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A Colonial touch for Christmas. December 24, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Richard Saunders, our friend and fellow blog contributor, asked me to see what I could find by way of Colonial Christmas recipes. (I think he may be trying to work up his nerve to actually cook something from his favorite historical era for his girlfriend, Bridget. Good luck, guy!)

Fortunately, Richard came to the right place. Even a fraction of my historical cookbook collection—The Early American Cookbook, Favorite Meals from Williamsburg, The Williamsburg Cookbook, The Tasha Tudor Cookbook, Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, and Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery—should give him (and you) plenty to work with.

But let’s start with the basics. How a family celebrated Christmas in the Colonies depended both on their home Colony and their financial circumstances. There were no Christmas trees, Christmas ornaments, or Christmas cards in any Colony, and (gasp) no Santa Claus or good St. Nick, either—all those arrived with the Victorian era and the influx of immigrants from Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and Finland, with their marvelous Christmas traditions.

But even without these iconic elements of our own Christmas celebrations, Christmas in the Colonies certainly wasn’t dull. Carols, wassailing, decorating the home for Christmas, exchanging gifts, and enjoying a (more or less) opulent Christmas feast were hallmarks of a Colonial Christmas. Turkey and (in the South) ham graced Colonial tables, as they do ours, though the ham would have been smoked in the family smokehouse and the turkey would have been roasted before the open fire in the great kitchen fireplace in an elaborate footed enclosure called a “tin kitchen,” aka reflector oven.

With no grocery stores and no year-round availability of fresh food, Christmas was naturally more opulent in the South than in, say, New England. So let’s begin our investigation of Colonial Christmas recipes in the Colonial Capital, Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg is renowned to this day for its elaborate fruit decorations featuring apples and pineapples (the symbol of hospitality in Colonial times) accented with magnolia leaves and boxwood sprays. Williamsburg’s taverns and inns were also, and remain to this day, renowned for good food and drink. Did someone say “drink”?! 

      Williamsburg Wassail

The word “wassail” is from the ancient Saxon toast, “wass hael,” “be whole” or “be well.” A great wish to extend to your guests as you kick off Christmas dinner!

1 cup sugar

4 cinnamon sticks

lemon slices

2 cups pineapple juice

2 cups orange juice

6 cups claret

1/2 cup lemon juice

1 cup dry sherry

Boil sugar, cinnamon sticks, and 3 lemon slices in 1/2 cup water and strain, reserving syrup. Heat but do not boil remaining ingredients. Combine with syrup, garnish with additional lemon slices, and serve hot. Makes 20 servings.

       Williamsburg Chicken and Ham Bake

Wondering what to do with those Christmas leftovers? Try this!

1/2 cup butter, divided

2 cups dry bread cubes

1/2 cup chopped onions

1/3 cup unsifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups light cream

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage

2 cups cubed cooked ham

3 cups cubed cooked chicken

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan; toss in bread cubes. Set aside. In a large saucepan, melt remaining butter. Add onion and saute until tender. Stir in flour and salt and cook 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in cream and milk. Add sage. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a full boil. Remove from heat and stir in ham and chicken. Pour mixture into 12 x 7 1/2 x 2-inch baking dish. Top with bread cubes. Bake about 25 minutes, or until mixture is bubbling and bread cubes are browned. Makes 6-8 servings. 

What would Thomas Jefferson have served on his Christmas table? Being a renowned gourmet, he might have honored his guests by serving a newfangled recipe that was one of his favorite dishes, macaroni and cheese. Unlike Mr. Jefferson, we moderns don’t have to make our own macaroni and then break up the pasta into suitable pieces. We can just start with a box of elbows and take it from there!

            Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Mac’n’Cheese

Boil 2 cups of macaroni in salted water until tender. Grate 1/4 pound of cheese and mix with the same amount of butter. Stir into macaroni and bake in a moderate oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Tasha Tudor, though hardly Colonial, had Colonial roots, the best—her great-great-grandfather, Colonel William Tudor, was a close friend of George Washington and General Lafayette. For a very different kind of gingerbread, try her grandmother’s cherished family recipe. I have a feeling old Ben Franklin would have enjoyed these crisp-edged, soft-centered gingerbreads!

