Living History: New Year’s Day, a Thinly Veiled Pub Crawl

Waiting for callers on New Year’s Day. (source)

19th century New Yorkers didn’t do their drinking on New Year’s Eve; instead,  New Year’s Day was the day for revelry, in what the Merchant’s House Museum recently described as “an elegant, albeit thinly masked, pub crawl.”

On New Years Day, it was tradition to travel all around New York and visit the houses of your friends and family.  This was an old Dutch tradition brought to New Amsterdam that was revived in New York in the 19th century, and celebrated by the entire city, not just Dutch immigrants and their descendants.  This custom was known as “calling,” and some people would visit between 30-100 houses in a day.

It was usually the men who would travel from house to house, while the women stayed at home to meet the guests–and they might see 200-300 friends and family in a day.  The days leading up to the occasion were particularly busy, as houses were cleaned top to bottom, sometimes refurnished, and there was a general slew of “baking, brewing, stewing, broiling, and frying” according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life – or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City, a fascinating, often sensationalized, encyclopedia on the city from 1872.

According to Lights and Shadows, women would have a new dress made, and would rely on hairdressers–or “artist of hair”–who would visit their homes.  But because the season was so busy, hairdressers would often have to work through the night, calling on the women at three or four in the morning.  The ladies would spent the rest of the night sleeping sitting up, or in some other Geisha-like sleeping arrangement, so they didn’t  muss their do.

Punchmakers were another set employed throughout the night–but I’ve written about them before, and you can read about them here.

A punch bowl in the collection of the William H. Seward House.

When the great day arrived, the whole city was already in motion by 9am.  If you’ve been doing this a number of years, you knew enough to make a bee-line for the houses with the best food.  Sometimes, as you ran into your friends on the street, you would exchange inside information about who has the best plumb pudding or charlotte russe this year.

A typical visit would consist of  giving the greetings of the season, accepting refreshments and then moving on to the next house.  The men would keep a list, and check off names or each family they visited.  The list was a necessity, for as the day rolled on, you’d accept a drink at every house.  According to Lights and Shadows

“At the outset, of course, everything is conducted with the utmost propriety, but, as the day wears on, the generous liquors they have imbibed begin to ‘tell’ upon the callers…Towards the close of the day, everything is in confusion–the door-bell is never silent.  Crowds of young men, in various stages of intoxication, rush into the lighted parlous, leer at the hostess in the vain effort to offer their respects, call for liquor  drink it, and stagger out, to repeat the scene at some other house…Strange as it may seem, it is no disgrace to get drunk on New Year’s Day.”

I’ve always loved this tradition  and have often sought to recreate it.  After the hubbub of the holidays, I can’t imagine anything more lovely that calling on all of my friends, and having a few quiet hours to enjoy their company.  I intended to make my rounds today, but after following the normal 21st century pattern of revelry, I woke up with a hangover so nasty that I haven’t done much of anything today.  I will leave in about an hour, to see two friends I haven’t got a chance to talk to since Thanksgiving, and to cut their silhouettes for their belated Christmas present.  I don’t think I’ll be drinking any punch, though.

Updated 11pm: My visit was wonderful! Will (originally of Manchester, England) and Sarah (of Kentucky!) presented my fiancee and I with a cheese platter, hot milky tea, and a real English Christmas pudding! They doused it in brandy and set it ablaze. It was the most perfect New Year’s visit.



You can read Lights and Shadows of New York Life here, or purchase it here
I’d also recommend The Battle for Christmas, a wonderful book on the development on the holiday season in America.  The author focuses a lot on New York life and tells some great stories about visiting on New Year’s Day.

Menus: A Dollar Christmas Dinner

This menu comes from Fifteen Cent Dinners for Families of Six, a pamphlet released during one of the nation’s worst depressions, the Panic of 1873.  The author, Juliet Corson, strives to lay out decent meals for families on a restricted budget (I once spent a week eating her suggested diet, read about it here).  She allows for a bit of holiday joy with this Christmas dinner for a dollar, which is the almost the exact same Christmas dinner the Cratchits ate in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Notice the special attention paid to the price of ingredients, which she says are based on the prices at Washington Market; the 5-lb turkey, and the last line: “After you have eaten it, think if I have kept my promise to tell you how to get comfortable meals at low prices.”

The History Dish: Automat Pumpkin Pie

A pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk. Can I get a hell yeah?

