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!).
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!