This paper was read to a meeting of the Red Hook Historical Society, Red Hook, New York, 19 May 2013.
Society members and local restaurants recreated many of the period dishes mentioned in the paper, making the event a festive occasion of which the region’s Dutch settlers would surely have approved.
One of the ways we can learn what people ate in the past is by reading the recipes that were available to them. For example, the first cookbook produced in the US was the 1745 reprint of Hannah Glasse’s modestly titled The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Ever Yet Published. Fifty-one years later, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery appeared in Hartford. CT. We can also get a taste of the period’s infatuation with subtitles, as the book’s cover is completely filled with this:
or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.
The subtitle alone exceeds the attention span of most of today’s readers — but the book was so popular in the eighteenth-century that a second edition was published the same year, in Albany.
Glasse and Simmons’ books were not, however, the first cookbooks used in our part of the New World.
The Van Cortlandt family, who arrived in the Hudson Valley in 1639, ordered a copy of the 1683 edition of The Pleasurable Country Life from Holland. Originally published in 1667, it was a virtual encyclopedia of how to live the good life, and it contained the most popular Dutch cookbook of the time, The Sensible Cook. Dutch authors were as liberal in their use of subtitles as were their English-speaking colleagues. Fully half of the cover of the Van Cortlandt’s edition bore — in smallish type –
“or Careful Housekeeper
How to cook, stew, roast, fry, bake and prepare all sorts of Dishes in the best and most able manner; with the appropriate Sauces:
Very useful and Profitable in all Households.
Enlarged, with the
DUTCH BUTCHERING TIME.
To which is added the
Instructing how to prepare and preserve good and useful confection from many kinds of Fruit, Roots, Flowers, and Leaves, etc.”
All that cover text was needed because advertising (or book-signings, or author appearances on talk shows) had not yet been invented, so — if a book was to sell at all — it had to market itself. That wordy subtitle also suggests a question (which I will not attempt to answer here): With all that cover copy, what could possibly have been omitted that required the use of that final “etc.”?
Peter Rose, the leading expert on Dutch cookery in our region, has translated the Van Cortlandt’s copy (which is now part of the collection at Tarrytown’s Sleepy Hollow Restoration, now called Historic Hudson Valley). I have drawn heavily upon this and other books she has written.
When we think of “American food,” the first phrase that comes to mind is: “American as apple pie.” Of course, apple pie is not really American – some think it’s English (because the English do make apple pies), but The Sensible Cook contains four recipes for apple-taerts that we would still recognize as apple pies – and it was here before any English cookbooks. Also, the first apple tree in the New World was not planted by British settlers in New England – the one planted in 1647, in Manhattan, by Peter Stuyvesant (the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam) continued to bear fruit for 219 years. If not for the fact that a derailed train uprooted it in 1866, it would probably still be producing heirloom apples. That unfortunate event was clearly something that Stuyvesant could never have foreseen. By the way, all the stories about John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, are much newer – he didn’t begin planting apple nurseries until shortly before 1800.
Just down the street, here in Red Hook, there’s an historic eatery, the Halfway Diner. It’s singled out for historic recognition because it represents an architectural style that is not only uniquely American but, also because diner cuisine is quintessentially American. For us, a meal is not really a complete meal unless it has a minimum of three components: a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. “What about such things as hamburgers and hot dogs”, you ask? If you were to order either at the Halfway, the meat and bun would not be alone on the plate. There will always be a pickle, or a token cup of coleslaw, or both. We may not always eat them… but they will have served their purpose, just by appearing on our plates.
How long has this been going on?
Well, The Sensible Cook has a recipe for sour pickles that would perfectly suit the average diner customer (although most of us would expect a more garlicky version – later immigrants from eastern Europe liked garlic more than did the Dutch). But what about the coleslaw?
When Carl von Linné (better known today as Linnaeus) wanted to expand his comprehensive listing of scientific names to include species of the New World, he sent young botanists here to collect and categorize our wild plants. The Swedish Royal Academy co-sponsored Pehr Kalm, one of Linné’s protégés, in the hopes that he would bring back valuable plants and seeds. Linné immortalized Kalm by naming a genus after him: Kalmia latifolia is our Mountain Laurel.
What’s that got to do with coleslaw?
Kalm’s journals tell us a lot about life in colonial America – and he spent a lot of time in the Hudson Valley. He rented a room in a Dutch home and, in an entry from 1749, he described what he called “an unusual salad” served by his landlady:
She took the inner leaves of a head of cabbage, namely, the leaves which usually remain when the outermost leaves are removed, and cut them in long thin strips about 1/12 to 1/6 of an inch wide, seldom more… she… poured oil and vinegar pon [sic] them, added some salt and pepper… melted butter… is kept in a warm pot or crock and poured over the salad after it has been served.
