In 1747, a young British wife of an Irish soldier wrote and published what would become a most popular book.
Her name was Hannah Glasse and the book was The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It was reprinted twenty times by the end of the 1700s and could be found in just about every kitchen in the English countryside and the American colonies.
It is considered one of the first collections of rural recipes, designed for the home and the hearth instead of the court and the castle, and written in plain English to help and instruct wives and domestic servants instead of chefs, hunters, butchers and gourmets.
It was the first cookery book to take into account a house’s purse and economy, favoring the local herbs, fruits and wild game that could be found and hunted, for free or for cheap, in the typical rural village, out in the street markets or along the country roads.
This, in itself, was revolutionary. The subtitle of the book says it best: far exceeds any Thing of its Kind yet publifhed.
At the end of her introduction, Hannah Glasse states her simple mission: only hope my Book will answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.
Flipping through the table of contents, there are recipes for every sort of occasion and audience. Chapter Four is entitled: To make a number of pretty little dishes fit for a supper, side dish, and little corner dishes for a great table. Chapter Ten contains recipes under the heading, Directions for the Sick, and Chapter Eleven is written For Captains of Ships.
There’s even a recipe for moonshine, plus directions on how to make homemade wines using raspberries, quince, cherries, elderberries and dandelion.
She cooked with a whole different menagerie of animals. Sure, you got the usual proteins of beef, pork, poultry, mutton and eggs, plus salmon and carp and cod, anchovies and mackerel.
But then there are recipes for tame ducks, teal, wigeons, woodcocks, snipes, partridges, pigeons, lark and eel.
One of her most famous recipes is for traditional jugged hare. We would call it rabbit stew except, when making jugged hare, you stuff the hare in a jug and place the jug in the pot of simmering broth.
That’s a technique that hasn’t survived into the twenty-first century but I’m not complaining. In the end, Hannah’s directions are to just pick apart the meat from the bones of the hare and add it to the flavorful broth, serve hot.
Skipping that step seems okay. Saving trouble was Hannah’s goal, after all, and in today’s modern kitchen, actually jugging a hare seems like a whole mess of trouble.
But what about the first step of her recipe?
Go catch ye a hare.
We've made it pretty easy to skip that step too.
Well, not me.
Not this time. Not now, especially not now.
Citybillies, these are the days and nights of the Strawberry Moon and there is plenty of food out there for the taking, just ripening on the vine, ready to be plucked and picked from the mean streets of the city grid and into the warm kitchen of the urban cabin.
So, in the great tradition of Hannah Glasse, I humbly present Cookery with Jon Spruce…
…wherein I will forage and prepare one of spring’s best recipes, featuring two of my favorite Strawberry Moon ingredients.
“OUR DIET MUST ANSWER TO THE SEASON…”
First step in this recipe?
Fetch ye some honeysuckle.
I found my honeysuckle patch wrapped around a fence along Lancaster Avenue in West Philly.
If you’re having trouble finding honeysuckle, then you must be perpetually standing upwind.
My best advice for you? Turn around, man.
It’s not hiding. A honeysuckle gives itself away in a breeze.
And such a breeze. Those little trumpets of a flower blow a tantalizing scent, full of light and lavender, with just the slightest hint of citrus.
For many people, myself included, the honeysuckle is one of the most evocative smells of spring. Mention honeysuckle in a conversation and, I’ll bet my bottom dollar, you’ll hear a wistful tale starring grandparents, siblings, dogs or summertime friends.
Mine takes place at the old tot lot, a few blocks away from grandma’s house.
It’s kind of funny, then, that the most famous quote about honeysuckle comes right at the beginning of the Los Angeles crime movie classic, Double Indemnity, screenplay written by Raymond Chandler.
It was a hot afternoon and I can still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along that street. How could I know that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?
Turn around, man.
But I suppose, if you’re hard of smelling, then you can always identify the honeysuckle by the symmetrical, tubular flowers, white or yellow or orange, that always grow in pairs…
…and by the way its thin vine climbs and snakes its way through something like a fence.
There on Lancaster Avenue, I plucked that whole vine free of honeysuckle flowers and then moved down to the next patch along the fence.
