Eating in New Amsterdam

The closest I have come to cooking like the seventeenth-century Dutch in New Amsterdam is when I took a hearth-cooking class at a historical restoration near my home several years ago. I and my classmates gathered in an 18th-century structure, formerly a tavern. It was only afternoon, but dark seemed already to have fallen, with only the light from three small windows and a candle to illuminate our lesson. The hearth blazed, smoky and gigantic, taking up one wall of  the tiny room.

On the menu: marzipan. We used a recipe originally recorded by an Englishwoman named Hannah Glasse in 1747 in her book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It was already a historic recipe: marzipan was a fundamental part of Dutch sweet making and something that the settlers on Manhattan would definitely have enjoyed.

The first step that afternoon was to prepare the nuts, an essential ingredient, which meant laboriously grinding two pounds of almonds to a flour, by hand, in a mortar and pestle. Combining the ground nuts with beaten eggs and sugar, cream and butter, I cooked the mixture slowly over the fire in an iron pot, stirring with a wooden spoon, near scorching my hands in the process. I wished I had on a thick wool skirt of the kind a hausfrau (or, in Dutch, huisvrouw) would have worn back then, to protect the wearer from going up in flames.

The final touch to the recipe consisted of a trickle of rose water, a treasured flavoring among Dutch Americans, though the scent today strikes most people more as a perfume than a food additive.

The most amusing part of the experience came when the mixture was cooked to a “dough” and we molded marzipan hedghogs, sticking them with slivered almonds to represent their quills. I couldn’t believe how the pungent wood smoke saturated my whole being after that experience. It is incredible to believe that women on Manhattan in the time of Blandine Van Couvering spent a considerable part of each day cooking over the hearth as I did that single afternoon.

I have prepared marzipan hedgehogs frequently since then—they are both adorable and delicious—though in my modern kitchen, using a food grinder and minus the smoky fire.

Despite the modern conveniences, I believe the recipe came out best the first time.

For The Orphanmaster, my goal in treating the food of the era was not to replicate specific recipes, but to evoke the feeling of bounty experienced by the colonists, flavored by my experience of that smoky fire.

Flavors of New Amsterdam

The Dutch colonists on Manhattan were no strangers to bounty. From the start of their settlement, they always made sure that they had sufficient food. In this, the Dutch colonial experience contrasts sharply with the English, who came to the New World woefully under-provisioned, forced out of desperation to consume snake meat or shoe leather to survive.

Golden Age Bounty

Three ships sailed to America from Amsterdam at the very start of the New Netherland experiment, transporting more than one hundred head of hogs, sheep, cows and horses, at a point when there were no more than a couple of dozen settlers. According to first-person accounts of the time, each animal had a comfortable sand-cushioned stall for the six-week journey as well as an individual handler who “attends to it and knows what he is to get if he delivers it alive.” The Dutch were not about to go hungry in the New World.

From their lives back home in “Patria,” the fatherland, the colonists of New Amsterdam were accustomed to everyday satiety and splendid holiday repasts. Cultural historian Simon Schama notes in his book on the culture of Holland in the seventeenth century, An Embarrassment of Riches, that a full larder every day and monumental feasts on holidays were the norm.

To Market

Schama quotes an observer in Holland, amazed to see the common workers gorge themselves on fresh and cured meat and fish, fresh vegetables and fruit, butter and eggs and cheese on a weekly basis. Banquets of guildsmen, military regiments or religious celebrants enjoyed such dishes as goose stuffed with fruit and nuts, waffles, pancakes, sausages, ham pies, roast beef, spit-turned fowl, pretzels, stuffed cabbages and many other delights.

“There were lying in feasts,” Schama tells us, “birth feasts, baptismal feasts, churching feasts, feasts when infants were swaddled and another when boys were breeched, birthday feasts and saint’s day feasts, feasts on beginning school and beginning apprenticeship, betrothal feasts, wedding feasts, feasts on setting up home, feasts for departing on long journeys and feasts for homecoming, wedding anniversary feasts…feasts on the inauguration of a lottery and the conclusion of its draw, feasts on the return of a grand cargo or the conclusion of a triumphant peace, on the restoration of a church, the installation of a window or organ or organ loft or pulpit and on the setting of a family tombstone in its floor, feasts on recovering from sickness, feasts at funerals and burials and the reading of a testament.”

