Tag Archives: colonial cooking

Butter Chicken: American Colonial Curry

Close your eyes and imagine an American Colonial meal.  I imagine that you’re seeing roasts, overcooked vegetables, pastries both sweet and savory. But I’ll bet you didn’t think to put a curry dish like butter chicken on your Puritan grandmother’s table.  I certainly didn’t, until I received some spices from Pereg to try. I started looking into what spices the 17th and 18th century American colonists might have been using.

Our grandmothers in that period would not have been using these particular spices, however, with the possible exception of Sumac. (I’ll explain below)

Pereg Spices

Some of the Pereg spices sent to me for testing.

How Do We Know What Seasonings Colonists Used?

Spices in Colonial America

Common Spices used in 18th century America

I remembered reading in the book A Thousand Years Over A Hot Stove a list of recommended foods for the early settlers to take with them on the Atlantic passage.  Higginson’s book, New England Plantation published in 1630 included packing hints for survival in the new world. Under spices, Francis Higginson recommended housewives should take Sugar, Pepper, Cloves, Mace, Cinnamon, Nutmegs and Fruit. (Not sure about that one? Dried fruit, probably.)

In my own family, I have read two wills that shed light on products that housewives considered essential.

Rudolph Manbeck, an ancestor of my husband, wrote a bill in 1794 that sets aside certain property for his wife, including

  • half bushel of salt
  • 1/4 lb. pepper
  • 1/4 lb. allspice
  • 1/3 lb. ginger
  • 4 gall(on) vinegar

In the inventory of Asahel Platt’s property (he died intestate in 1833) I learned that he must have been a merchant. So what seasonings did he carry in his store? The long inventory includes these items:

  • 34 lb. pepper
  • 3 lb. spice ( unspecified)
  • 7 lb. ginger
  • 2 lb. Salt Peter (sic) [used for curing meat]
  • 5/16 lb. nut megs
  • 1/2 lb. cloves
  • 22 lb. raisins
  • 1 barrel of salt

Home Grown Herbs and Sumac Berries

Of course these lists focus on those seasonings that need to be imported. Additionally, plenty of herbs were growing just outside the kitchen door.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove reminds us that the spices and herbs are used as much for curing as for cooking.  The author lists thistle, borage, peppermint, licorice, rosemary, lavender, sage, anise, fennel, cloves, elder, garlic and ginger and some of the multi-purpose spices and herbs.

Of the seasonings sent to me by Pereg, I thought Sumac might be the most likely to have been used by our Puritan ancestors.  After all indigenous people used the red-berried sumac, and our grandmothers learned to use many American Indian foods. If you think of Sumac as poison, don’t worry–that only applies to the white-berried sumac plant. The red berry grows on another plant and is entirely edible.

However, I can find no direct reference to that cross over from American Indians to colonists. Too bad, because although I have never used sumac before I have become a fan. It has such a beautiful color and a nice tangy lemon, almost sweet and sour taste.

Butter Chicken meal

Butter chicken with eggplant and salad. Note sprinkle of Sumac on the butter chicken and on the eggplant.

Butter Chicken: Colonial Curry

I perked up when I read about the popularity of curried foods in America, even in the mid-17th century. If I want to use sumac in colonial food, curry provides a great opportunity. English housewives had discovered curry early in that century, and anything popular in England  carried over into American habits.  The most popular cookbook in the late 18th century in American would have been The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Simple by Hannah Glasse.

The clever Ms. Glasse recreated tastes of dishes made with seasonings not yet available in either England or America.  Which brings us to her Butter Chicken, a curry dish popular in the 17th and 18th century.  Although her version had much simpler seasonings than the “original” Indian dish, as spices became more available, we see an expansion of seasonings in later recipes.  Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, calls for eight spices (ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cayenne) instead of the three in Glasse’s recipe (ginger turmeric, pepper).

You will notice a lack of curry powder in both–colonial housewives had to be creative rather than use pre-mixed seasonings like curry powder.

I was a bit surprised that turmeric would have been used by the 18th century housewives, but there it is in Glasses’s 1774 book as she makes India pickle and butter chicken.

Check out  Silkroad Gourmet  for a nice comparison of these two recipes that were published fifty years apart. There you will find the entire recipe as originally published in each of the books.

I started with Hannah Glasse’s curry recipe for Butter Chicken, but spiced it up just a bit. My use of spices in the recipe as written below still could use some pepping up, I think. Let me know what spices you will use in Butter Chicken.

