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Image Delaware Food Ways: Quaker Ideals and North Midland Traditions

This regional culture was both a mind-set and a material order. It strictly regulated most ordinary acts of everyday life—even waking and sleeping, cooking and eating.

Consider food for an example. Quaker food ways seemed at first sight to be exceptionally plain and simple. But historian William Weaver observes from long study of this subject that “in Quaker terms, there is nothing so complex as simplicity.” Here again, the plain style became almost baroque in its cultural elaboration.1

Quaker food ways began to take form in the first period of this religious movement. The founder George Fox himself categorically condemned all “feastings and revellings, banquetings and wakes.”2 Indulgence of the appetite was thought to be a “pampering the lower self.”3 A simple diet was recommended on the highest Christian authority. Margaret Fell wrote: “Christ Jesus saith that we must take no thought what we shall eat.”4 The plain style was further reinforced by Quaker principles of Christian charity. “Is this the Saints’ practice,” asked Nayler, “ … living in excess of apparel and diet … when your brethren want food and raiment?”5

In the second period of Quakerism, William Penn and others of his generation developed this doctrine of culinary asceticism in copious detail. “Luxury has many parts,” he warned, “and the first that is forbidden by the self-denying Jesus is the belly.”6 Penn’s advice to his children devoted an entire chapter to this theme, and revealed how very indulgent a Quaker’s thoughts could become on the subject of self-restraint. He wrote:

Eat therefore to live and do not live to eat. That’s like a man, but this below a beast.

Have wholesome but not costly food, and be rather cleanly than dainty in ordering it.

The recipes of cookery are swelled to a volume, but a good stomach excels them all, to which nothing contributes more than industry and temperance.

If thou rise with an appetite, thou are sure never to sit down without one.

The proverb says that “enough is as good as a feast,” but it is certainly better, if superfluity be a fault, which never fails to be at festivals.

The luxurious eater and drinker who is taken up with an excessive care of his palate and belly. … so full is he fed that he can scarce find out a stomach, which is to force hunger rather than to satisfy it.

Penn offered the same advice on the subject of drink.

Rarely drink but when thou art dry; nor then, between meals, if it can be avoided.

The smaller the drink, the clearer the head and the cooler the blood, which are great benefits in temper and business.

Strong liquors are good at some times and in small proportions, being better for physic than food, for cordials than common use.

All excess is ill, but drunkeness is of the worst sort: it spoils health, dismounts the mind, and unmans men; it reveals secrets, is quarrelsome, lascivious, impudent, dangerous, and mad. In fine, he that is drunk is not a man, because he is so long void of reason, that distinguishes a man from a beast.7

These epigrams were conceived within an ontology of sensual restraint which lay very near the center of Quaker values:

It is a cruel folly to offer up to ostentation so many lives of creatures as make up the state of our treats, as it is a prodigal one to spend more in sauce than in meat.

The most common things are the most useful, which shows both the wisdom and goodness of the great Lord of the family of the world.

What therefore he has made rare, don’t thou use too commonly, lest thou shouldst invert the use and order of things, become wanton and voluptuous, and they blessing prove a curse.

“Let nothing be lost,” said the Saviour; but that is lost is misused.

Neither urge another to that thou wouldst be unwilling to do thyself, nor do thyself what looks to thee unseemly and intemperate in another.

The central theme in this philosophy was clear and consistent. Food and drink were not to be consumed for pleasure but only for subsistence. Common things were best, and moderation was to be cultivated in their consumption.8

Quaker meetings sternly enforced this idea of temperance in diet and drink. Lapses were punished severely, and offenders were required to stand before the meeting and to take shame upon themselves, as William Kay was made to do in Morley meeting:

Having a weight upon my spirit because of my miscarriages at thy house in being overtaken with wine. This testimony I now give out against myself that I did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord …. I take to myself the shame, and clear the people of God and their way.9

Excess was prohibited in everything except moderation itself, which was recommended without reserve by the moralists of Pennsylvania. Feasting, which had so large place in the folkways of Virginia, was condemned by Delaware Quakers. The result of these injunctions was a spirit of culinary austerity that persisted in the folkways of the Delaware Valley until the twentieth century. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting” wrote Anne Cooper in 1762.10

Quakers also refused to touch foods that were tainted by social evil. Some did not use sugar because it had been grown by slave labor. Others banned salt from their tables, because it bore taxes which paid for military campaigns.11 Benjamin Lay, a Quaker eccentric who lived in a cave, refused to drink tea or wear animal skins or even to use wool. Joshua Evans refused to eat the flesh of any creature, and drank only broth and gravy. Few Quakers were as radical as Lay and Evans, but many practiced some small act of symbolic sacrifice. Anne Mifflin, for example, gave up butter because she believed that it was “corrupting” to the spirit.12