If you are going to be in NYC anytime in the next month, be sure to stop by the New York Public Library to catch the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.  It’s free and cute and you’ll learn a lot of fun facts about food.

The coolest part of the exihibit is the installation of  a functional automat.  Automats were the precursors to fast food; meals were made from scratch at commissaries all around the city, then shipped to the automat restaurants.  The food was placed behind little windows, and after dropping a few coins in a slot, you could open the doors and retrieve you treats.  A new automat opened, and closed, on St. Mark’s street a few years ago.

Horn & Hardart, the company that innovated the automat concept, was just as well known for the quality of their food as their unique way of delivering it.  At the Lunch Hour exhibit, you can play with their automat machine, opening the doors and such.  You won’t find any mac and cheese or baked beans inside, however–but they did thoughtfully include recipes of all the restaurant’s most famous dishes.

Horn and Hardart’s automat, from Lunch Hour NYC.

One of the recipes I grabbed when I visited was Hron & Hardart’s recipe for pumpkin pie.  I had a pie pumpkin hanging out in my kitchen; it had been a Halloween decoration, and I decided it was time for it to go to a better place.  Inside me.  I roasted it, which is an easy way to process pumpkin–see how here.  I also made a crust from scratch from this recipe, which is my go to pie crust.

The filling was easy to mix up and the pie doesn’t bake for long.  The recipe tells you “Insert a silver knife into the filling about one inch from the side of the pan.  If the knife comes out clean, the filling is done.”   I’ve never read pumpkin pie instructions so specific–a silver knife?  Using this method, the center comes out underdone and extremely creamy.  I’m not sure if I liked it though, being used to a firmer pie.

But the wildest thing about this pie is I realized I made a HUGE mistake when I baked it that turned out to be wonderful.  I only just now noticed that the recipe calls for evaporated milk NOT sweetened condensed milk, which is what I used.  But holy moly, have you ever made a pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk?  It’s astounding.  The caramel-ee flavor of the sweetened condensed milk really comes through in the final product.  Creamy, burnty sugary, pumpkin…awesome.

God pumpkin pie is great.  Why don’t we make it year round?  I guess something about it just doesn’t feel right in the summertime.

The Gallery: The Year of Two Thanksgivings

Photo by ohhmystarsandgarters.  Shop on Etsy!

I just finished an article for Etsy all about the legacy of canned cranberry sauce (you can read it here.)  While I was browsing around for historical Thanksgiving themed items, I found the wonderful piece of ephemera pictures above.

Take a close look at it.  What the hell is going on here?  “No matter which you pick…”  Why are their two Thanksgivings?

The Etsy shop’s owner dates this piece to 1939, and it was produced by the Jack Sprat grocery store in Wykoff, Minnesota.  This is slightly off topic, but the Wykoff family is one of the oldest in America.  A Dutch family that settled in Brooklyn–then Breuckelen–their 1652 family home is a museum, and it the oldest residence in New York City.

Back to the Thanksgiving–a quick Googling of Thanksgiving 1939 gives us the answer.  Stay with me, this gets complicated.

 Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863; he traditionally celebrated the holiday on the last Thursday in November, as did most Americans, although there was no official Thanksgiving day.  November 1939 had five Thursdays–as does November 2012.  Retailers in 1939 had a fit, because that meant the Christmas shopping season, which traditionally started the day after Thanksgiving, was shortened by nearly a week.  It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and the hope is that Christmas shopping will help restart the economy.  The retailers protest to President Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt decides to declare Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday of the month, not the last.

The American people FREAK.  Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, is invested with tradition (much of it highly fictionalized).   People felt that messing with the day to celebrate Thanksgiving was as bad as taking the turkey off the table.  The Thanksgiving on  November 23rd was dubbed “Franksgiving” in Roosevelt’s honor, and many people protested by celebrating on the traditional day, November 30th.  Some families had double Thanksgiving.

Eventually, we got over it, and to this day we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of the month, NOT the last.  But the end of the story is that it doesn’t freaking matter, because nowadays the Christmas shopping season starts on August 1st.

