Armchair Forager: The First Invasivores

July 17, 2012

Portrait of First Lady Martha Washington

Were George and Martha the country’s first invasivores?

Did George Washington eat weeds? Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, a beautifully annotated volume of family recipes, suggests that the first First Lady had a few on the menu at Mt. Vernon.

For two hundred years, it was assumed that Martha’s book was compiled in Virginia during the Washington’s forty-year marriage. In the 1970s, culinary historian Karen Hess went through the collection, and found that all of the recipes were for English species. Martha Washington had been married twice. The cookbook came into her keeping in 1749, around the time of her marriage to Daniel Custis in colonial Virginia. His English ancestors had compiled and transcribed recipes that date back to Elizabethan and Jacobean times, as women of a certain class did in those days, each generation adding to those written out before her. Did they know they were recording the Golden Age of English cuisine for the New World as well as the Old? For then the book—and who knows what plant stuffs—emigrated to Virginia. There, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English cookery hugely influenced Virginia cuisine, in particular, and American colonial cooking in general. Two hundred and fifty years on, it’s the perfect collection for the New World invasivore.

After Custis died, Martha soon remarried, and she took the cookbook (along with four children and a substantial fortune) to Mount Vernon. In Martha Washington’s Booke, there are recipes for New World invaders such as carp, purslane, dandelion, and burdock. Recipes for preserves can be made from European barberry and chicory. The herbal tonic recipes call for invaders like betony, burnet-saxifrage, and common bugloss. The various pig recipes would have suited the animals that had been brought from England by the earliest settlers and allowed to free-range. In her introduction, Hess quotes from Robert Beverly’s History and Present State of Virginia, 1705: “hogs swarm like Vermine upon the Earth.” and explains that “estates often did not bother to list them in their inventories. These lean pigs foraged on acorns and other fallen fruits and nuts, and must have made wonderful eating. This, then, was the beginning of the justly famous Virginia ham.”

Is the wild hog half empty or half full? For the invasivore, it’s all gravy.

TO ROSTE A PIGG

When ye pigg is halfe rosted, pull of ye scinn & stick it full of sprigs of time, & baste it with butter & crumbs of bread till it be enough. for ye sauch, take grated bread & water, a little vinegar, nutmegg, & sugar, & boyle all these together, then put in some butter & serve them up.

Karen Hess notes: From other sources of the period, we learn that the young pig was put on the spit with hide and hair; apparently the rind peels off easily, leaving a layer of fat to protect the meat. It obviates the tedious operation of getting the hair off but the delectable crackly crisp rind, considered by many as the most delectable part of the roast, is lost. The sprigs of time are a nice touch. The sauce is of less interest, but not untypical.

For more invasive species recipes from Martha Washington’s cookbook see here.

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