With this background, the colonists approached the foods of the new world with a keen appetite. The settlers loved fruit and were delighted with its native abundance in the New World. The men and women who accompany Blandine on their ill-fated journey north of the Wall to pick wild raspberries are engaging in an activity that would be typical in the settlement. Adrian van der Donck, in his 1649 diary, writes with gusto about fruit. “The mulberries… are better and sweeter than ours, and ripen earlier. Several kinds of plums, wild or small cherries, juniper, small kinds of apples, many hazel-nuts, black currents, gooseberries, blue India figs, and strawberries in abundance all over the country… blueberries, raspberries, blackcaps…, etc.”

Ripe for the Picking

Van der Donck also writes about how “the Netherland settlers, who are lovers of fruit,” brought over apple and pear trees, quinces and cherries. He waxes euphoric over the profusion of wild grapes in the countryside – so many, he explains, that “we are frequently, on horseback and on foot, entangled in the vines.” The largest, he says, are called “pork grapes.”  They were large as the joints of the fingers, according to explorer David de Vries.

All around the shores of the island lay mountains of oyster shells, evidence of past Indian feasts, and which make an appearance in The Orphanmaster when Lightning imagines diving into the ancient shell middens of Shorakapock. The oysters in the area were huge— one commentator described them as commonly a foot long—and ubiquitous in the waters off Manhattan. Another foodstuff that was both gigantic and common was the lobster, which Antony regularly dives for in the East River. He would sell his catch at the settlement’s marketplace by Fort Amsterdam, at the foot of Broadway. The variety and abundance of seafood available in the waters off Manhattan amazed the European colonists.

Mammoth Lobsters

To wash down all that seafood, men and women relied on a few staples. Beer and hard cider were the most common beverages, but gin and brandy were also consumed in quantity in New Amsterdam’s dozens of taverns. Tobacco complemented the grog, and was smoked in long, white clay pipes. Even the women enjoyed their pipes in Holland. The air of the Red Lion is thick with smoke, and it is here that Aet Visser comes habitually to consume far too much alcohol.

Baked goods formed the true heart of the Dutch culinary experience. They were all crucial to the colonial diet and to their identity: doughnuts, waffles, cookies, bread slashed atop in patterns to denote different occasions, pretzels. The government prohibited baking at home, intending to encourage commerce in the community. The result was a plethora of bake shops from which Blandine and Drummond would have bought the crusty bread for their suppers. In the kermis scene, the waffle maker hawks his wares and the orphanmaster breaks off pieces to hand out to the eager children. Koekjes, cookies, were a favorite of children like Sabine, who likes to form mud semblances of the real thing in the Pit and feed them to Visser.

All-Important Breads

Doughnuts, or olie-koecken, were almost a food group unto themselves. Food historian Peter G. Rose has described the sweet fried treats as “an edible symbol of ethnicity for Dutch-Americans.” In The Orphanmaster, a wistful Blandine has a fond memory of making olie-koecken as a toddler with her mother.

If you’d like to make doughnuts the seventeenth century way, a 1683 recipe calls for two pounds of wheat flour, not quite a pint of milk, “half a small bowl of melted butter,” a large spoon of yeast mixed with “a cup of the best apples” cut into small pieces, two pounds of raisins and six ounces of whole almonds, all seasoned with ginger, cinnamon and cloves. A glob of dough would be pushed off a spoon into bubbling fat until it is puffy and golden.

As in the Dutch tradition, special occasions in The Orphanmaster feature special kinds of comestibles, whether it is the caudle of sweet wine and cinnamon offered by Margaret Tomiessen along with her crumbly, buttery izer cookies, or the hippocras made from spiced Rhine wine that Blandine provides for the guests at her wedding party. Marzipan in Holland was served at betrothals, and in The Orphanmaster it is offered, formed into small likenesses of spring lambs and baby chicks, as a sweet treat to wedding guests.