Handmade, Chicken-Flavored, Marshmallow Peeps

A pretty miserable Peep.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Marshmallow Peeps.  I would wait until after Easter and then descend upon Target to buy box after box of marked-down peeps, just pennies apiece.  As an adult, I can no longer devour peeps with quite the same enthusiasm, but they still fascinate me.  They represent some aspect of my personal history: a yearly spring awakening, marked by yellow and pink confections appearing faithfully on the store shelves.  The peeps eagerly peeked out from cellophane wrapped boxes, promising to be lovable and delicious.

Peep History

Marshmallows were originally made from “Marsh Mallow,” a plant whose roots produce a sticky, white, mucilaginous substance that can be whipped with egg whites and sweetened.  This treat was popular in France in the early 18th century.  By the end of the 19th century, the marsh mallow had been replace with gelatin. I have never been able to find fresh marsh mallow, but if I ever do, I’m going to make “original” marshmallows.

Sam Born, the founder of “Just Born,” the company that makes marshmallow peeps, arrived in New York via Russia in 1910.  Like many other Jewish immigrants, Born went in to the candy business.  Candy was cheap to make and easy to sell, the perfect start-up for a new immigrant looking for work.  In fact, many American candy companies were founded by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in including Tootsie Roll and Double Bubble.

Born opened his first retail location in Brooklyn in 1932, and in the 1950s, acquired a candy company called Rodda that produced a line of marshmallow Easter peeps.  Despite the fact that the company’s owners are still observant Jews, they are copacetic with the decidedly non-Kosher peeps.  “We see no conflict in offering a non-kosher brand or one that is so associated with Easter. We are a candy company for everyone,” said Ross Born,  Bob Born’s son (source).

Making a Hand-Made Peep

When marshmallow peeps were first produced, they were entirely handmade.  Each peep was squeezed out of a pastry bag one at a time; they were sugared and the eyes were hand-painted, and then the marshmallow chicks were left to dry.  Each peep took 27 hours to produce from start to finish.   Now, automated peep-making machines churn out several thousand peeps a day–each one takes about six minutes to make.  Watch this video–it’s awesome when the shoot the eyes on.

After I read about the original, labor-intensive Peeps, I wanted to try making a Peep on my own.  I just took a marshmallow making class at the Brooklyn Brainery, so I was inspired to creatively flavor my Peeps.  But what flavor should a chicken shaped marshmallow be??

I used Alton Brown’s marshmallow recipe, and replaced the water with–you guessed it–chicken bouillon!  I wanted a delicious, sweet and savoury, chicken-flavored Peep!  I followed Brown’s recipe, but something went wrong: I don’t know whether I cooked the sugar too long, or it’s because I used chicken bouillon instead of water, but my end result was less like marshmallow fluff and more like taffy.

I tried to squeeze it out of a pastry tube, and this is what I ended up with:

My second try was slightly better, and I formed it into one misshapen Peep.  I sprinkled him with yellow sugar and dotted his eyes on with a toothpick covered in vanilla extract.

He tasted just like ramen noodles.


The Gallery: Peep Show

In honor of the talk on candy I’m giving next week (for more info, go here) and the fact that Marshmallow Peeps will soon start appearing on store shelves, I’ve busted out this little piece of ephemera from 2006.  I hosted a party at my home at which I made a dozen different types of marshmallows.  Inspired by my love of Peeps, I decided to try out some “new” potential peep flavors.

I invited a panel of my friends over and had them vote on their favorites: they used a scale from one to five, with one being the worst and five being the best.  This above participant was rather kind; on other ballots Saffron and Curry peeps didn’t fare so well, while Honey, Maple and Rosewater scored consistently high.


Cocktail Hour: Alabama Eggnog

AFAP: As Fluffy As Possible

“AN Alabama eggnog is one that caresses the palate with velvety goodness, and then once it is within the stomach, suddenly becomes the counterpart of a kicking mule.  It is a fluffy, saffron colored beverage, delicate in fragrances, daintily blended, and pungently persuasive.”

My Festivus party was last weekend and I decided to try an 1940s recipe for “Alabama Eggnog.”  It comes from The Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky.  It’s a collection of essays written by the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project that were compiled with the  intention of creating a compendium of regional American foods.  It was to be titled “America Eats,” but with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the start of WWII, the project was never completed.

Kurlansky has selected what he feels are the most interesting and most important essays.  The one about the Southern style eggnog caught my eye.  It was believed to have evolved in the antebellum south, in the “big houses,” where it was a slave who gathered “…Hundred of eggs… to be blended with choice, well-aged whiskeys that the planters had ordered from distant distilleries.”

