand (rather, use a knife to transfer salt to the plate). Good manners were then, as now, a way of living together harmoniously and pleasantly.
The recipes for these traditional dishes can be adapted for a variety of modern settings, not just for dinner. The cheese taert with a salad makes a delicious summer lunch or, together with the meatballs, is ideal for a dinner party. Use crusty wheat bread as the starch for the meal, along with a salad and green beans flavored with freshly grated nutmeg. A dessert of fruit compote paired with the caraway cookies would be an appropriate seasonal ending.
For more traditional Dutch recipes from Peter Rose, including olie-koecken, Dutch cheese pancakes, speculaas brokken and more, visit www.valleytable.com/recipes.