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A Look Back: Fine dining with your hands

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A Look Back
Thursday, February 07, 2019 11:9AM

Imagine being invited to a dinner party, and then being required to stand up and reach around the seated guests to grab at morsels of food with your fingers.

Sound a little odd? Uncouth? Bizarre?

Maybe so, but in colonial times it was perfectly acceptable behavior. The Reverend W. R. Cochrane, writer of Antrim’s 1880 town history, relates this story:

“As a specimen of the old habits, I have been told of a dinner at the house of James Hopkins, about ninety years ago. Hon. Samuel Dinsmore, afterwards governor, Hon. Silas Dinsmore, Sen., and other relatives and guests were present. After the usual greeting, five or six of the male guests were seated at the table; the young ladies stood up round the large room, and, when they wanted anything, they reached over the guests who were seated, took the meat in their fingers and stepped back to eat it! And it was all considered very popular and fine!”

Apparently, such dining was not unusual at all in some families, whose children routinely stood back from the table and took with their fingers whatever food was offered them. Sometimes, the whole family stood around a large wooden bowl of “pudding and milk” or broth, and ate out of it with wooden spoons.

One dish that many enjoyed in those days was called sowens, a sort of oat glop. “It was made of oat-meal, sifted, and left in water to sour, and then boiled down to a jelly,” Cochrane wrote. “This was a favorite dish. It could be seasoned to suit, but was commonly eaten in milk.”

The historian tells of one early resident who got over his initial aversion to sowens:

“When Mr. Whiton came to town it was a new thing to him, and he declined to try it. At length Mrs. Hopkins came along to him one day with a bowl of it in her hands, and, lifting a spoonful, she prevailed on him to ‘take one bite.’ But being exceedingly smooth and slippery stuff, it disappeared instantly, and Mr. Whiton looked up surprised and puzzled; yet, with his usual quiet dignity, he said, ‘I declare, madam, it is gone!’ This saying pointed many a joke for a time, but it cured Mr. Whiton of his dislike, and he lived to say of many a dish of ‘sowens,’ ‘Madam, it is gone!’”

Cochrane writes that the inexpensive, humble food of his forebears was quite tasty, and that with their appetites made healthy from hard work, they relished it greatly. “The good mothers knew how to make the most of everything,” he wrote. “With little to do with, they would prepare a really inviting meal. And isn’t this the highest skill of housewifery? The bannock [griddle cake], baked by the open fire, has hardly been improved upon in modern cookery; the ‘short-cake’ has no modern equal; and it may be believed, without hesitation, that no bride of to-day can cook meats equal to her great-grandmother a hundred years ago!”

A Look Back was originally published in the Monadnock Ledger.