Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mushrumps

City Tavern Cookbook Graphic

I find history utterly fascinating. Not only the usual events, figures, and battles, but how people lived. Social history, if you will. What did they wear? What did they read? What objects were in their homes? Most importantly, what did they eat?!

I can’t help but mull these questions over as we read John Adams. When very early in the narrative the City Tavern was mentioned, I remembered “Hey! I’ve been there! And I even have the cookbook!!!” City Tavern: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine by Chef Walter Staib is an amazing compendium of colonial food and the history that surrounds it. The forward is written by none other than David McCullough himself!

As I’m sure you’ve noticed whilst reading, Adams definitely had a reputation for enjoying his food. McCullough notes that he “dearly loved to eat” and that his enemies in the Senate used to call him “His Rotundity.” Just so you know, I think that was awfully mean.

Dinners at places like the City Tavern were quite a different experience than the meals we have today. The average meal had two to four courses, and each course contained twenty or more dishes! Duck, ham, chicken, and beef were on the table, as well as a variety of custards, jellies, flummery (a sweet pudding made with fruit and thickened with cornstarch), syllabub (milk with wine or cider), fruit, and nuts! Crab and lobster was so plentiful that it was used as fishing bait, as well as a very common everyday thing to eat. Influences were of course British (the home country of most of the population), German (the German immigrants ran the farms surrounding Philadelphia), American Indian (turkey, corn, squash, beans, and sweet potatoes were all incorporated in colonial Philadelphian cookery), Caribbean (Philadelphia was a port city. Pepper Pot soup was eaten by Washington and his Revolutionary Soldiers and was called “the soup that won the war”), and French (from the French settlers and soldiers, and also from the tastes developed during travels).

I chose the recipe I’m including for you all to try at home for many reasons. This sort of French style bisque was something John Adams would have enjoyed not only when he visited the City Tavern, but during his time in France. He also liked his sherry, and this recipe has a whole cup of it! Mushrooms are a very representative Pennsylvanian food. Did you know that almost half of the mushrooms Americans eat come from Pennsylvania? Most importantly, in colonial times many people (including Martha Washington!) called them mushrumps. Mushrumps! I think we should all call them mushrumps (we do in my house! I even write mushrumps on the shopping list I give to my husband, but I digress!).

Mushrump Bisque

adapted from City Tavern: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine

2 tablespoons butter

2 lbs of assorted fresh mushrumps, sliced

4 quarts of vegetable stock. I recommend preparing it from scratch

1 bay leaf

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup sherry. Amontillado sherry is so good to cook with! Remember, don’t cook with what you wouldn’t drink. Do not buy cooking sherry!

2 quarts heavy cream

salt and freshly ground pepper

fresh parsley chopped for garnish
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the mushrumps and sauté until the mushrumps are soft, about 10 minutes.

Add your stock, bay leaf, and garlic. Bring to a brisk simmer for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to a low simmer. Add the sherry and cream, stir. Let simmer until the mixture thickens and is reduced a bit. Stir now and again. 20-30 minutes should do it.

Remove the bay leaf, and puree the soup carefully (it’s hot!) in small batches in your blender, or with an immersion blender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

You can serve it now (garnish with parsley!) or let it cool and refrigerate it. I find that most soups become even more delicious the next day when flavors have a chance to marry.

*Thanks to Jaqueline for this yummy recipe! This is part of the John Adams Read-a-Long; if you’d like more info on the read-a-longs, see the Read-a-Long page. We’ll be back next week for the second to last chapter of the John Adams bio!

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26 thoughts on “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Mushrumps

      • Ok, I re-read the post (I had read it the other day) and saw he mushrump explanation. I, apparently, as so focused on the AMOUNT that they ate as well as the recipe itself (I read it at lunch time and it made me super hungry) that the mushrump part didn’t stick in my brain for some reason! I like it too — am going to start calling them mushrumps.

      • It is one of the most engaging historical non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s definitely about history — the combination of getting a glimpse into Adams and hearing about these really important points in US history through first sources are what compel me to keep reading. So, if you aren’t interested in history at all, then I wouldn’t recommend it. BUT doesn’ t the hubby like history? So maybe you could try, and if you don’t like it, pass it on to him? Or you could borrow my copy when I’m done. I do have to say that it’s very, very well written and I’ll be proud to have it on my shelf.

