The Holiday Table
By Hillary Delaney
As the holidays approach, planning begins for gathering with friends and family, oftentimes around a table of rich, delicious dishes, not normally served at the daily family dinner table. This is the case historically, as well; families saved the best fattened livestock, and the prettiest examples of canned preserves for special meals. Much as it is today, Boone County’s early holiday gatherings were a showcase of the “best available” to place upon the table. Of course, meals would vary from family to family, according to a number of factors including: income, cultural tradition, available resources and time.
Some German immigrants to Boone County may have planned ahead for familiar treats from the homeland, such as “Lebkuchen”. This German holiday cookie contains candied orange peel, almond and cherry brandy, not typical ingredients found in the local general store. German sausages, which may be on the menu, could either be homemade or purchased from a German butcher in Cincinnati, requiring a day’s trip to the city.
On some local tables, greens seasoned with ham or fatback would be a welcome southern side dish. Historically, greens were cultivated and cooked by impoverished and enslaved families throughout the South, including Kentucky, and seasoned to cut their naturally bitter taste. They were once considered “weeds” by many of the privileged class, but are delicious prepared the traditional way, and rich in nutrients. Thanks to necessity and culinary creativity, these dishes now grace the tables of many Americans.
Native Americans gave early colonists their knowledge of corn cultivation. Certainly embraced by an agricultural community like Boone County, corn featured into daily diets as well as holiday meals, from cornbread stuffing to hasty pudding and corn soufflé.
Celebration meal planning would begin well in advance. Families of means may have ordered delicacies sent from New Orleans or St. Louis by steamboat weeks in advance of the arrival of important holiday guests. Local farmers would have an eye on care and feeding of the prize hog throughout the year, which would ultimately grace the holiday table and fill the smoke house. Many garden cooks would have spent many hot hours in the kitchen canning the summer’s best for celebrations in the autumn and winter.
Martha Dinsmore (1797-1859) left a treasure trove of her own favorite recipes among the collection at the Dinsmore homestead. Her recipe for “French Cake” sounds special enough for the holiday table. The ingredients were: 1 lb. white sugar, ¾ lb. butter, 1 lb. flour, 1 lb. citron, the whites of ten eggs and a glass of wine. Preparation and instruction were not included with the recipe, but one can assume the wine would go into the cake, not the baker.
Cooking methods have changed, but enjoyment of holiday treats has remained. For historical recipes enjoyed locally, early issues of the Boone County Recorder have (1875-1880) contain delicious holiday goodies sure to please the modern palate.
Browse Kentucky cookbooks here
A variety of early American Christmas recipes can be found here