Colonial Butter Chicken

Serves 3-4
Prep time 10 minutes
Cook time 35 minutes
Total time 45 minutes
Allergy Milk
Dietary Gluten Free
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Serve Hot
Region Asian


  • 1 1/2lb chicken breast (cut in one inch chunks)
  • 1/4lb butter ((one stick))
  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 1 tablespoon powdered ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon sumac
  • 1 tablespoon garlic (finely chopped)
  • 1 1/2-2 cup chicken broth
  • 3/4 cups orange juice ([or use lemon juice])
  • 1/2 cup half and half


1. Melt the butter in a skillet, brown chicken slightly. Be careful not to overcook--just get rid of all pink.
2. Remove chicken from pan and add onion to saute until soft.
3. Add spices and garlic and stir about one minute.
4. Put chicken back in pan and pour broth over--just about covering.
5. Turn heat down and simmer about 20 minutes.
6. Add cream and juice, stir well until warm, then remove chicken again.
7. Bring liquid to a boil and reduce until you get desired thickness.
8. Stir chicken in briefly to warm, then spoon over rice. Sprinkle with sumac powder.
P.S.  Pereg Gourmet sent me several spices plus dried Lemon Verbena so that I could try them out and share them with you.  This gift is welcome, but does not affect my opinion.  I had not heard of Pereg, even though they have been around since the early twentieth century, but I am glad to learn about them.  Their spice jars are much bigger than the usual ones on my shelf and the prices seem very reasonable.

Perez big spice jars

Comparing the size of most spice jars on my shelf with the standard size of a Pereg spice jar.

This size difference is a mixed blessing.  Since the price for the large Pereg jar is the same or less than the normal size, they are a bargain. However, I don’t generally use up a jar of spice before it is a year old–the time period in which most should be replaced.  And secondly, storage becomes a problem because the large jars do not fit on my standard spice shelves, and hog space in a drawer.

On the plus side for Pereg, they have an amazing variety of mixes ready to go for many kinds of cuisine.  If you feel like experimenting and don’t want to invest in ten different herbs and spices they’ve got you covered.  They carry a lot of spices that I have not seen routinely on my grocer’s shelf–like the Sumac and in the very top picture the fenugreek seeds.  If you shop their website, you may be inspired to try some very different kinds of cuisine.

Three Colonial Essentials In One Cornbread: Pumpkin,Cornmeal, Molasses

I realize that just last week I  shared a recipe for Cornmeal Muffins (and they are THE authentic cornmeal muffins from the Wayside Inn, so I hope you tried them), but then I came across another of Robin Benzle‘s terrific videos in which she combines two mainstays of our ancestors food cupboard–and a third mainstay for good measure–in a new twist on cornbread.

Cornmeal, pumpkin and molasses. Three basics of colonial cooking go into this cornbread.

Pumpkin Cornbread

Robin Benzle’s Pumpkin Pecan Cornbread

Here’s a video of Robin’s Pumpkin Pecan Cornbread with Molasses-Butter. Good by itself, the bread reaches sublime when you add the molasses-butter. Following the video, I have added a recipe you can print.

I have to admit this recipes cheats a bit and uses the modern pre-packaged cornbread mix, but if you want to be authentic, it would be easy to mix your Wayside Inn Old Mill ground cornmeal into the usual cornbread recipe and then add the additional ingredients.

Previously, we shared Robin’s mom’s Tuna-Macaroni Salad under our nostalgia category. Thanks for another terrific recipe, Robin.




Pumpkin Cornbread

Quick Pumpkin Pecan Cornbread and Molasses Butter

Jiffy Cornbread mix and canned pumpkin make a delicious quick bread to spread with molasses butter.
Course Bread
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Author Vera Marie Badertscher


  • 2 Boxes Jiffy Corn Bread Mix
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 and 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin puree NOT pumpkin pie mix
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 tbsp sugar or brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup chopped pecans

Molasses Butter

  • 1/4 Cup butter room temperature
  • 2 tsp molasses


  • Heat oven to 375, and grease loaf pan or 9" x 13" cake pan.
  • Mix all ingredients together and pour into prepared pan.
  • Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean--about 25 minutes.
  • While bread is baking, set out a stick of butter to soften.
  • Cool in pan for 10 minutes
  • Cut butter in chunks and put in small dish. Pour molasses over top. With a fork or spoon, mash the molasses into the butter, until the color is uniform. Chill or leave at room temperature for serving.
  • Cut and serve from pan, or turn out on cooling rack. When completely cool, store in plastic bag, or wrapped in foil for two days at room temperature or longer in refrigerator. Serve with molasses butter


You can use 1 tsp of pumpkin pie spice instead of the individual spices.  I give the individual spices because that gives you the ability to cut back on any you do not particularly like, or add more if you want a spicier blend.

