Cooking for the Ages

From Yankee potpie and samp to Polynesian dip and tortillas, a history of the North Fork’s community cookbooks.

By Eileen M. Duffy

The year was 1934, and one Herbert Fordham of Greenport, L.I., wrote a letter to the New York Herald Tribune.

  • Your editorial “Longevity on Cape Cod” is altogether delightful but also is a challenge to every dweller on the East End. Here on the front lawn of the City of New York, a city with one-half of its population on our island now and a far larger proportion soon to be, we enjoy every advantage attributed to Cape Cod, except the psychological advantage of inaccessibility.

Fordham goes on to detail the bounties of the East End: “Are there oysters that are more delicious?” he asks of Robins Island oysters, before continuing to sing the praises of the indigenous scallops, lobsters, flatfish, blackfish, porgies, sea bass, weakfish, striped bass, bluefish, snappers and cod. “No better fish ever swam in the sea or in poetry,” he declares.

It seems we haven’t come that far. The feeling of being the red-headed stepchild, the forgotten fork, just a few hours away from a bustling metropolis, has been dying hard. It is just recently, after much evolution, that the North Fork has become a region known to the outside world for its food and wine. Fordham mentions cranberries in Calverton, Flanders and Montauk that once provided jobs on the East End, and preserves and wine made from “green wild grapes grown on the vines in swampy spots on eastern Long Island.” None is available today.

But Fordham’s defiant missive, absent his rant on the 18th Amendment—Prohibition was repealed a year before he wrote this letter—and praise of the trains and the “first-class concrete roads” on which one need spend only a few hours to get to his paradise, would not be out of place in any East End newspaper today.

The letter comes from the archives of Antoinette Booth, Southold Town historian for the past 18 years. Reading through documents she provided on the history of food in Southold, it seems that 100 years ago North Fork residents were eating what the local food movement is advocating today. Not too long ago,

Booth says, hog killing was a form of entertainment. And people were still trying to convince themselves of the tastiness and nutrition inherent in samp, a porridge made from cracked or bruised kernels of corn, maybe better known as cornmeal mush.

Where it all went wrong was the invention of convenience foods. But, at the same time, the tastes of Southolders became more diverse as new waves of immigrants arrived and imported ingredients became kitchen staples.

Evidence of this is in Booth’s collection of cookbooks—cookbooks of recipes compiled by local service organizations and churches and used as fund-raisers: the Daughters of the American Revolution, Southold Chapter from 1989; the Craft Club of East Marion, 1938; the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement of Suffolk County, 1925; the Stirling Historical Society of Greenport, 1980; the Women’s Society of Christian Service, Orient United Methodist Church, 1970; the Southold Tuesday Club, 1928; and God Bless the Cook, a book to celebrate 125 years of St. Agnes Church in Greenport, 2008.

The Southold Tuesday Club put together its book of 40 recipes to benefit the Cahoon Memorial Library in Southold. The fourby- eight-inch book is held together by two metal rings and contains advertisements from local merchants. The book came out in 1928 and would have set you back 50 cents.

The only prepared foods to go into these recipes were Fleischmann’s yeast (we can give them that one), a can of Campbell’s tomato soup (some things never change), Crisco and a tin of National Biscuit thin chocolate wafers, which are still on grocery shelves as Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers, and, yes, the person who contributed the recipe used them to make an icebox cake.

Ten years later, in 1938, the East Marion Craft Club’s cookbook featured four cranberry recipes: three salads and one relish. The rest of the book is predominately sweets. Here lime Jell-O replaces the ubiquitous gelatin of the earlier books. Shredded Wheat makes its way into a cake, and a “lazy cake” calls for the use of “2 Drake’s or other sponge layer cake.”

The world was evidently coming to Southold, as there was one recipe for American chop suey. And even amid the fields here, one recipe includes a can of corn.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement’s book of 1925 assumes the cooking prowess of its readers. A recipe for Yankee potpie reads: “Stew 1 fowl until tender and make a gravy as for fricassee. Make baking powder biscuits, break open, spread on a platter crust-side down.”

These recipes still rely on erstwhile kitchen staples like suet, lard and molasses.

The books skip a few decades with the next one from 1970 and the Women’s Christian Service of the Orient United Methodist Church. New categories include “Hors d’Oeuvres, Patio and TV Snacks,” “Recreation Room-Patio Dining and Group Serving,” as well as chapters for “Men Only” and “Junior Cooks.” The kitchen was no longer the province of women, and the dining room had moved outdoors and in front of the TV.

We now see margarine, frozen shrimp, dry stuffing herb mix, onion flakes, bouillon, Miracle Whip, Spam, imitation sour cream, cans of Chinese noodles and a recipe for “Chicken Lickin’ Good” that calls for Kraft’s Russian dressing (“no other”), a package of powdered onion soup mix and a jar of apricot preserves. Bisquick is still around. People are still in need of recipes for canning their own produce, but canned pineapple is everywhere.

Unlike the earlier books, the Orient United Methodist Church has quite a few recipes for clams. The women in the ’20s and ’30s cooked oysters, usually under the broiler, but recipes for clams were scarce. The last chapter, “Recipes from Foreign Lands,” includes tabbouleh, flan, vitello tonnato and a recipe for flour tortillas.

By 1980, when Stirling Recipes, organized by the Stirling Historical Society of Greenport, made its debut, guacamole and Polynesian dip (they still loved that canned pineapple) joined the mix, as recipes from immigrants were now as much a part of the food culture as salt pork, potatoes and oysters.

And despite the passage of time since the East End’s rural days, the contributors share some sense of what has been lost. There’s still canned asparagus (which might be anathema today), but one recipe mentions that November is National Onion Month, which would be a good time to “celebrate this abundant North Fork vegetable.” The cans of cream of mushroom/ celery/chicken soup are still en force (sometimes in the same recipe) but are in danger of being taken over by dried soup. Cheese, however, has taken a leap forward. In the earlier books, only American cheese was called for. Now we’ve got cheddar, Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella. Scallops now join the oysters and clams, as well as eel. People are still canning, making relish and pickles and preserving fruit.

The Daughters of the Early Settlers cookbook of 1989 introduces Cheez Whiz, and, like the previous book, relies on packaged stuffing, the ever-present pimentos and frozen vegetables.

Which brings us to the present day. The book by St. Agnes Church, published in 2008, contains cocktails, the first mention of fresh asparagus and refrigerator rolls, and the timeless standbys Bisquick and bouillon cubes. But one recipe calls for fresh okra, a rarity almost anywhere; leeks show up, as well as acorn squash.

It also showcases the diet of the church’s large Hispanic congregation, with recipes for plantains, arroz con pollo and dulce de tres leches.

What happened to the casserole? It was replaced by buffalo chicken wings.

Overall, in the earlier books, recipes for baked goods predominate; meat entrées take care of themselves once they are thrown on the grill or roasted in the oven. Early last century, cooks cooked their salad dressing in a double boiler; today we pour it from a bottle.  Would Herbert Fordham be proud? Recipes for the fish worthy of swimming in poetry are scant. Wild grapes aren’t mentioned.  Cranberries now are in cans or imported from elsewhere. No doubt North Forkers were eating the fish that surrounded them; they just didn’t need recipes for them, or for vegetables. It was something they ate every day. The canned soup and Jell-O were for special occasions.

Fordham ends his letter with some clear-eyed realism and sanguine encouragement, creating his own proverb: “You can find more stale food badly cooked at the East End than in many a New York restaurant.” For him, he “who seeketh with understanding, however, shall be certain, the inestimable reward.”