Harvest of Discontent program highlights Colonial-era food handling

October 20, 2023

This past weekend, the Lewes Historical Society presented a set of immersive programs on its Shipcarpenter Street campus. Called Harvest of Discontent, the two-day event portrayed life in Lewistown (as it was then called) during the pre-Revolutionary time of 1773. Authentically garbed interpreters were on site to ply a variety of Colonial-era trades. You could watch the blacksmith working over a burning coal fire as he forged iron hooks-and-eyes designed to keep shutters closed.

The tailor sat cross-legged, sewing the edge of a woolen jacket, making sure to point out that at this time, tailors were not just adjusting the fit or style of a garment; they crafted clothing from whole cloth and waxed thread. Nearby, the laundress scoured the inside of her basin with cut lemon dipped in salt, not wishing to leave any murky residue on her batch of washing. And, to create colorful garb, Lucie Allen demonstrated how to use indigo and madder to dye plain fabric into blues and reds, and shades in between.

Sailmakers worked in the schoolhouse, where there was enough space for them to spread out the canvas and smooth the seams. The sutler had his goods arrayed for sale, just as he would when following the troops. More than one brave visitor stepped forward for a shave with a straight razor, just one more service offered by this versatile entrepreneur. Business was brisk at the newly opened coffee shop, which offered coffee, teas and heritage chocolate.

As you may imagine, live music in the Sussex Tavern brought thirsty visitors inside to sample authentic cocktails from the era. The musket-firing demonstration was exciting, and after the first rounds failed to fire (perhaps the previous day’s rain created too much moisture) the final blast startled the crowd and drew a hearty round of applause. I missed the bare-knuckles demonstration by discontented pugilists, but I understand it was well-received.

My favorite spot was near the fire where several men were demonstrating food preservation techniques. In the photo, Ryan Schwartz, LHS director of interpretation, stirs a pot of simmering strawberries on their way to becoming tasty jam. With only a few ingredients – strawberries, sugar and lemon – this was like eating summer with a spoon. 

Because they didn’t have commercial pectin at this time, the cooking step was quite lengthy. Once the mixture thickened, the jam was decanted into stoneware jars and would be covered with pig’s bladder to be stored. Since he couldn’t find pig’s bladder, Ryan used a wax-coated material as a substitute to protect the flavor and texture of the jam.

Also seen at right in the photo are apple rings on a string, drying for storage. Of course, they’re Johnathan apples, one of the few heritage varieties that would have been available at this time and is still found today, but in short supply. The smaller pot in the foreground is brine for the cucumber pickles that would be flavored with garlic and dill. Finally, there were fresh green beans destined for salting to keep them preserved.

I’ve included a recipe for the strawberry jam, which will be more like a conserve, not quite as thick as the commercial jams we see today, but bursting with authentic flavor and noticeable fruit texture. Quick-brining cucumbers are easy to make in today’s kitchens, offering a crisp slice of salty crunch. I hadn’t considered the use of salt to preserve vegetables, but it makes sense, as that was how meat was preserved. Now you can try your hand at preserving your food like it was 1773.

Simple Strawberry Jam

2 lbs strawberries
juice of 2 lemons
2 C raw sugar

Rinse, hull and roughly chop the strawberries. Cover the bottom of the saucepan with sugar, then alternate layers of strawberries and sugar. Add lemon juice and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often. Strawberries will begin to disintegrate and mixture will begin to thicken. Cook until mixture reaches a jam-like consistency and falls from a spoon in thick drops, about 1 hour. Transfer into storage jars and cover tightly. Keep in a cool place until ready to serve.

Pickled Cucumbers

2 C white vinegar
2 C water
3 T salt
1 egg
3 cucumbers
2 T snipped dill
4 sliced garlic cloves

Combine vinegar, water and salt in a saucepan; bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Once the brine has cooled, test the salt content by trying to float a fresh egg. If it doesn’t float, add more salt and repeat boiling process. Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and then into thick half-moon shapes. Place some cucumber slices in each jar, layering them with dill and garlic. Pour the brine into the jars and seal. Keep cool until ready to serve (today that would be in the refrigerator).

Preserved green beans

This is an ongoing process of preserving the harvest as it comes in from the garden. Begin with the first batch of freshly picked green beans: Wash, dry in a colander, and either leave them whole (if small enough) or cut them on the diagonal. Thoroughly clean a resealable jar with a mouth wide enough to accommodate your fist. Drop about four handfuls of beans in the jar and then sprinkle them with a handful of salt. Seal the jar and shake to disperse the salt. After a few days, the salt will dissolve in the moisture from the beans. When more beans are ready to harvest, repeat the process until the jar is full, pressing down on the beans each time. Store the jar in a cool place. The day before you want to serve them, pull out a few handfuls and rinse well. Put them in a saucepan, cover with cold water and the lid, and let sit overnight. The next day, replace the water with fresh and simmer the beans until tender. Season to taste with white pepper.

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