Feast foods went beyond the ordinary. According to Simon Schama, the 1660 funeral of a Netherlands innkeeper featured twenty oxheads of French and Rhenish wine, seventy half-casks of ale, 1,100 pounds of meat “roasted on the ‘Koneingsplein,’” 550 pounds of sirloin, twenty-eight breasts of veal, twelve whole sheep, eighteen great venison in white pastry, 200 pounds of “fricadelle,” mincemeat. He also writes about a traveler offended by the local specialty, cheese flavored with the feces of the sheep.

Ready for the Feast

That mode of cheese, along with some of the feast foods cited, made its way explicitly into The Orphanmaster. The fricadelle, the veal in pastry, the slabs of sirloin and the roasted breast of veal appear at Blandine and Drummond’s wedding feast, the most opulent meal served in the novel.

Other dinners, such as The Orphanmaster’s “Christmas feast of venison, stews of hare and roasted sweet potatoes, with well-crusted bread and rich, dense cheeses” are only slightly less grand. So is the pink, fat-beaded ham that has pride of place atop the Imbrok’s wassail groaning board. (Pork was continually on the hoof in New Amsterdam, ranging through the streets, devouring trash and making a nuisance of themselves before becoming somebody’s dinner.)

Tea made its way via Chinese traders in Indonesia to Amsterdam and from there to New Amsterdam. Its medicinal qualities attracted attention at first, then its pleasurable ones, and for a long time only aristocrats had access to it. One early Dutch physician promulgated his view that tea drinking would mean eternal life! In 1750, an astute traveler, Peter Kalm, described the tea drinking habits of the Dutch: “They never put sugar into the cup but take a small bit of it into their mouths while they drink.”

Tea was not readily available in New Amsterdam unless you had contacts overseas. When Martyn Hendrickson comes home from a night on the town, he shucks off his boots and then welcomes the beverage in an elegant English tea service. He also gives a thought to chocolate, another drink the common folk would not have had access to in that period. Little Ansel Imbrok “had never tasted chocolate, but he had heard of it,” and its lure is so great that he accompanies the man he believes is the orphanmaster up the river in a skiff.

Sugar also represented a valuable commodity at the time of The Orphanmaster. Merchants imported the sweetener in various forms from tropical sites, with white sugar being the most coveted and expensive. (Less expensive molasses was a byproduct of the sugar refining process.)

Drummond produces a cone of white sugar—the form in which it was commonly produced— to share with Blandine and Kitane in front of the fire, crumbled to coat dried pears dipped in brandy. Indians in New Netherland loved sweets, a complete novelty to them, and habituated the town’s bake shops, as Kitane does. Wheat flour, another New World novelty, made bread and baked sweets all the more desirable for Native Americans. The children of The Orphanmaster crave candy, as when Miep bribes the Goldbolt children for information with toffee and peppermints.

For their winter cabin idyll, Blandine and Drummond must make do not with feast foods but with the most common, easy to prepare dish in the Dutch arsenal, the quintessential hutspot, a one-pot dish “with potatoes, carrots and onion.” They have common but tasty accompaniments: “toasted cheese, slices of Lenape-style dried venison, smoked herring, a cracked-wheat bread, risen over the coals.” They also consume pemmican, the Native American staple that combines pounded venison, melted fat and wild berries. It is significant that they share Kitane’s culture, as he shares theirs.

Some of the foodstuffs from The Orphanmaster’s era may seem foreign to today’s palates, but most of the meats, vegetables, fruits and doughnuts would be welcome on any groaning board today. If you would like to try your hand at a marzipan hedgehog, the recipe from Hannah Glasse follows.

To make a Hedge-Hog.

Take two Pounds of blanched Almonds, beat them well in a Mortar with a little Canary and Orange-flower Water, to keep them from oiling. Make them into stiff Paste, then beat in the yolks of twelve Eggs, leave out five of the Whites, put to it a Pint of Cream, sweeten it with Sugar, put in half a Pound of sweet Butter melted, set it on a Furnace or slow Fire, and keep it constantly stirring, till it is stiff enough to be made into the Form of an Hedhe-Hog ; then stick it full of blanched Almonds, slit and stuck up like the Bristles of a Hedge-Hog.