Now, I’d have to try to capture its flavor.
We’ve all done this, right?
You take the honeysuckle flower…
…and you gently pinch off its tapered end, where it was connected to the vine.
With grace and with tenderness, you pull its stamen through the flower…
…and, if you’re lucky or if you’re blessed, you’ll get a drop of that floral honey.
What does it taste like, exactly?
Well, here’s where I go beyond the traditional science of taste and flavor.
According to my first grade teacher, taste comes in four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Each one has its own country on the map of the tongue.
Some cultures include spicy. In 1908, a professor from the Tokyo Imperial University discovered another flavor which has been slow to enter the elementary school textbooks but should be included when discussing the science of the tongue.
He called it umami.
Umami enhances each one of the four original flavors. It's responsible for that hard-to-describe, ethereal delight to the palate. It's the x-factor on the plate and on your tongue.
It’s that earthy, grassy, sometimes fermented flavor that can be found in mushrooms, edible flowers, tea, aged cheeses, soy sauce and seaweed. According to the scientists, it’s one of the first flavor profiles that we mammals develop a taste for since it’s found and enjoyed in breast milk.
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, plus spice. According to the experts, that’s taste.
But citybillies, tree-hunters and foragers recognize one more flavor.
That’s right. Location is a flavor. Location as a time and place, location under the moon. Location as a vortex of here and now contributes more to taste than all the other flavors combined.
Food just tastes different depending on where it came from, when it came from. Flavor rides with the tides, ebbing and flowing depending on the moon.
Thoreau would agree with me. In his description of apples, he writes: to appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air.
The outdoor air and exercise give a different tone to the palate…these apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season…they must be eaten in season, accordingly – that is, out of doors.
Some of these apples might be labeled, “To be eaten in the wind.”
Food tastes best when it’s got a little rain and moon in its flavor, when it smacks of the wind and when it’s still warm from the sun. I like the taste of the fields in my food. I even like tasting the street.
Location is always the secret ingredient.
I have no doubt that these Lancaster Avenue honeysuckles taste different than the honeysuckles I saw at the Cobbs Creek Shopping Center…
…or the honeysuckles at this intersection right before the Grays Ferry Bridge...
…just like I’m sure the honeysuckle tastes different in its native country of China, or in Tennessee or Florida, just like it tastes different in that murderous city of Los Angeles.
And it would’ve tasted different, too, the day before. Just like it will taste different tomorrow.
Now, all I have to do is capture that flavor.
In order to do that, I soaked them in about three cups of cold water.
I put a small saucer plate on top to press the flavor even more.
Now comes the hard part. The waiting. I have to let them sit in the water, in the fridge, for about six to eight hours.
That’s a lot of time to kill so, in the spirit of seasonal food, I drove to the outskirts of the city, such a pretty day, to Gina’s farm to catch a light lunch of purple kale and fresh peas right out of the fields.
PASTURES OF PLENTY
It's no trouble at all finding food on a farm.
Here in Gina’s fields, the beets are crowning…
Maybe it was just my obstinate and bullish spirit, or maybe it was because I just hate killing time, but I was more interested in all the food that wasn’t ready yet.
Like the raspberries.
On the farm, it’s too much about the fruit of the plant, all about racing to summer, racing to harvest.
And yet, here under the Strawberry Moon, minus such early crops like garlic scapes and scallions and lettuce, this is the time to catch the flowers that will eventually bear all that summer fruit.
On some plants, you can see both fruit and flower at the same time, like on this row of peas...
…and these young zucchini and yellow squash bridging the gap between flower and stalk.
This is the blackberry flower…
…and you know what? I can sort of see the blackberries already.
And what are these flowers?
Those are the flowers of the potato plant.
Red potatoes actually bloom purple flowers.
Well, Gina the Farmer knows. And I bet Hannah Glasse, she knew too.
With still more time to kill, I went for a walk through the woods behind the farm.
The multiflora rose was in bloom.
These are a little different, a lot more weedier, and much more native than the breeds of roses that win awards at the flower shows and county fairs.
It sure is nice to meet a rose not interested in winning a prize or a trophy. Contests? Too much trouble.
