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A Sweet Taste of History by Walter Staib
A Sweet Taste of History: More than 100 Elegant Dessert Recipes from America's Earliest Days by Walter Staib

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Celebratory feasts in 1770s Philadelphia incorporated festivities and globally sourced ingredients, for which Revolutionary diners could be thankful. In A Sweet Taste of History: More than 100 Elegant Dessert Recipes from America’s Earliest Days, Chef Walter Staib, culinary historian and TV host of Emmy Award-winning A Taste of History interprets cakes, pies, tarts, and breads in early America. In more than 100 dessert and bread recipes inspired by the “thinkers and bakers of the 1700s,” Chef Staib offers insights into ingredients and names culinary historical heroes and heroines. For curious bakers at home, Staib encourages readers not to be intimidated by the splendid photos, many of which are modern recreations of historical illustrations. After all, during the Revolutionary War, culinary training required knowledge from firsthand experience and ability to adapt a recipe for an individual kitchen, hearth, or campfire.

The Continental Congress officially declared a ‘day for solemn Thanksgiving and Praise’ for Dec. 18, 1777, but Joseph Plumb Martin was disappointed that this proclamation did not include a special meal with sweet treats. He recalled:

"... we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living, we had now nearly seen brought to a close. Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare. And what do you think it was dear reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will. I will tell you: it gave each and every man a half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!!"

Earlier that winter, encamped at Valley Forge, Martin had roasted a pumpkin while remembering homemade pie.

"I had not a morsel of anything to eat all the time, save half of a small pumpkin, which I cooked by placing it upon a rock, the skin side uppermost, and making a fire upon it; by the time it was heat through I devoured it with as keen an appetite as I should a pie made of it at some other time."

A few years later, Nathan Davis of New Hampshire tried his hand in cooking pumpkin bread over an open fire.

“When we came to an Indian town, we had neither meal nor flour, but only a trifle of salt. When we first came to the Indian towns, their corn was suitable to boil or roast; of course we had plenty of succotash. When the corn became too mature for this, we converted some old tin kettles found in the Indian settlements, into large graters, and obliged every fourth man, not on guard, to sit up all night, and grate corn, which would make meal, something like hominy. This meal was mixed with boild squash or pumpkin, when hot, and kneaded into cakes, and baked by the fire. This bread, coarse as it was, relished well among soldiers fatigued with daily marches through the wilderness, and I very much doubt, whether one of them would have allowed George III one morsel of it…”

In contrast with Davis and Martin’s cooking experiences, David McCullough sets the scene to introduce A Sweet Taste of History and the history of Staib’s City Tavern Restaurant.

“Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century was the largest, most prosperous city in America, the busiest port, and a cornucopia without equal. Nowhere could one find such bountiful evidence of American abundance […] in such an atmosphere, not surprisingly, minimalist cuisine was not the fashion. Dinner at City Tavern, or at any of the fine homes of Philadelphia, could include twenty or more different dishes, not counting dessert. As John Adams reported to his wife, Abigail, even “plain Quakers” served ducks, hams, chicken, and beef at a single sitting, while such desserts as served at the home of Mayor Samuel Powel on Third Street were dazzling—custards, flummery, jellies, trifles, whipped syllabubs, floating islands, fruits, nuts, everything imaginable.”

Where does a seasonal pumpkin fall as an ingredient among this tablescape of sweet and savory plates? Without sugar, spices, molasses, eggs, and cream, Martin and Davis adapted their own recipes to cook with pumpkin over an open fire. In this excerpt, Staib introduces a chapter on pies and tarts and offers a short history of pumpkin in the section’s pumpkin pie and pumpkin raisin bread recipes.


Pies of this era were no less varied, if not more, than those of today. Dough was faster to make than bread, and it added additional nutrition to any filling—lobster, venison, rabbit, berries, or apples. Some pies were elegant and expensive, prepared with puff pastry and imported spices and citrus, while others were modest and frugal, consisting of a short dough and custard. Pies and tarts---cookbook authors interchanged the terms—were sweet or savory; they were filled with fresh fruit, dried fruits, meat, seafood, preserves, custards, or puddings. They had top crusts, bottom crusts, or both. They were prepared in deep dishes or shallow tins, and they were baked in ovens as well as in bake kettles (lidded pans that stood in hot coals in the fireplace, covered with additional embers).

One of the few common attributes of all the “pyes” and “tarts” is that a dough and a filling were combined and baked in a pan. Eighteenth-century cookbook authors included numerous recipes for pies and tarts in their books, a testament to the significance of these dishes. Most authors of the period wrote in great detail about the preparation of “pastes” as well as individual pies and tarts. (“Pies and Tarts”, 62)

Pumpkins grew plentifully in North America and were cultivated first by Native Americans and later by the colonists. They are native and in season year-round in the Caribbean, where the outside of the fruits are green, not orange as in North America. Pumpkin—or “pompion” as early Americans and pies often called it—was not only commonly incorporated into puddings and pies but was also candied, as in Harriet Pinckney Horry’s recipe “To Make Pompion Chips.” (Pumpkin Raisin Bread, 148)

Although pumpkins were available in Britain, they have become synonymous with American foodways. Among the many squashes the Native Americans cultivated, the pumpkin in is undoubtedly the most famous, due to the serving of pumpkin pie in 1623 at the Pilgrims’ second Thanksgiving celebration. In fact, records reveal that early colonists in Connecticut postponed one of their Thanksgiving dinners because they couldn’t obtain the molasses necessary for pie. From the seventeenth century onward, Americans Used pumpkin in numerous dishes besides pie. It is hardly surprising that the gourmet connoisseur Thomas Jefferson included a stylish soup recipe, completed with buttered croutons, in his collection of recipes. This version of pumpkin pie is based on period recipes that, while quite pale, were flavorful and rich, due to the use of spices as well as eggs and cream. (Pumpkin Pie, 62)

Walter Staib, A Sweet Taste of History: More than 100 Elegant Dessert Recipes from America’s Earliest Days (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013), ix, 61-62, 148. 

Special thanks to John U. Rees, "'To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.' Soldiers' Food and Cooking in the War for Independence," for this citation in Pliny H. White, “History of the Expedition against the Five Nations, Commanded by General Sullivan, in 1779,” The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, vol. III, second series (Morrisania, N.Y.: Henry B. Dawson, 1868), 203-205.

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