Pumpkin Recipes: Survival Food on the Ohio Frontier

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

Poem written in 1630s America,  from History.org article on pumpkins .

When the settlers from New England first arrived in Marietta, in the Northwest Territory about 1790, Indian wars were raging.  They had no easy trade with the east, their livestock was constantly in danger, they had to clear dense Ohio woods before they could plant vegetables, and then take the chance of going out of their forts to tend to their gardens. Even hunting was risky, said Benjamin Franklin Stone in his memoir of the pioneers of Israel Stone’s family.

Ohio Forest

Ohio Forest. Photo by Ben Millett from Flickr

In his autobiography, B.F. Stone says

Principle items of food were Indian bread, pork, potatoes and other garden sauce, occasional venison, bear and raccoon, opossums, squirrels, wild turkeys.

The war prevented us hunting much in the woods.  No apples, peaches or other cultivated fruits until the trees had time to grow from seed.

Great use was made of pumpkin.  We used to cut up and dry a great quantity of pumpkin.  Corn in the milk was dried for winter and spring.  Pumpkins, melons and garden vines grew more luxuriously [than in the middle 19th century.]

In the late 18th century, when my Ohio ancestors were depending on pumpkin recipes to keep them alive, the Europeans still disdained pumpkin, recently introduced to them, as food for the poor.

Like so many frontier foods, housewives found many ways to keep their family from getting bored with pumpkin. Not an easy task since pumpkin recipes benefit from sweetening and if ever two flavors were meant to go together, it is pumpkin and cinnamon.  if they had any cinnamon, it would have been in short supply, and for sweetening, they probably had to depend on maple syrup or honey once they ran out of the small amount of sugar they brought along, as it would be a while before traders would be delivering molasses to the frontier settlements.


Heirloom, eating pumpkins may not all be orange. Photo by Jeremy Seitz form Flickr

I found a great article at History.org, the website of Historic Williamsburg, with a very complete history of the use of pumpkin in America, from American Indians to today. Here’s a 17th century view of one way  pumpkins were cooked.

“A visitor to New England in 1674 wrote:

The Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple.”

Today we tend to limit ourselves to pumpkin already stewed and canned and to a pumpkin recipe on the can’s label for pie. Or maybe we munch on salted pumpkin seeds, removed when the kids made jack-o-lanterns. Our more versatile ancestors were using pumpkin recipes for side dishes, or stuffed pumpkin with various fillings eaten as a main dish.

But we are not just being lazy when we choose pumpkin in a can.  Pumpkins in America have been for decades bred for making jack-o-lanterns–sturdiness taking precedence over taste. And the thinner walls suitable for carving mean you don’t get as much pumpkin meat.  So if you’re going to cook up some pumpkin from scratch, be sure that you find a store that sells eating pumpkins–perhaps labeled “heirloom” or you will definitely be disappointed.

What we call pumpkin pie, was known by them as pumpkin pudding. It just happened to be baked in a “paste”, which we call by the finished name–crust. The article from Williamsburg points out that the Amelia Simmons American cookbook in 1796 gave a recipe for pumpkin pudding that sounds almost identical to the pie filling you can find on the label of the canned pumpkin today. There are some things that you just can’t really improve on.


“…the Pilgrims seem to have been first to make pumpkin beer or ale. A later stanza of the poem quoted above provides evidence that they were versatile with their ingredients:

If Barley be wanting to make into Malt, We must be contented and think it no Fault, For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.

The Pilgrim recipe was said to involve a mixture of persimmons, hops, maple syrup, and, of course, pumpkin. Further south in Virginia, planter Landon Carter mentions pumpkins in his diary in 1765. He, too, concocted some sort of alcoholic beverage from fermented pumpkins. He christened it pumperkin.” [This information also from the history.org article. ]

Boy, I wouldn’t mind having a taste of pumperkin.  That sounds delicious!


NOTE: Be sure you’re buying eating pumpkins rather than jack o’ lantern pumpkins when you try these recipes. And if you want to try pumpkin in more modern recipes, try substituting it fro butternut squash in any recipe.


History.org article on pumpkins from Colonial Williamsburg Journal Autumn 09.

The website  Jas. Townsend and Son made the video. At their online store, theysell items for American Revolution recreators. They carry cooking and eating necessities including some ingredients and cookbooks and DVDs for recreating the 18th century kitchen. (Video is available on you tube).

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Stone, excerpt from New England Magazine, both available at Google Books for search.