It was still being made at lavish parties in the Depression era, despite the fact that prohibition was enforced in parts of Alabama.

The recipe, as told by an “aged Negro,” goes like this:

Take a dozen eggs, and beat the yellows and the whites separately, both very light.  Put half the sugar in the whites, and half in the yellows.  When the yellows are beaten together very light, add the whiskey, two tablespoonfuls to an egg.  The fold in the beaten whites, and at last fold in one pint whipped cream, adding more whiskey to taste.  This proportion can be used to make any amount of egg nog.

Alabama Eggnog
From the WPA Writer’s Project America Eats manuscript, c. 1940;
as it appears in The Food of a Younger Land edited by Mark Kurlansky

12 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whiskey
1 pint cream

Separate egg whites and yolks into two separate bowls; add half the sugar to each bowl.  With an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form; add to a large punch bowl.  Next, beat egg yolks until very light in color.  Fold together egg whites and yolks.  Add whiskey.  Whip cream until soft peaks form, fold into egg mixture.  Serve with a sprinkle of fresh grated nutmeg.


At my party, an excited crowd gathered as I mixed the nog.  I tasted the frothy egg mixture after added the recommended amount of whiskey…and then proceeded to double it, adding more whiskey 1/2 cup at a time, tasting after each addition.  I ended up adding a full three cups of whiskey before it tasted just right.

“More cream???”  Someone exclaimed as I began to fold in snowy peaks of whipped cream.  My guests were intimidated by the froth.  “But how do you drink it??”

But drinking it wasn’t a problem; despite its fluff, it was easy to serve and drink.  It was like drinking marshmallow booze.

“Eggnog!  Eggnog is the best!” cheered Roommate Jeff.  The Alabama eggnog was drunk up long before the party’s end.

Four Pounds Flour Holiday Shopping Guide

These saffron rock candies from Kalustyan's would make great stocking stuffers.

Do you need a gift for a discerning historic gastronomist this holiday season?  Well, I got ya covered.  Here are two stores that will please the palate of your favorite foodie.

The Meadow is a fine food store that specializes in salt, chocolate and bitters.  In fact, that’s pretty much all they sell.  Trust me, it’s awesome.

They’ve got outposts in New York and on the west coast, but you can order online here.  For this holiday season, they recommend:

Scrappy’s Bitters Gift Set – For the cocktail connoisseur, Seattle based bitters producer Scrappy’s has assembled the perfect gift sets, $28 each.

  • 4-Pack Mini of Lime, Orange, Celery, Lavender.  Here>>
  • 4-Pack Mini of Orange, Chocolate, Cardamom, Grapefruit.  Here>>

Xocolatl de David Raleigh Bar – The best stocking-stuffer for candy lovers who happen to be grown ups—a sort of Snickers bar made with superb ingredients and serious love. Classicbacon, and bourbon varieties available. Get the El Dorado, all three, wrapped up nicely for $9. Here>>

Askinosie Drinking Chocolate – One of the true craft drinking chocolates—that’s hot cocoa, but with the precious, voluptuous cocoa butter still inside—made right here in the USA. $16.  Here>>

A few more suggestions are below.

Himalayan salt blocks; a beautiful shade of pink. They make interesting serving trays.

A whole wall of chocolate! I've heard the "Dolfin Dark Chocolate Earl Grey" bar is amazing.


This is the largest selection of bitters I've seen anywhere.

The have an exquisite collection of salt cellars for purchase.


From a store that sells three things to a store that sells everything:  Next time you’re in New York, check out Kalustyans.  I’m not sure how to describe this place; perhaps as an ingredients store?  The sell candy, bitters, sauces, flavorings, spices, flours, dried fruit…it’s a wonderland of delicious, often hard-to-find foods.  They were even recommended in the new book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All as the go-to place for exotic spices to make cocktail bitters.  You can also shop online here.

They have an incredible diversity of flours for sale.

So many dried fruits! I've never seen dried mulberries. They're expensive because they're hard to harvest and process, but in June mulberry trees in the city's parks poop fruit like its going out of style.

Dried citron halves!

Rose Syrup, Rose Water, Orange Blossom Water, and more!


The spice room. Nuff said.

Anything purchased here is sure to please the historian, cook, or gastronome in your life.  But if you’re still at a loss, sign up for the Brooklyn Brainery’s DIY Gifts for Your Foodie Friends workshop, and make your own holiday treat!

