by Katherine Perry
I’ve yet to hear a complaint about a shortage of dinner party inspirations in this world. Menus for everything from a fantastical Harry Potter feast to a (somewhat less magical) Russian Peasant Party are just a Google away.
But just because there are a lot, it doesn’t mean there can ever be enough—right? Food is a way to enter another reality—whether made up, long past or far away. You know you’ll never get the call—well, owl—to enroll in Hogwarts, and being a Russian peasant has almost nothing to recommend it in reality, but you can still don the robe or a babushka for an evening. On Martha’s Vineyard, Islanders who want to dig deeper into their past with repast are lucky—an instruction manual for eating your way through the Island’s history is close at hand.
An afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s library with the Vineyard Cookbooks and Foodways collection can yield a menu as rich in context as in flavor.
There are a myriad of ways you could use the collection to cook yourself through different eras of Martha’s Vineyard history, but as spring rushes in, vibrant and lush as a Campground Cottage, exploring the grand Victorian era on Martha’s Vineyard with a Victorian-inspired luncheon feels like the order of the day.
And the handwritten cookbooks of three Victorian Vineyard women are just the right guides.
The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbooks and Foodways collection at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is really just one slender box that looks barely big enough to hold even a single modern-day coffee-table cookbook. But where one of those tomes might manage to cover a single celebrity’s favorite weeknight meals, this collection spans decades of culinary anthropology. It houses materials from 1860 to 2001: academic articles and newspaper clippings, cookbooks published by Islanders or those about the Island, and community cookbooks compiled from the 1920s to the turn of the 20th century.
For the food- and history-minded this little box is a treasure chest. Perhaps you’re interested in the Island’s early Native American nocake and sampe traditions, or maybe you’re curious whether muskrats might have shown up on the table. The answers lie within “Indian Notes” from a 1930 issue of a quarterly journal from the Museum of the American Indian and “The Character and Life Style of the Indians” from a 1950 issue of The Intelligencer. A 1930s article, full of braggadocio and fierce pride in Island chowder and stew innovations answers the question, “How might I serve black snakes?” From the Ladies’ Aid Society M.E. Church, of Lambert’s Cove, a community cookbook from the 1920s, you can learn to make such bygone treats as Pop Corn Pudding, or forgotten staples such as A Useful Cake, but you can also learn new old ways to make washing fluid and prevent red ants. (Hint: it will require only a bag of sage and a heart full of hope.)
Beyond the familiar and less familiar recipes, these books offer allusions to long-standing institutions. In the Island Cook Book to Benefit M.V. Hospital from 1924, Cronig’s, now synonymous with Island grocery shopping, advertises its meats, groceries and provisions “on the busy corner of main and church.” The Mansion House, still proudly standing today, appeals to “Refined Clientele,” and Brickman’s proudly announces it sells the Walk- Over Shoe, with its “fashionable new short vamp effect” that’s sweeping the nation.
For those looking to discover a little less bygone Island age—or looking to reminisce, depending on your vintage— the archive offers up Slap-Dash Cookery on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard by a Little Old Lady Lousie Aldrich Bugbee Who Cooks There. Little old Lady Bugbee was a longtime Island cook, columnist and author from the 1950s to her death in 2008. This slim volume, likely from the 1970s, is a mix of recipes, piquant vignettes, town gossip and decidedly silly cartoon illustrations. By the end you’ll know how the famous Portuguese Holy Ghost soup is made and will have learned the best recipe for pan-fried fish. (It begins, inconveniently, by requiring you to “make friends with a fisherman, or marry a man who is lucky with a fishing rod, or raise your son to spend his spare time fishing.”) Head to the later edition of the hospital fundraising community cookbook, Vineyard Fare, and you’ll find the culinary conceits of 1973, intermixed with a generally level-headed yet solidly Yankee Vineyard repertoire. Here, molds and logs are exalted and cheese is a welcome, even necessary, addition to any dish. Caviar Frosted Cheese Mold, Pineapple Cheese Pie, Lime Cheese Salad, Deviled Egg Avocado Jellied Salad, and the epitome of the time, Cheese Mold Salad, now sit uncomfortably between the bindings with Indian Pudding and Finnan Haddie Casserole.
From there the collection continues on with a comprehensive 1989 collection of Oak Bluffs 8th graders’ favorite dishes, enthusiastically titled Everything Including the Kitchen Sink! to the hesitant Thimble Farm… Almost a Recipe Book. For those who don’t delight in dwelling in a long-past past, these offer a chance to reflect on more familiar crockpot chilis and farm-stand ratatouilles.