  1. I had NO idea that they ate so much food. No wonder they were so fat! Thanks so much for choosing a vegetarian recipe, Jacqueline! It looks yummy… did you make it? Have you made any of the recipes from the book yet? Is the McCullough intro alone worth buying? Are you getting sick of my questions?

    • I have made this one, and it’s super delicious! The sherry and the mushrumps are a match made in heaven.

      The McCullough intro is short but excellent. The highlight of the book for me was the social history. The things like people called mushrooms mushrumps, or that lobster, something we consider an expensive delicacy, was so prevalent that they used it for fishing bait, really intrigues me! I feel like you find out so much about a time this way, too! It’s such a great compliment to the John Adams book.

      I haven’t made many of the recipes from the book, but I am really intrigued by the recipes with chestnuts. It is something that we don’t cook with very often presently, but they still use them in Europe. My grandfather would buy some every winter holiday because he so enjoyed them in Italy, and I’d like to bring that back :)

    • Oh! And another interesting thing I learned is that colonial Philadelphia was the ice cream capital of America! Chef Staib has several ice cream recipes in the book. We also have a very special place that honors that presently in Philadelphia: the Franklin Fountain.

      Not only can you get hand made ice cream, but olde fashioned treats like violet sodas!

      When you come and visit, it’s a must-do!! :)

      • What?! A.) I LOVE the website. B.) YUUUUUM C.) I want to go TODAY! That looks so good, and fun! And I love that it’s near where Franklin lived (plus, I feel like I know Market street after reading this book… so many people lived near by or walked along it’s aisle making important plans).

        Definitely a must-do… let’s add it to our list!

        • We also love Franklin Fountain. It’s steps away from City Tavern and makes for a great afternoon break! Shanes Confectionery, nearly next store to Franklin Fountain is also wonderful.

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  3. I am thoroughly enjoying reading yours and Trish’s posts on John Adams. I’m definitely getting the book to read myself. Each of you bring up such interesting information and ask great questions. I love this food post. Thanks for digging into the history of it.

    • Thanks Bree!

      I was remarking to Wallace that I’ve spent three months with John and he feels like a friend! I’m going to a little broken up when this book is finished. I hope you read it and enjoy it!!!

    • Bree, I tried commenting before, so if you see two comments, I apologize!

      I think you will enjoy the John Adams book! I’m really sad that the book and read along is coming to an end because I feel like John is a friend after spending so much time with him!

  4. Oh my Lord. Twenty dishes per course? How did the Founding Fathers stay so lean? I guess people were more active back then with farming and stuff. I can barely make it through a Panera salad without getting full!!!

    • Perhaps poor John Adams had a slow metabolism ;)

      I think everything was sort of out there for you, and you could take/were served as much or as little as you wanted of each dish. It’s kind of fascinating since there was no refrigeration to preserve what was to be eaten/not eaten! I read that the current City Tavern is authentic in even that detail! They get all of their meat delivered each day, and do not refrigerate it. They use the same storage and preparation methods used in colonial times.

  5. I love mushrooms. I lived in PA (not far from Philadelphia) for a couple years, and yes, quickly learned that there are lots of mushroom farms out there. They employ a lot of migrant workers, and so my kids had some ESL classmates. It was interesting because most people seem to think most migrant workers only work the southern border states. I admit I was suprised at first. This recipe seems so delicious!

    • Thanks! That’s an interesting point about the migrant workers! There used to be lots of farms in my area of NJ, and one of the things that my husband’s family used to do for extra money was “pick” – in the summer for a number of weeks their “vacation” was to camp out and harvest whatever was growing at the time for the farmer. My husband never did it, but his older siblings did. It of course became a class issue. But now I read about middle class people going off to farm exchanges, so maybe we are coming full circle :)

  6. One of the PBS stations in the Los Angeles area shows Staib’s show A Taste of History. Very interesting show and sounds like the cookbook is as well. All the recipes he does on the show are done on the open fire, so its not your ordinary cooking show

    • I’ll try to see that show – I’ve not heard of it before! I bet he gives lots of social history along with his cooking lessons! I am obsessed with the sort of shows like 1940s House and Manor House where a group of people sign on o live like a certain era.

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