I like historical biographies. I find learning about how past generations lived, practiced medicine and government, and of course what they ate fascinating. I am a avid collector of books and have picked up some very old books for pennies at garage sales. One such book is titled, “My Boyhood,” by John Burroughs, copyright 1924.
Mr. Burroughs was born on the family farm in the Catskills, in Delaware County, New York on 1837. He was the seventh of ten children and grew up to be a distinguished author and respected conservationist. In his book, “My Boyhood” he acknowledges his friendships with many of the rich and famous of that time period including: Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison. In addition he describes personally seeing many famous Civil War figures such as William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln.
What engaged my interest in his book was not Mr.Burroughs’ social, political, scientific or literary contacts, but his descriptions of every day life growing up in early 1800’s New England. He discusses in great detail the work and farming techniques used at that time. However what really surprised me was his description of the variety of foods served at his family’s table. He describes the many fresh foods available and the techniques used to transport fresh produce long distances without refrigeration. As a young boy, he was no stranger to celery, peaches, oranges, lemons and strawberries.
During the 1800’s strawberries went from being a seasonal wild berry treat that was gathered in the woods, to a domesticated delicacy highly desired by Europe’s aristocracy. Soon the general public heard of this tasty red fruit and they wanted to dine on the same sweet treat. Before long there were “strawberry trains” transporting fruit from rural growers to urban consumers.
The strawberry craze soon jumped the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in American. In 1843 strawberry farmers in Cincinnati, Ohio, were finally able to ship their first train load of berries using refrigerated rail cars. The method of refrigeration, packed ice, helped to greatly extend the strawberry season well into the summer months. Soon,”strawberry lines” were established and trains transported the fruit to the western prairies. Hosting a “Strawberry Party” became the rage in Victorian American homes.
Mary Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, loved eating berries, especially strawberries and was known for hosting strawberry parties in their Springfield, Illinois home. Her strawberry parties were not small affairs, in one of her letters she mentions that almost seventy people had attended her last party. She continued the tradition of strawberry parties when her husband was elected president and she became First Lady. She even had a dress designed whose fabric was embroidered with bunches of berries.
Mary Lincoln modeling her “Berry” dress
No food was left to waste in a Victorian home or garden and strawberries were no exception to this rule. Even with modern refrigeration berries can become over-ripe and spoil very quickly. Cooks, during ages past, processed the fruit that was not eaten fresh into jams, jellies, preserves, and vinegar. Strawberries were also dried to be used the next winter in breads, muffins, cakes and puddings.
In addition to collecting historical biographies, I also collect cookbooks. A cookbook that is very special to me is entitled, From Lincoln’s Table, A President’s Culinary Journey from Cabin to Cosmopolitan, authored by Donna D. McCreary and contains Mary Lincoln’s Strawberry Jam recipe.
Mary Lincoln’s Strawberry Jam
1 quart fresh strawberries
1 quart sugar
Juice of half a lemon
In a large deep heavy-bottomed cooking pot combine strawberries and sugar. Bring to a slow boil while stirring with a wooden spoon. (If you don’t have one carved by Abraham Lincoln, you can substitute one from your closest convenience store. If it is a hot day just be sure to water your saddle horse good before you head into town.) Stir the mixture gently and try to keep the berries whole. Once the mixture reaches a boil, continue to boil for 15 minutes, stirring only occasionally.
Remove from heat and let cool. Gently stir in the lemon juice. Skim off any white foam that may have gathered at the top of the jam. Pour finished jam into hot, sterilized jars and seal using a boiling water-bath method.
Blogger’s Note: I really hate the thought of strawberries going to waste and plan on posting additional strawberry jam recipes throughout this week.