In August, the rose flowers will close up into tight capsules called rose-hips which can be used to make jellies, teas and rose-water.
Deeper into the woods, the crabapples and the hawthorns were just small, green, firm globes hanging off long stems. The black walnuts were just barely bulging from the twigs near the base of the leaves.
Further along the trail, I couldn’t resist wading into the open sunlight shining down on a prehistoric field of ferns.
Ferns can be food too, although you have to catch them very, very early in the spring, when their fronds are still unfurled, a favorite among foragers and farm-to-fork restaurants, although I’ve never really acquired the taste because – hey now!
Gotcha! That tree in the distance? That’s the sassafras.
That’s a classic Turtle Island food. The young roots of its saplings are used to make one of America’s greatest contributions to world cuisine: the sarsaparilla.
They’re pretty easy to find in a young woods like this, since they sprout as clones in groves or in straight lines along a path, very distinct because, on one tree, you can find three different shapes of leaves.
Those leaves, when dried and ground, are the essential ingredient for another one of Turtle Island’s best recipes: the gumbo.
Back at the farm, Gina was busy weeding and whacking so I took off, still one location left to finish my recipe.
PRESTON STREET FORAGING
Some of the more astute readers will recognize this place from last spring’s post on urban fruit. I’ve been waiting all year to return to this house on Preston Street, located deep within West Philly between Lancaster and Westminster Avenues.
I remembered it well because of the strawberries.
I think Thoreau would’ve enjoyed this patch at this location on this particular day.
In his manuscript, Wild Fruits, he writes about finding his own first strawberries in the Concord woods: I make haste to pluck and eat this first fruit of the year, though they are green on the underside, somewhat acid as yet, and a little gritty from lying so low.
I taste a little strawberry-flavored earth with them.
I can’t honestly say that I taste earth in these strawberries but there’s definitely a little hint of salty street and curb.
I’m not complaining. These are not the kind of strawberries found in grocery stores all year round.
This may come as a shock to some people but a ripe strawberry is supposed to be red all the way through.
Red and juicy.
Ignoring the NO TRESPASSING sign, I quickly picked half a lunch-bag full of berries and headed home to finish the recipe.
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
Now it’s time to really start cooking.
Using a sauce pan, I boiled about three cups of water, then whisked in about one cup of sugar until the simple syrup was smooth and silky.
At the very end, I added a few drop of fresh lemon juice. That keeps the sugar from crystallizing when it cools.
With the syrup off the heat, I took the honeysuckle out of the fridge, drained the water into another mixing bowl and threw out the flowers.
Then, I whisked the syrup into the honeysuckled water.
Now, technically, I should put the whole concoction into a mixer or an ice cream machine. I suppose a blender or a food processor could work too, if it had a low enough speed.
I don’t have any of those appliances. I used to have a blender but it broke, last autumn, when I thought it’d be the perfect tool to crack black walnuts.
No worries. I poured it all into a plastic container and locked it into the freezer. I wanted it cold and icy but not frozen solid.
Basically, cold enough to lift with a spoon without having to wrestle it out of the container.
Then, I rinsed off and sliced the strawberries.
For this recipe, I like adding a little powdered sugar. The berries certainly didn’t need them. They were sweet enough by themselves but the powdered sugar will react with the natural juices of the strawberries to create a bright red, glossy glaze.
And that’s it.
This is it.
Honeysuckle Philly Water Ice with “Wild” Strawberries.
I put wild in quotation marks because those strawberry runners on Preston Street were obviously planted. They're nurtured and cultivated. Someone at some point went to some sort of trouble to make sure they survive and ripen.
They didn’t just pop up there in front of that building the way real wild strawberries, or wild honeysuckle, pop up in the forests or along the fences.
So, technically, the strawberries in this recipe aren’t wild.
But they didn’t come from no grocery store either, that’s for sure. These strawberries have never been under an artificial light or seen the inside of a refrigerated truck.
That’s wild enough for me for right now and just that little bit of wild makes this dish that much more delicious.
Delicious, wild and windy…it was all free food too.
Unless you charge for trouble.