Connie Atkinson of Catonsville wanted to serve her family a holiday meal for the ages, a memorable feast with ties to our country's bygone days. After all, an end-of-the-century Christmas seemed like an ideal time to remember -- and savor -- the food tastes of our ancestors.
For years, Atkinson, a switchboard operator at the Maryland Historical Society, had been poring through the society's massive collection of old recipes. She tried making some "receipts," as recipes were called decades ago; converted others to current measurements -- figuring out what a teacup of liquid or a handful of a dry ingredient really is -- and saved dozens in a notebook.
Earlier this month, Atkinson decided to put her years of culinary research into action. With the help of her sister, Carol Stevens of West Baltimore, she came up with a menu that traversed several centuries: Hot Spiced Punch (1805), Rock Cornish Hens Stuffed With Oysters or "To Smother a Fowl in Oysters" (1796), "Crane" Berries (1750), Grandmother Stevens' Christmas Bread (1900) and more.
The result was an ooh-and-aah spread of food that thrilled Atkinson, 55; her husband, Chuck, 46; and several relatives, including matriarch, Charlotte Stevens, 83, of Catonsville, who gathered Dec. 4 at the Atkinsons' 50-year-old white bungalow -- the same house where Connie Atkinson grew up.
As Atkinson showed guests into the dining room, where the table was covered with a festive green cloth and set with heirloom and informal serving pieces, she remarked, "This was our bedroom when we were little."
The close-knit sisters, Atkinson and Stevens, 57, shared the room as children. Atkinson bought the family home three years ago when her parents moved to Charlestown Retirement Community. Her father, Earl W. Stevens, died shortly after the move.
This night's dinner is a thank-you to family members who have entertained Atkinson and her husband, a truck mechanic, during other holidays. Usually, the couple, who have no children, are busy setting up and maintaining an elaborate holiday train garden at the Arbutus fire station. This year, they got an earlier start on the display, so they could set aside time for entertaining.
Before digging into the steaming casseroles, the group of eight joined hands, while Earl Henck of Timonium, Connie Atkinson's cousin, said a heartfelt grace that ended with: "We thank you again for this wonderful blessing." That was the signal for dinner to begin in earnest.
And the response was immediate. "Delicious. Fantastic," said Henck's wife, Lita, amid the clattering of passing plates. "The apple and squash is very good and very different."
But the preparation wasn't without pitfalls.
The Cider Cakes (1805), a seemingly innocent mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and spices, resembled "beige doorstops," said Stevens with a laugh. "I don't know what happened," Atkinson said. "But the birds loved them."
Also, the custard for the Wigwam Pudding (1890) just didn't want to turn into a creamy consistency, so Atkinson and Stevens turned to the next best thing, instant vanilla pudding. The convenience food allowed the cooks to build an interesting dessert with raspberry-jelly-filled ladyfingers that were stacked log-cabin style.
And the battery-operated kitchen clock picked this day to slow down as the hens were being timed in the oven. They didn't have a meltdown and neither did Atkinson, who soon figured out what was happening to the sizzling birds.
By the time dinner -- 13 dishes in all -- was ready to be served, a weary Atkinson and Stevens were especially glad to be in a modern kitchen, with amenities their forebears probably never dreamed of.
As Stevens said, "Can you imagine doing this without an oven and microwave?"
The Maryland Historical Society library, 201 W. Monument St., is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for those who would like to research old recipes.
Hot Spiced Punch
1 gallon apple cider
4 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
orange, apple and lemon slices, for garnish, optional
Mix ingredients, except garnish, in large pot. Bring to boil, then simmer for at least 1 hour. When serving, garnish with fruit if desired.
-- From Maryland Historical Society, 1805
Rock Cornish Hens Stuffed With Oysters
6 Rock Cornish game hens
3 pints fresh standard-size oysters, drained
salt and pepper to taste
Fill a Rock Cornish hen with about 1/2 pint oysters, which have been patted dried, dipped in butter and lightly salted and peppered. Sew the cavity closed with a large needle and sturdy thread, or tie legs together tightly with string. Place in boiling water for 20 minutes.
Remove from water. Drain. Place hens in a roasting pan with 1/4 -inch water. Lightly salt and pepper hens. (Hens also can be placed on a bed of stuffing in a roasting pan.)
Bake at 350 degrees until hens are golden-brown, about 30 minutes.
-- From "American Cookery Book," 1796
Broiled Beans (1796)