Colonial Dinner Parties Meant Cocktails, Conversation Guests at the governor's dinner table in 18th century Virginia had one thing in common with even the poorest households — a love of drink.
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Colonial Dinner Parties Meant Cocktails, Conversation

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Colonial Dinner Parties Meant Cocktails, Conversation

Colonial Dinner Parties Meant Cocktails, Conversation

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(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANK CLARK (Supervisor, Department of Historic Foodways, Colonial Williamsburg): Okay, yeah. We've got our whisk. We've got our grater. We've got pitchers of wine and cream and sugar and some lemons.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

That's Frank Clark, supervisor of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg with the ingredients for a dessert drink that was very popular in the 18th century: syllabub.

We met him just before Christmas in the Governor's Palace kitchen to talk about the eating habits of the colonists. He's going to show us how to make syllabub, but we also wanted to know more about the role food played in the early years of our nation. Clark says the meal on the table reflected the class of the diners. The wealthiest class included the governor, other palace residents and their guests.

Mr. CLARK: The key here is variety. Only poor people have one meat or no meat. If you're the royal governor, as a general rule of thumb, you should have a meat and a side for each guest at the table for the first course and for the second course - those are the two main courses. Then there would be a very light dessert course consisting of candied fruits and nuts and jellies and jams and syllabub, which we'll get to in a little bit. But two very large courses and then a light course at the end.

HANSEN: And then the gentry class, what would they eat?

Mr. CLARK: The middling sort are going to go and try their best to follow the example set by the very wealthy, but of course cannot afford to put out the kind of quantities that they are. So, more meat and potatoes kind of a menu as such in the middling sort of household.

HANSEN: And if you were poor, what would you do, just end up with a one-pot meal?

Mr. CLARK: One-pot meals, exactly right. Most folks, if you look at the cooking equipment in their household, they have one cast iron pot and that's about it.

HANSEN: However, all colonial Americans, regardless of class, had one thing in common: They loved to drink. Not water - that was considered unsafe. Alcohol, on the other hand, was thought to cure the sick, strengthen the weak and liven the aged and make the world a better place. Beer and hard cider were very popular, as were drinks with such names as rattleskull, bogus, toddy, flip and, of course, syllabub.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: All right. So, syllabub, where do we start?

Mr. CLARK: Well, you start probably with the lemons. What we'll need to do is grate the outer rind off of our three lemons. I'll just do that on the big grater here.

(Soundbite of grating)

Mr. CLARK: Get as much of that lemon rind...

HANSEN: Frank Clark says food played a leading role in the social lives of 18th century Virginians. And an elaborate feast at the governor's table sent a message.

Mr. CLARK: Well, it shows your wealth and it shows your hospitality, even at the royal governor's household. He is paying for this food out of his pocket. So, if you were lucky enough to get an invitation, and he's putting out all this food, it's a clear indication that he wants you to be happy.

HANSEN: It must have also been a place where people could get together and just talk. Social occasion was also for information, too, correct?

Mr. CLARK: Absolutely. This is where you get our news. And as a guest or diner at the table, it is your responsibility to provide entertainment for your fellow guests. You don't go there to shovel food in your face and sit there. You do that, you'll never get another invitation to the governor's again.

HANSEN: We're sitting in front of a giant hearth. Was that the main source of heat for your cooking?

Mr. CLARK: Yes. The cooking was done in this household, at the royal governor's house, by European cooks. The very, very wealthy in England hired French cooks, because they were considered the best. So, they brought their cooks with them from England. When they got here, English folks and French folks, for that matter, had never cooked on a wood fire. By this time, wood is gone. On a little island like England, there is no longer available.

So, their fuel has changed from wood to coal or charcoal or peat. So, when they come to Virginia and they see a wood-burning fireplace in this kitchen, they change it. They put in a grate that holds charcoal. They put in a stove that burns charcoal. And they set this kitchen up to be just like their kitchens back home so that they can prepare the same kinds of cuisines and dishes that the governor was used to at home.

HANSEN: There's a crackling fire burning in the kitchen's hearth keeping us warm while Frank Clark shows me how to make syllabub.

Mr. CLARK: Now, what we're going to do is simply add our white wine. Equal portions in this case, about a pint of each.

HANSEN: That's two cups of...

Mr. CLARK: They call this Rhenish wine because it comes - or Rhenish wine -because comes from the Rhine in the Rhine Valley in Germany. So, German white wine there. And then, yeah, about two cups of the cream as well. And you want to use a heavy cream. This is not a health dessert. This is a holiday dessert, okay? And then the rest you can call for, well, there are about 12, 14 different versions of syllabub, but it can be up to a pound of sugar that's added in.

HANSEN: A pound of sugar?

Mr. CLARK: It can be up to a pound of sugar.

HANSEN: The lemon begins to curd the cream.