The History Dish: Mrs. Lefferts’ Pumpkin Pudding


Pumpkin Pudding

Half a pound of stewed pumpkin Three Eggs A quarter of a pound of fresh butter or a pint of Cream A quarter of a pound of powdered white sugar Half a glass of wine and brandy mixed Half a glass of rosewater teaspoon full of mixed mixed spice nutmeg, mace, cinnamon. Stew some pumpkin with as little water as possible.  Drain it in a cullender and prep it till dry.  When cold, weigh half a pound and pass it through a sieve.  Prepare the spice.  Stir together the sugar and butter or Cream  till they are perfectly light.  Add to them gradually the spice and liquid.  Beat the eggs very light and stir them into the butter and sugar alternately with the pumpkin.  Cover a soup plate with puff paste and put in the mixture.  Bake it in a moderate oven about half an hour.

This recipe was written well over a hundred years ago, by a Maria Lefferts.  The Lefferts, one of the first families of Brooklyn, lived in the area that is now known as Prospect Park;  one of their homes still remains as a historic site.  Their papers reside in the collections of the Brooklyn Historical Society, which is where I came across this handwritten cookbook, and this recipe for Pumpkin Pudding.

Pumpkin Pudding is better known today as Pumpkin Pie.  I love cooking an American standard from a historic recipe because it often gives me a new perspective.  After looking at recipes from the late 18th century, I retronovated my yearly pumpkin pie recipe with a 1/4 cup of brandy and 1/3 cup of pure maple syrup.  And I seldom make an apple pie without a dash of rosewater and some white wine.

Mrs. Leffert’s recipe dates to about 1820; her instructions are refreshingly precise, almost modern.  In most cookbooks from that time, let alone handwritten cookbooks, recipes can be as verbose as a list of ingredients.

Pumpkin Pudding
From the handwritten cookbook of Maria Lefferts, c. 1820.

1/4 lb (1 stick)  butter or 1 pint cream
1/4 lb (1/2 cup) super fine sugar
1/4 cup a glass of wine and brandy (I used brandy only)
1/4 cup a glass rose water
1 tsp mixed nutmeg, mace and cinnamon (I used 1/4 tsp each nutmeg and mace, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon)
1/2 lb (1  cup) stewed pumpkin
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  In an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  With the mixer on low, add spices and then brandy and rosewater.   Beat eggs with a fork until light, then add them to the butter mixture, alternating with the pumpkin.

Press a puff paste into a pie pan, and fill with pumpkin mixture. Bake for one hour.  Allow to cool completely before serving.  Custard pies are always better the next day.

For the crust, I used a basic puff paste recipe from the book Puff.


I chose to use butter, instead of cream, because it is Leffert’s first suggestion, and it’s not an ingredient normally used in pumpkin pie.  I was curious how it would change the texture.  However, by the time the pie was mixed and ready for the oven, the butter had made it a lumpy mess.


I was also extremely apprehensive about how much rosewater was going into this pie.  “1/2 a glass,” based on the proportion of the brandy I was adding, I estimated at being a 1/4 of a cup.   As I measured the odorous liquid, I wondered if I shouldn’t cut it down to two tablespoons.  I looked at Roommate Jeff, who had creeped into the kitchen.  “Should I put less rosewater in or should I just stop being a pussy and follow the recipe?”

“Stop being a pussy.”

And in went the rosewater.   While I was making the pie, the entire kitchen stunk of rosewater.  While the pie was baking, a sickening-sweet rosewater smell drifted from the oven.  When it was finally time to cut the pie and try a taste, the only flavor that my taste buds could understand was rosewater.

Blech. While I don’t mind rosewater in appropriate quantities, that’s all I could taste in the recipe: the sweet, floral, citrus notes of distilled rose petals, in nauseating quantities.  Even if I reduced the quantity of rosewater, I’m not sure how I would feel about it paired with pumpkin.  I tend to enjoy it more is dishes that are slightly acidic, like apple pie.

More than that, the texture was very unappealing.  Oddly, it had a gritty mouth-feel.

At any rate, the 190-year-old Pumpkin Pudding is coming into work with me today, so we’ll see what the verdict is from my coworkers.  They’re nerds, so they’ll at least appreciate the history.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Mrs. Lefferts: I’ve had better.