        Tudor Family Gingerbread

Tasha notes that this gingerbread, “like cornbread, is best cooked in an old-fashioned cast iron pan. It is soft, with crisp edges… It is especially good split and buttered for tea or breakfast.”

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1 cup light molasses

2 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water

1 1/2 cups dark raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 iron cornbread pans (12 pieces each) or, if you do not have cornbread pans, 2 9 x 9-inch square cake tins. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and the molasses, then sift in the dry ingredients and mix the batter well. Add the hot water and beat until smooth. Stir in the raisins. Fill the prepared tins or pans half full, place them in the preheated oven, and bake the gingerbread 25 to 30 minutes, until done. Makes 24 servings.  

I hope something from this assortment tempts you to try your hand at a Colonial dish this Christmas season!

         ‘Til next time,




1. Deb - December 25, 2008

That gingerbread sounds like something I would actually eat unlike the gingerbread cookie and house concoctions, which can break a tooth. Thanks for the recipes.

Much as I love ginger, I’m not a fan of gingerbread either, Debbi, though I’m not sure if it’s the texture or the (gack) molasses. I thought this recipe sounded promising, too, especially hot and buttered, but I think I’d try maple syrup instead of molasses, or maybe Lyle’s Golden Syrup. If you make it, let me know what you think!

2. GingerbeadProject - February 19, 2009

Im 13 Years Old. Im Doing A Project In School In My Social Studiews/History Class. I have to create a revoloutinary war food/desert. I chose gingerbead. Your above information plus the one above comment helped me alot. It added a whole page to the already three paged information that I have. If you know anything else taht could help me in this project (Things based of how revolotionary war-era deserts where cooked, and anything else you might know, could you please message me on here as to help me with my project? Id appreciate it.

Hi! Glad I could be of help. Sounds like you’re off to a good start. Here are a few more things that you could add: Back in Colonial times, people didn’t have stoves—not even woodstoves. They cooked in huge, open fireplaces (many were actually big enough to walk into!) and bake ovens, brick-lined enclosures used exclusively for baking. Some houses had these bake ovens built into the wall beside their kitchen fireplace, while others had outdoor buildings that housed their bake ovens or freestanding outdoor bake ovens. Lucky families had both, since both were useful: An indoor bake oven would help warm the house in cold weather, while an outdoor oven would keep the house from overheating in warm weather and would reduce the chance of a house fire (a real concern back in those days). Both indoor and outdoor bake ovens worked the same way: The housewife or cook would build a big fire right on top of the bricks in the oven. When the fire had died down to embers, she would rake them off through a slot in back of the oven so they’d fall beneath the oven floor and continue to heat it. But as you can imagine, that floor was really hot from the fire. So she would do her whole day’s (or even week’s) baking at once, starting with the foods that required the most heat, like loaves of bread. As the bake oven gradually cooled down, she’d add foods that required less time and less heat to cook, like pies, biscuits, cornbread, and gingerbread. She’d have put the gingerbread in the oven in a cast-iron pan with a lid. What if you lived in Colonial times and couldn’t afford a separate bake oven? Then you’d use a three-legged, lidded cast-iron pan called a spyder and set it directly into the embers (also called coals, though they were wood, not coal) in your fireplace. The spyder’s legs held the pan up off the coals so the bottom of the gingerbread wouldn’t burn. In Colonial times, gingerbread was made like cornbread or brownies, in a pan, not in the cookie form we know better today. Ever wondered why gingerbread is usually made with molasses? Back in Colonial times, sugar was so expensive that it was kept under lock and key—assuming you could even afford any—and doled out in tiny bits. Molasses, the syrupy residue left over from cane sugar-making, was a lot cheaper, so frugal Colonial housewives used it in dishes like baked beans and gingerbread. Hope this helps!—Silence

3. A Colonial touch for Christmas Poor Richard Almanac | fire pit - June 14, 2009

[…] A Colonial touch for Christmas Poor Richard Almanac Posted by root 4 minutes ago (https://ourfriendben.wordpress.com) Your above information plus the one above comment helped me alot she 39 d have put the gingerbread in the oven in a cast iron pan with though they were wood not coal in your fireplace list previous next theme regulus by binary moon middot blog at wordpres Discuss  |  Bury |  News | A Colonial touch for Christmas Poor Richard Almanac […]

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