In the pages of the cookbooks circulating when Maine became a state 200 years, you won’t find the terms we associate with today’s greener eating movement. There is no mention of organic vegetables, free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, non-GMO grains or sustainably harvested fish in the cookbooks that came to New England with the English settlers. Nor do early American cookbook writers talk about buying minimally processed foods, locating foodstuffs with plastic-free packaging, calculating food miles or tapping into zero-waste cooking strategies.

But it’s largely a matter of the vernacular, because many of the lessons central to what we call eating sustainably in present day Maine are detailed throughout Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” (circa 1796); American editions of Englishwoman Maria Eliza Rundell’s “A New System of Domestic Cookery” (circa 1804); and “Fish, Flesh and Fowl: A Book of Recipes for Cooking,” the first community cookbook published in Maine, produced in 1877 by the Ladies of State Street Parish in Portland.

Antiquarian cookbook specialist Don Lindgren of Rabelias Books in Biddeford says cooking sustainably centuries years ago, as documented in these historical cookbooks, was simply what cooks in Maine had to do day in, day out to feed their own families or the ones in their care.

We know cooks took advantage of seasonal bounty, as these books all have recipes for putting up peak-of-season harvested fruits and vegetables as preserves, pickles and drinking vinegars to be consumed off-season. From recipes for dishes like giblet soup and pickled tongue, we know they used every part of the animals they slaughtered. Concern about food waste is apparent in instructions for storing root vegetables properly to prevent rot. And the adoption of local foods is evidenced, says Lindgren, by the widespread inclusion of ingredients like cornmeal, maple syrup, winter squashes, oysters, apples with American names, and lobsters galore.

These centuries-old cookbooks included recipes for roasts of beef procured from a local butcher (grass-fed, of course, as were all cows then so there was no need to specify) or whole chickens raised on the farm and dispatched in the barn. Each of these books also provided cooking instructions for a host of wild animals, from eels and rabbits to sturgeon and woodcocks, a variety that shows a willingness to accept a biodiverse diet as a very good diet.

When Maine became a state in 1820, hearth cooking was still the norm. (The enclosed kitchen range didn’t become a fixture of middle-class homes until the 1850s.) Cookbooks offered techniques to employ every stage of the fire, shrewdly ensuring no energy was wasted. Roasting meats were positioned in front of, not over, roaring flames to cook evenly. Covered pots were placed over medium fires for the best boil. Fruits were preserved over gentle fires to prevent scorching. And embers were repositioned under pots as necessary. Making clever use of the residual heat of heavy cooking vessels and placing pots of food out in the snow to cool quickly were steps cooks knew to take 200 years ago — and they could help us be more energy-efficient cooks today.

These older cookbooks had a plethora of recipes for pies, cakes and other desserts because those creations let a homemaker really show off her skills. Most of the recipes are grounded in eggs, dairy products and flours produced close to home, and deploy exotic spices and processed sugars sparingly.

Today and throughout this bicentennial year as Mainers reflect on the state’s progress, I suggest that cooks with a sustainable outlook take a moment to reflect on what we can learn from the folks who cooked here long before we did.

Happy Birthday Maine!

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Grandmother Tucker’s Sponge Cake
This recipe was printed in what antiquarian cookbook specialist Don Lindgren, of Rabelias Books in Biddeford, believes to be a Maine centennial community cookbook printed by the Democratic Women of Maine in 1920. Jane Armstrong Tucker, owner of Castle Tucker in Wiscasset, then an inn, now a museum, is credited with both compiling the cookbook and contributing this recipe. I’ve added baking times and temperatures, as well as filling and frosting suggestions, but otherwise the recipe is unchanged.

5 eggs, separated
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 g) granulated sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 cup (120 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 cup blueberry jam

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a bowl of a stand mixer, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, then transfer them to a clean bowl.

Combine the egg yolks, sugar and lemon juice in the bowl of the stand mixer and whip until the mixture is pale yellow and slightly fluffy, about 4 minutes. Fold one-third of the egg whites into the yolk mixture. Fold in the remaining egg whites. Gently fold in the flour.

Pour the batter into an ungreased, 9-inch springform pan, place pan on a baking sheet and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Allow the cake to cool completely before unmolding it.

Whip the cream to medium peaks and stir in maple syrup and lemon zest.

Cut the cooled cake into 2 layers. Spread the jam over the bottom layer. Top with the other cake layer. Spread the top of the cake with the flavored whipped cream. Serve within 2 hours of assembling the layers.


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