Mr. CLARK: Exactly right. It's the lemon juice and the alcohol and the white wine that is curdling the cream. And so what we're going to do is simply stir it. We're going to stir this for about maybe 5 to 10 minutes. As we stir it, it's going to start getting thicker and thicker and thicker. And you'll be able to feel it. Let's get you on there.

HANSEN: Get me on the whisk.

Mr. CLARK: Whisk away there for a minute.

HANSEN: While Frank Clark hunts for one of the syllabub recipes, I whisk the ingredients together. Now, there is no anachronistic mixer or a metal whisk in this kitchen. I'm working with a bunch of small birch branches that have been tied together with twine. Everything in the Governor's Palace kitchen - the copper pots, iron pans and ceramic pitchers - are handcrafted reproductions of what the 18th century chefs would've used.

You know, we live in an age, you know, you know exactly how much time it takes to make something. How did they do it here?

Mr. CLARK: Experience. It's your experience that tells you the food's done even today. The buzzer goes off, you don't pull that right out of the oven. You open it up and you look. You shake it around, you poke it, whatever you do that allows you to realize that it's finished and it's ready to go. And they did the same thing all the time.

The difference is we put things in our oven and then we go off and do something else. Two hundred years ago, you were not leaving this room. You're watching those things as they're baking so you're always there. It's not a set it and forget it - it's a constant watching.

If you look at the recipes of the 18th century, they almost never give times because time is only relevant if you know the temperature, and we're not using thermometers. So, if you look at a cake or a baking recipe, they'll describe the oven temperature in terms of speed: a quick oven, a moderate oven, a slack oven; high, medium, low.

What you're going to do is you're going to stick your arm into that brick oven after it's been preheated, and you're going to feel the heat level. Now, no one can stick their arm in an oven and tell whether it's 350 or 375. So, we forget all about Mr. Fahrenheit and his little temperature scale and think about ovens in terms of heat levels.

HANSEN: Are there special dishes that would've been prepared during the holiday season?

Mr. CLARK: Not so much yet. The idea of a particular meal for a particular holiday is really a very late 19th, early 20th century occurrence in our country. There are a few things that did sort of mark the Christmas season in 18th century Virginia. One of them was a piece known as a rich cake. And the rich cake you can really think of as our fruit cake of today.

And they will have a pound cake base. Just about all your cakes start off as a pound cake, which is, of course, a pound of flour, pound of butter, a pound of sugar and a pound of eggs. And then to that we're adding candied fruit peels, candied nuts, spices, brandy to create this rich cake.

You also see a recipe for something called a Yorkshire Christmas pie. Down in the South today in America we have a dish called a Turducken. Well, you may be familiar with this. This is a series of birds stuffed into each other. The same thing with the Yorkshire Christmas pie. It's actually seven different animals deboned, stuffed and then put into each other and then placed into a giant, very hard coffin shell and baked.

In Virginia here, surprisingly enough, one of the things we see consistently mentioned at Christmastime is rockfish. Of course, this is the time of year where the rockfish come into the bay to spawn. So, they're available and you would be catching them and eating them for Christmas at that time as well.

HANSEN: By this point, the curdled lemon cream is pretty thick, and my arms are getting pretty tired. Frank Clark says if I whisk too much I'll end up with lemon butter. Thankfully, he tells me to stop.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CLARK: So, yeah, that one's pretty thick, good consistency. Now, what we're going to do is pour this into the glasses. What'll happen is over the next couple of hours, this is going to separate out. And what you'll do is you'll have a foam on the top that you eat with a spoon and the white wine below. Do not refrigerate it.

HANSEN: I was going to ask...

Mr. CLARK: You have already - if you refrigerate it, it takes forever to separate out. You've already curdled the cream by adding wine and lemon juice to it. So there's no point in keeping it in the refrigerator now. You're making a cheese here. This is an intentional cheesing of the cream. So, if you sit it out on the counter, in fact, the recipe for everlasting syllabub says to sit them out for up to a week and they get better as they age.

HANSEN: So, you just eat this and then drink it.

Mr. CLARK: And then you drink (unintelligible).

HANSEN: And then you're very happy.

Mr. CLARK: Exactly right. In fact, that's what happened to Little Miss Muffet. You remember her? She was sitting on her...

HANSEN: Sat on her tuffet, curds and whey?

Mr. CLARK: ...eating her curds and whey. This is curds and whey. Any milk solid and liquid is considered a curds and whey. That's why she saw the spiders. Too many syllabubs and all that wine, and you got to be careful.

HANSEN: Poor Little Miss Muffet.

Mr. CLARK: Well, that's the point of rhyme, is to remind your parents that your children are drinking alcohol. They drank it every day. Safer than water, right? But you don't want them to have too much or they'll start seeing spiders like Little Miss Muffet.

HANSEN: Frank Clark is the supervisor of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. You can watch a video of Frank making the syllabub at our blog NPR.org/Soapbox.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Happy New Year. I'm Liane Hansen.

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