He meant that melted butter was sometimes used in place of oil. The dish was called “koolsla” —short for “koolsalade”— or cabbage salad. The dish seems different from our coleslaw because of two later developments: inexpensive graters that eliminated the need for hand-slicing of the cabbage and the absence of mayonnaise. That omnipresent ingredient was invented seven years after Kalm’s observations, and didn’t become an American mainstay until after Richard Hellman started selling it, readymade in jars, on many store shelves by 1920.
While Kalm said quite a bit about the food he ate in Dutch homes, it’s important to remember that our region was largely British at the time. On that subject, he was more succinct: “The art of cooking as practised by Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding.”
One of the other things that makes diners uniquely American is that their menus are achronological. By that, I mean that almost everywhere, we expect to find different meals served throughout the day. Breakfast dishes in the morning, lunches at mid-day, and dinners in the evening – except on Sunday when everyday routines are disrupted. When our religions were more puritanical, the Sabbath was reserved for activities that made everyday schedules inconvenient. Today’s religious observances – like brunch, shopping, and seasonal rituals like cookouts, baseball and football – still make Sunday an exception to the menu clock we obey the rest of the week.
However, diners are like little islands that exist outside of our clock-driven existence. At a diner, one can order from any part of the menu at any time of day. If your stomach can handle it, you can feel free to have ham and eggs, a shrimp cocktail, and piece of lemon meringue pie that is somewhere north of eight-inches tall. Diners are culinary anarchies, and that’s just the way we like them.
What makes diners so democratic is the fact that we can eat breakfast whenever we feel like it – before the workday begins, or after a long night of drinking, or anywhere in between, alone or with friends. Consequently, it’s among the breakfast items that we should be looking for traces of early Dutch gastronomic influences.
The early Dutch settlers brought chickens and pigs when they sailed to New Netherland, so they had eggs, bacon and sausages – but so did every other European cuisine. What they had that was different were two other mainstays of the American breakfast table: pancakes and waffles.
Just as in today’s diners, the Dutch ate pancakes at any time of day. Dutch dining habits anticipated our modern diner expectation of “breakfast, any time.” However, their pancakes were not the airy confections we know today. Our pancakes are chemically-leavened; they use baking powder to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that lighten their batter. Baking powder not invented until 1843 (and didn’t begin to be produced in the US until 1855). Simmons’ book 1796 book was the first to mention use of pearl ash — potassium carbonate — that cooks extracted from wood ashes. Since Dutch pancakes contained neither pearl ash nor yeast, they tended to be heavy and filling.
Pancakes came in several forms, and The Sensible Cook mentions three of them. The most basic contained only flour, eggs and milk (and sometimes a little sugar). Sugar was just beginning to be cheap enough for everyday use (there were some fifty sugar refineries in Amsterdam in the 1640s). However, it still had to be shipped to the colonies here, and arrived in hard cone-shaped loaves that had to scraped and pounded before it could be used.
A second, fancier version, named Groeningen (after a fortified city and province in the far north of the Netherlands), adds currants and cinnamon. The Dutch East India Company was at the peak of its power at the time, so cinnamon and other spices were readily available, even in the colonies.
This was even more evident in the third recipe “To fry the best kind of Pancakes.” It had a higher egg-to flour ratio, and lots of spices: cinnamon, cloves, mace, and nutmeg. These pancakes were fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar before serving.
Later Dutch pancake recipes included appel pannenkoeken a plate-sized, dense and savory version that included apples, bacon and gouda. New Netherlanders ate similar pancakes almost every day.
Tiny poffertjes — bulging silver-dollar-sized pancakes cooked in special pans that had dimple-like indentations — were served only on special occasions. Flensjes were thick crêpes served like a layer cake, with applesauce for filling, and served dusted with powdered sugar. Another special pancake was called drie-in-de-pan. They were yeast-raised pancakes cooked, as the name implies, three at a time, often with a filling of apples and currants or raisins.
Like ordinary pancakes, waffles were eaten almost every day. Recipes for modern waffles usually contain more oil than is found in pancake batter. It helps them avoid sticking to their convoluted griddles – and their Dutch precursors were no different. Their waffles used melted butter, and instead of baking powder they used yeast – so the batter had to rest for a while to allow the yeast to ferment some of the starch into leavening gas.
