Dinner in the time of Benjamin Franklin

It's a good thing we weren't served stuffed cow udder, all plumped up like a set of bloated bagpipes. There was a chance we'd sample whole boiled and garnished mammal heads, jellied calves feet, pickled snouts, and similar amputations, because these showpiece dishes were typical apps and entrees at a fancy banquet in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Back in the day, those dishes didn't shock or frighten anybody.

Such were the choices facing the menu committee in planning a celebration in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Turns out, the dinner wasn't frightening or intimidating, because an expert was called in to re-imagine the dinner with respect to 21st-century sensibilities.

The dinner, "Rule of the Roast: Philadelphia at Table 1705-1790," was held to commemorate the 307th anniversary of Franklin's birth on Jan. 17, 1706. The dinner was hosted by the Junta, a Pittsburgh philosophical discussion group modeled on the Junto, a group founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1727. (Their names are intentionally spelled differently.) The banquet was held at The Pittsburgh Golf Club in mid-January.

Re-creating an 1860s garden

William Woys Weaver studied architecture and historic preservation before earning a Ph.D. in food ethnography from University College Dublin in Ireland. His latest book, to be released in April 2013, is "As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine" from University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mr. Weaver is the founder of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism. His current project is working with Kutztown University to re-create an 1860s Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen garden in all its details. This garden is to be completed by April, launching a series of programs and eventually credit courses on historic gardening, heirlooms, Pennsylvania Dutch culture, and Pennsylvania Dutch foods and foodways, plus courses on regional Pennsylvania foodways.

Keystone Center is working on a new legal status and is expected to have a home (office space) by June 2013. Point persons for the various food regions are being lined up. At that time a new website will go live at TheKeystoneKitchen.org.

William Woys Weaver, Ph.D., an internationally known culinary historian, the author of 16 books and an expert on the foods of Pennsylvania, was invited as menu consultant and speaker for the evening. "In Philadelphia, aristocrats and rich merchants, with their wives, hosted extravagant banquets for each other," said Mr. Weaver. "And Benjamin Franklin attended many of these dinners. They were a play in three acts designed to impress the guests. Each course was a spread of 10 to 20 items. The idea was to show how rich you were, that you could afford to lay out all those dishes for a first course, a second, and then a third. You were not expected to eat of each thing, just nibble on the things that appealed."

A January table might include roast beef, mutton, tongue and boiled chickens, each with their own sauces and vegetables. A soup would have been served from a tureen at the end of the table, with a butler doing the honors.

"Vegetables were considered secondary to the meats, with butter as their main 'sauce,'" says Mr. Weaver. "Peas, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, collards, and beets were served along with whatever else a gentleman's garden might have on hand or [what was] in the root cellar at the time. Tossed salad was neither in the style of the period nor in season, although there was plenty of watercress, which might appear in soup. With beef as a main dish, a side of shredded red cabbage baked until slightly wilted with butter, garlic and raspberry vinegar was quite the thing at genteel meals in Philadelphia."

Round rolls, not loaf bread, were served throughout the meal and were set on a napkin or on the cloth.

The help must have dreaded the inevitable "remove" of tablecloths during these epic meals. The "remove" was when tablecloths were changed and a new main course was delivered to the table. With a great flourish, linens were whisked away and their replacements floated overhead to table. But not only was there a huge amount of table linen to wash, according to Mr. Weaver, napkins also were used as strainers in the kitchen, for making sauces and such, and stained ones got relegated to even more hard work. Starching and ironing was done by hand, and many houses had a linen press, which looked like a bookbinder's press and was used to flatten the linen with crisp creases. Linens were kept in a special piece of furniture in the dining room. Being a laundress must have been nightmarish.

"There was a huge amount of waste, although most of the leftovers went to the help according to their 'place' in the household. There are English household books, which provide instructions on feeding the staff. For example, if they were given cheese, they would not get meat, since cheese was expensive. Many fricassee recipes were predicated on the fact that leftovers could be recycled into mini-meals for the upstairs folks."

Quite a crew was needed to serve such a dinner. Four people were called a "mess," with one waiter per mess. Five waiters were needed for 20 guests. There was a wine steward, a butler and various other help to change the table cloths and assist at various stations. Vast amounts of silver and china were needed, and out of sight, servants attended to the considerable washing and polishing going on."

Rich Philadelphians ate like that, Mr. Weaver says, which is why they got gout and other woes of excess. But being fat meant you were rich and healthy; being skinny meant you were poor and sickly.

Using "The New Art of Cookery" by Richard Briggs, published in Philadelphia in 1792, as a reference, Mr. Weaver set about planning our dinner. "Composing the menu was a bit of an obstacle course," he said, "but I think we have something that would not appear weird to 18th-century eyes. I plucked out dishes that guests can relate to instead of a vast buffet from which to pick and choose."

To complicate matters, Mr. Weaver gave the kitchen only verbal outlines of the recipes because the originals do not give proportions.

Guests were greeted with cocktail service from a punch bowl of rum-laced Orange Shrub. Using Benjamin Franklin's recipe, Prentiss Orr concocted the brew. An owner of Pittsburgh's Boyd & Blair, distillers of premium potato vodka, Mr. Orr knows a thing or two about spirits. He mixed the punch with freshly squeezed oranges and aged it for a month in an oak cask. Franklin's Shrub is sometimes called "The Nectar of Forgetfulness."

Before leading us to the candlelit dining room, Mr. Weaver gave an unforgettable presentation about upper-class dinners in Mr. Franklin's day.

We were seated at long, narrow tables blanketed in yards of white linen to await a present-day version of an 18th-century dinner.

Our first course, a peppery watercress soup, was followed by salmon with shrimp sauce served family style, ladies first. This, the first course, signaled a "remove." Our linens, with barely a crumb on them, were efficiently removed and replaced with fresh ones. Beef stew with red cabbage and sweet potatoes followed. Our feast came to end with a dessert of tartlets -- orange cream, cranberry and pineapple -- served along with macaroons, dried fruits and nuts.

After a peek into Mr. Franklin's kitchens, to us 21st-century Pennsylvanians, the dining scenes in PBS's "Downton Abbey" don't seem like such a stretch.

Benjamin Franklin's Orange Shrub

In his own words (and punctuation and capitalization).

"To a gallon of Rum two Quarts of Orange Juice and two pounds of Sugar -- dissolve the Sugar in the Juice before your mix it with the Rum -- put it all together in a Cask & shake it well -- let it stand 3 to 4 weeks & it will be very fine & fit for Bottling. When you have Bottled off the fine, pass the thick thro' a Philtring paper, put into a Funnell that not a drop may be lost. To obtain the flavor of the Orange Peel, paire a few Oranges & and put it in Rum for twelve hours & put that Rum into the Cask with the other. For Punch thought better without the Peel."

If you want to make the punch, Prentiss Orr, of Pittsburgh's Boyd & Blair distillers, has this to say: "The recipe is fairly easy to work from and makes enough for 20 people. I would pare the zest of the oranges with a potato peeler and put all the zest into the rum. Let this marinate overnight. While the rum and zest are marinating, mix in the juice (which you run through a strainer), and bar sugar [superfine sugar] and let this also stand overnight. Combine the 2 the next day and set aside in a large glass jug or bottle. The mixture will settle the longer it stands, and the best part is what comes off the top. Franklin suggests running the remainder through a filter. The idea is that the shrub should be clear; cloudiness was considered a bad thing in his era. I recommend using golden rum for the best color and results."

Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@earthlink.net or 412-481-1620.


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