The 18th century isn't called the Age of Reason for nothing: It was a time people invented things because they reasoned a need for them, from the steam engine to the aerial balloon. It was conversation's heyday, when everybody had a lot to say about art, science, love, the natural order and the celestial spheres -- and they usually said it at the dinner table.
Whether the table was shining mahogany in the Tidewater or scrubbed, hand-hewn pine in a little cabin on the Allegheny, the rule was the same: Good food to share with kin and stranger, and plenty of it; spices and herbs to brighten the taste. Everything from the garden, forest, farm or field that could be used, and everything cooked but the squeal of the pig. I'm not sure I could face a spirited debate over the Existence of Electricity or the Nature of the Deity while gazing steadily at a stuffed sheepshead, but it was a less squeamish age.
When I consider how much work went into putting the meal on the table, I am staggered. Want hot rolls? Get up a week ahead and make some yeast. Want a nice jellied aspic? Go to work boiling the gelatin out of the calves' hooves, first separating them from the calf.
Because refrigeration was primitive at best, people perforce served food that had been cackling or growing that morning. Cookbooks of the time caution cooks to wring the chicken's neck no more than four hours before its intended consumption. That must have meant some pretty lively stepping when a big crowd came for supper -- and is no doubt where we get the expression, "the feathers flew!"
The big plantations kept ice through the summer in brick-lined underground chambers. Farm households often had ice houses near the stock ponds, from which ice was cut in the winter to last as long as possible into the summer. And you can still see springhouses all over the country parts of Maryland -- beautiful, small, square stone buildings, built near a natural spring of cold water. Here butter and cream were kept cold by the constantly flowing water laving the crocks in which they were stored. Here thirsty children could sip the icy water, or drink homemade grape juice from stoneware pitchers.
And in 1803, prompted no doubt by the sultry summers Chesapeake dwellers know so well, a Maryland farmer named Thomas Moore patented the icebox. This glorious invention meant ice cream, snow cones and jellied summer salads for the suffering city dwellers whose cool source was the iceman, and not an icy spring.
There's no better tribute to Thomas than to gather five friends for lively discourse on the meteor showers of August, or the nature of love, or what you will, while partaking of the cool supper below.
Saffron chicken salad Serves six.
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breast, skinned
5-6 cups water
2 cubes chicken bouillon
pinch of saffron threads
1 large shallot, peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
1 teaspoon cracked pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 medium garden tomatoes
1 small head escarole lettuce, washed and dried
Wash and drain the chicken. Put the water in a saucepan; add the bouillon cubes, the saffron, shallot, spices and lemon juice. Heat until small bubbles rise up the sides. Add the chicken and simmer until the chicken is firm, white and plump -- about 25 minutes. Take out the chicken, cool it, and slice it thinly. Reduce the stock to 1 1/2 cups by boiling it down. Strain it, cool it, and return the chicken slices to it. Refrigerate overnight, covered. To finish the salad: Lay the escarole leaves down as a bed, and alternate 1/2 -inch slices of very ripe tomato, sprinkled with salt and pepper, with slices of chicken on the fan shape of the escarole leaves. Set the remaining stock out for dipping cheese rolls (recipe below) in.
Cheese rolls Serves six.
2 loaves frozen bread dough
1 cup grated extra sharp Cheddar, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup cornmeal
a pizza stone
Defrost two loaves of frozen bread dough on two oiled baking sheets; brush a little oil over the dough as it thaws to keep it from drying out. When the dough is soft and pliable, divide each loaf into six pieces. Toss the Cheddar, paprika, and Parmesan gently together and lay the cheese mixture in a thin layer on a piece of waxed paper. Stretch and pull each of the pieces of dough into a thin circle about 5 inches in diameter. Mash it gently into the cheese, fold the dough, and pinch the edges of the "pocket" you've just made shut. Gently tease the cheese-filled dough back into a flat circle, without breaking the surface and exposing the cheese mixture. Put it back on the baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each roll.