But the most intimate, revealing and poignant materials are the cookbooks, which were originally only intended for the writer’s eyes. Among the oldest materials in the collection are three manuscript cookbooks from the late 1800s. Manuscript cookbooks were journals—household diaries really— that might have been passed down through several generations. A family compendium of recipes, menus, guest lists, household tips—anything that might help in the overwhelming task of running and feeding a house. Unlike published cookbooks, they are not suggestions, but experiences and an unvarnished portrait of the homes of the past. They document the dishes that actually made it to the table, time and time again, and behind each of those dishes is history, both cultural and personal.
Manuscript of Carrie R. Howland, Vineyard Haven, 1884
The manuscript of Carrie R. Howland of Vineyard Haven is an ode to the Victorian ideals of refinement, decadence and piety. Howland, the daughter of a carpenter, crafted a book, not of how-tos for cleaning rugs or making soap, but of poetry and delicacies. It is a snapshot of the popular tastes in poetry as much as food. Howland appears to have scoured her library for charming lines on food—each page is topped with verses from well known Victorians Thomas Hood and Oliver Wendell Holmes. If Howland’s book were taken as a record of everyday household fare, one could deduce that the average late Victorian household ate meals of cakes, confections, puddings, and trifles, with sides of biscuits, rusks, jumbles and jellies.
But more likely, Howland’s recipes were for entertaining and impressing. She began the book in 1884, when she was 24 years old, living at home with her parents, and (according to the census at the time) another young woman and young man, presumably her sister and brother. Perhaps she was helping her mother prepare the fashionable airy Feather Cake and Orange Delicious and Wine Jelly to wow neighbors, or perhaps suitors: Howland married two years later, well trained to be a housemistress with an elegant touch. But perhaps, and one can’t help but hope her thirst for gentility was indeed fulfilled, the house she joined was too elegant for her to bother to get her hands dirty (or sticky); she appears to have left her manuscript behind, many pages empty save for expectant poems, like this one from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I smell the smell of roasted meat! I hear the Hissing fry! The beggars know whether they can go, But where, O where shall I?”
Comforts for the Sick, Mina Worth, Edgartown, Undated
The manuscript of Mina Worth, a contemporary of Ms. Howland, has a loftier mission than overwhelming her peers with 1,001 ways to serve sugar. The title page, embellished with an illustration of pansies, declares its contents, “Comforts for the Sick” and also invokes Shakespeare: “I am come to you to do a good office.” The book is clean and written in a consistent, even hand, suggesting that Mina’s work is a semi-final draft that she hoped might actually be used beyond her home someday. That desire seems clearly borne of her circumstance. Wilhelmina E. Worth, born in 1862, was the daughter of Edward Worth, the off-and-on light keeper at Cape Pogue Light until he retired in 1882. According to a census of the household in 1880, the 18-year-old Mina lived with her housewife mother, two other female relatives: one, a nurse and the other afflicted with a “nervous disease.”
It’s no surprise that, with a patient and nurse in-house, Worth’s thoughts turned towards the healing properties of cooking. Not that she was unique: in an era before penicillin and vaccinations, when the U.S. still held a widespread skepticism of germs and sterilization, diet was a common instrument of health and healing. Most cookbooks would contain a section dedicated to “sick bed” cooking: a conserve of roses to cure the croup, rice tea for fever, arrowroot jelly to nourish weak bowels. Worth offers up dishes that agree with our notion of typical invalid fare: Arrowroot Gruel, Beef Tea, Cornstarch Pudding. But also offered are more trendy culinary prescriptions for Floating Islands, Charlotte Russe, an array of fruity jellies— the gentility of the Victorian age evident even on the sick room tray.
Manuscript, Unknown Author, 1887
The author of the third manuscript cookbook is unknown, which one senses would have suited her just fine. Conspicuously absent of ego, it appears to be written with practicality as its only purpose. It is more than well worn: it’s a greasy, stained, crumbling keepsake of a cook who really cooked. The author was not a dabbler in cookery, but either a housewife running a servant-less house, or a housekeeper by profession. The recipe collection is comprehensive; it does not stop at the tearoom, but pushes industriously on into the dining and breakfast rooms, representing dishes that are dinner party-worthy, but also many that are just daily family fare. The book instructs how to make yeast from potatoes, “Sauce for any Pudding,” rye bread, pancakes, doughnuts. And the author leaves no room for poetry—the instructions are as detailed as the other books are vague. It is a book written by a woman whose chief concern is not to curate a collection of pretty phrases and food, or to minister to the ailing, but simply to cook well, consistently.
From these books we can spin our own little dramas about these women; we can live for an afternoon in their aprons. But we can also reconstruct almost their entire world. The recipes offered here are artifacts just as telling as any tool or fossil, and revealing much about the economics, politics, science—everything—of the time. But they are even better, because we can bring them to life again by just heading to the kitchen, getting hands on, and inviting people over to dig into a history worth repeating.
As Carrie Howland says, by including this passage from Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, in her manuscript:
We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.