Of course, the most basic breakfast at a diner is taken at the counter: a cup of coffee and a doughnut.
The Dutch didn’t develop a taste for coffee and tea until the end of the seventeenth century. Despite the fact that the Dutch East India Company had planted coffee plantations in Ceylon in 1658, the first coffeehouse to the New world didn’t open until 1689, in Boston. Coffee was not nearly as popular as tea (in fact, it didn’t become an American staple until after the famous Tea Party in Boston’s harbor in 1773).
Once the Dutch started drinking tea, they made it a big part of their social lives. Nearly a century after the English took control of what had been New Amsterdam, the Dutch inhabitants still preferred tea. Pehr Kalm noted that
Their breakfast is tea, commonly without milk. …They never put sugar into the cup, but take a small bit of it into their mouths while they drink. …Coffee is not usual here.ii
Sixty years later, in 1809, Washington Irving was able to write:
“The tea was served out of a majestic delft tea-pot, ornamented with paintings of fat little Dutch shepherds and shepherdesses tending pigs – with boats sailing in the air, and houses built in the clouds, and sundry other ingenious Dutch fantasies.”
To sweeten the beverage, a lump of sugar was laid beside each cup – and the company alternately nibbled and sipped with great decorum, until an improvement was introduced by a shrewd and economic old lady, which was to suspend a large lump directly over the tea table, by a string from the ceiling, so that it could be swung from mouth to mouth – an expedient, which is still kept up by some families in Albany; but which prevails without exception in Communipaw, Bergen, Flatbush, and all our uncontaminated Dutch villages.
Before you ask, Communipaw is today’s Hoboken, and the Flatbush he mentioned isn’t the one in Brooklyn – it’s part of modern Saugerties, between Esopus Creek and the Hudson.
The boundary between history and comedy is not always well-defined in Irving’s writings, so it’s often good to take his culinary observations, not with a lump of sugar, but with a grain of salt. In Irving’s second edition, Knickerbocker said the “worthy burghers of Albany” had told him that “…suspending a lump of sugar over the Albany tea-tables… had been discontinued for some years past.
Some serious historians complain that Knickerbocker is lousy history — however their inability to recognize satire merely proves that they were born without funny-bones.
Irving was not, however, joshing us with his praises of doughnuts:
Sometimes the table was graced with immense apple pies, or saucers full of preserved peaches and pears; but it was always sure to boast an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks – a delicious kind of cake, at present scarce known in this city, except in genuine Dutch families.
These early doughnuts were not the ring-shaped versions we know today. Doughnuts didn’t get their holes until well into the nineteenth century, because while the originals were yeast-raised, the newer “cake doughnuts” contained baking powder and didn’t begin to rise until the frying started – and the batter in the center was often undercooked. The holes were meant to allow all of doughnut batter to cook evenly. Olykoeks were round balls, a little smaller than a tennis ball (another name for these fritter-like cakes was oleibollen) and sometimes flattened a bit. They were sometimes filled with stewed apples or raisins, and were seasoned with nutmeg or mace; either way, they were fried in lard, not the oil we use today. Oliebollen (in German it’s slightly different from the Dutch spelling) were made as early as the tenth century by Germanic cooks, but found their way to the New World via the Dutch.
They took days to make, because the yeast dough had to rise twice before frying. Once they were done, they were rolled in sugar, which sounds familiar to us. It’s curious, that a century after doughnuts began having holes, the holes themselves are marketed as treats in themselves – in a sense returning to something very like their Dutch origins.
In the 1819 story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving has Ichabod Crane admiring “the ample charms of a Dutch country tea table,” especially “the doughy doughnut, the tender olykoek, and the crisp and crumbling cruller.” Yes, the Dutch invented our alternative doughnut as well – and their twisted crullers were remarkably similar to our modern crullers. The French cruller, on the other hand, is related only by the fact they’re fried. The batter for French crullers is pre-cooked – it’s more like the pâte choux batter used to make cream puffs, than doughnut batter.
Of course, we don’t live for breakfast alone; there are other meals. But, if anything that characterizes American eating habits, it’s our love of snacks that really sets us apart. Anything we can eat with one hand, while driving, watching TV, or standing up – especially if it’s got carbs, fat, salt and/or sugar – we love.
You can guess where I’m going with this, can’t you?
The Dutch gave us just what we want.