This Quaker austerity was severely tested by the cornucopia that opened before them in America. One wrote home in 1677 that there was “plenty of fish and fowl, and good venison very plentiful, and much better than ours in England, for it eats not so dry, but is full of gravy, like fat young beef.”13 Others reported “peaches in such plenty that some people took their carts a peach-gathering,” and “great store of wild fruits, as strawberries, cranberries, hurtleberries which are like our billberries in England but for sweetness; they are very wholesome fruits. The cranberries [are] much like cherries for color and bigness … an excellent sauce is made of them for venison, turkeys and other great fowl, and they are better to make tarts than either gooseberries or cherries.”14

The rivers of the Delaware Valley teemed with fish, especially “fine rock and perch, caught with hook and line.” Shad choked the streams in their spring spawning runs.15 The sky was darkened by flocks of fowl, that were captured easily in nets and carried to market by the cartload. In 1829, an early historian of Philadelphia informed his incredulous contemporaries that “his forefathers … saw a flock fly over the city so as to obscure the sun for two or three hours, and many were killed from the tops of the houses.”16As late as 1763 a Jersey Quaker brought down thirty pigeons with a single round of bird-shot.17

But Quaker austerity was more than a match for American abundance. Edward Shippen wrote, “We eat so moderately … that the whole day seems like a long morning to us.”18

At an early date in the eighteenth century the cuisine of the Delaware Valley began to settle into a fixed pattern, in which the Quaker ideal of simplicity combined with a style of traditional cooking by humble folk in England’s North Midlands which has persisted in that region even to the twentieth century.

A quantitative survey of regional food ways in Britain finds that just as baking was specially characteristic of East Anglia, and frying of southern and western England, so boiling has been predominant in the north. The leading British expert on this subject writes, “ … today, the northerner still prefers to boil where the southerner roasts or grills—the cooking pot as always, resisting the advance of the oven.”19

These boiled breakfasts and dinners became an important part of Delaware food ways. John F. Watson remembered from his childhood in the Delaware Valley during the mid-eighteenth century that “in the country, morning and evening repasts were generally made of milk, having bread boiled therein, or else thickened with pop-robbins—things made up of flour and eggs into a batter, and so dropped in the boiling milk.”20

Other important parts of Quaker cuisine were boiled dumplings and puddings. So often did they appear on the table that Israel Acrelius called them “Quakers’ food.”21 Peter Kalm also observed that boiled apple dumplings were a daily dish in the Delaware Valley. Pot-puddings of many kinds were also prominent in this diet. The cookery books of this region made a specialty of puddings and dumplings.22

The Quaker colonists also introduced from England a special form of food-preservation which came to be characteristic of the

Delaware Valley. This was a method of dehydration by boiling, simmering or standing. The classical example was the foodstuff that became famous throughout America as Philadelphia cream cheese. In its traditional form, it was not truly a cheese in the usual sense, for it was made without rennet or curds. Cream or milk was warmed gently over a slow heat and allowed to stand between cloths for several weeks, until it had lost much of its moisture and become semi-solid. “True cream cheese,” writes William Weaver, was “nothing more than partially dehydrated sour cream.” He writes that “the technique for making cream cheese was brought to Pennsylvania on a large scale during the late 1600s by the English and Welsh settlers.”23

Fruits and vegetables were also preserved in a similar way. The Quakers were fond of “apple cheese” as they called it, which was much like apple butter. The pulp of the fruit was thickened and partly dried by slow cooking, and seasoned with sugar and spices. “Cheese” in the Delaware Valley as in the North Midlands became a generic term for “any sort of food thickened or partially dehydrated by slow cooking or pressing.” Special favorites were plum cheese, pear cheese, walnut cheese and lemon cheese.24

Lemon cheese, also called lemon butter, was in Weaver’s words “perhaps the one dish that Quakers in the Middle-Atlantic States identify as a symbol of their cookery.” It was a heavy custard which appeared on Delaware tables not as a desert but as part of the main course. A variant called orange cheese or orange butter was (and is) a Christmas dish in Quaker households.

Dehydration was also used by the Quakers to preserve their meats. A favorite staple was dried beef, which when properly prepared would keep for several years.25 Weaver writes that “Quaker dried beef could be purchased in country stores almost everywhere in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and … became … firmly labeled as a Quaker food in the Middle Atlantic region.” Dried beef was often served as a “sauce” on puddings and dumplings; in the eighteenth century it was called “Quaker gravy.”26

Quaker cooking was not, of course, the only food way in the Delaware Valley. Earlier occupants kept their own customs, and German immigrants introduced another culinary tradition in the eighteenth century. There was much borrowing back and forth among these various ethnic groups. Quaker cooks quickly adopted compatible German dishes such as scrapple—a boiled pot pudding of meat and buckwheat which became a part of the regional cuisine. But the Quakers themselves and their English customs set the tone for a distinct style of Delaware food ways, which persisted in this region for many generations.27

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