Pretzels? A Dutch invention. There’s a great painting, done around 1681 by Job Berckheyde, showing a Dutch baker blowing a horn to announce his freshly-baked wares – he stands behind a counter covered with various breads, rolls and pretzels. Behind him there’s a wooden rack from which six more fat pretzels hang. They look like the ones still sold on the streets of Manhattan. However, they’re somewhat harder and, in place of salt they’ve got sugar and cinnamon. They’re called krakelingen, and would be good dunked in coffee, like doughnuts or biscotti. They were commonly made in Holland, but we know they were made here too – because they were mentioned, in court proceedings in New Amsterdam, in 1653.
Is there any snack dearer to our hearts than the humble cookie?
In French and British English, it’s a biscuit – ‘though before adopting the French word, the English called them “New Year’s cakes.” In Italian, they’re biscotto; in Portuguese, biscoito, — like the German word zwieback – all words that reflect the fact that they’re twice-baked (or, at least, baked to twice-baked crispness). In German it’s a keks, which sounds suspiciously like our “cake,” or plätzchen, and in Spanish it’s galleta – both of which literally mean “little cake.” Our “cookie” also means “little cake” – because it’s based on the Dutch word koekje, the diminutive of koek (a flat, barely risen cake). Only in America and other former Dutch-speaking colonies are these little treats called anything like “cookies.”
The Dutch didn’t have chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal-raisin cookies, but they did make many different types. Speculaasbrokken were a kind of spice cookie that had a blanched almond embedded in its center. These seasonal treats were served during the period before Christmas. They were a smaller version of speculaas, a molded spice cake.
Theerandjes were bar cookies, softer and chewier than most other cookies of the time. The recipe appeared in a Dutch cookbook, Perfect Instructions for the Pastry Bakers or Their Students, published in the Netherlands in 1753. They stayed soft because they contained honey, which is hygroscopic – it drew moisture from the air, so they didn’t completely dry after coming out of the oven. These cookies were topped with candied orange peel and citron in a honey glaze.
Honey was, before mass-produced sugar, the primary sweetener in Europe – so it’s not surprising that colonists brought bees with them to the New World (the first honeybees in North America arrived in 1622).
Once sugar became affordable, candying was a popular way of preserving fruit. Another was fruit leather. Fruit Roll-ups were not invented by General Mills in the 1980s – they just added the saran-wrap and trademarked the name. Recipes for fruit leathers appeared in The Sensible Confectioner, as early as 1683 (the edition that the VanCortlandt family had).
Tea cookjes were thin wafer-like butter cookies with slightly-browned edges. Their name is half English and half Dutch because the recipe comes from a recipe book from a Dutch household that was hand-written sometime around 1800, long after the Dutch and English were no longer in control of the region. Today, we think of wafers as any thin crisp cookies, but in Dutch colonial times, they were thin crisp waffle-like cookies, similar to the cones that we use with ice cream.
When most of us went to school, the Dutch period in our US history classes was glanced over, in a rush to get to the presumably more-important English-focused historical events. Part of the reason for this is the fact that English language and culture are the supposed models upon which the American experience is based.
We also tend to think of American history as somehow independent of events in other parts of the world. The back-and-forth control of the Hudson Valley, between the English and the Dutch, was but a small part of larger wars being waged between the two countries in the seventeenth century. At issue was control of the seas, and especially the trade routes and colonies used by spice merchants. What was happening here was mirrored, in a bigger way, by battles waged in South Asia and the Caribbean.
However, we should also consider the fact that, for most of the last century, the textbook industry has been centered in Boston (for the same reason, most students are unaware that much of the Revolution happened south of Philadelphia). In Boston, history —as it’s understood — began shortly before the Revolution. Here, in the Hudson Valley, it started over a century and a half earlier.
Today, we’ve considered just a tiny part of the Dutch influence on American culture – the things we love to stuff in our faces. Even through the narrow window of food history, it’s easy to see that, given a choice, Americans still enjoy “going Dutch.
Barnes, Donna R. and Peter G. Rose. Matters of Taste: Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life. Albany and Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.
Heiss, Mary Lou, and Robert J. Heiss. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007.
Hess, Karen. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Irving, Washington. Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York. New York: The Heritage Press, 1940.
Kalm, Pehr. Travels in North America: The English Version of 1770. New York: Dover, 1966.
Prendergast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Rose, Peter G. Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch. Charleston, SC: Hickory Press, 2009.
Matters of Taste: Dutch Recipes with an American Connection. Albany and Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.
Foods of the Hudson: A Seasonal Sampling of the Region’s Bounty. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1993.
Rose, Peter G. (trans. & ed.) The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and the New World (De Verstandige Kok): Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us