Cornelia Wynne explores the cooking traditions of Americans through their distinctive foods and dishes and through their stories. These assert our defining traits of independence, resourcefulness, and a can-do spirit.
Bertha Marshall: A Pioneering Spirit
Bertha traces her family's roots back ten or eleven generations to the English Twinings (the tea people), from whom her father was descended. The first mention of Twinings in the New World is in 1640 on Cape Cod. She had begun her studies as a nurse (following in her mother's footsteps) when she met Roger, who later proposed marriage. Now she had to choose: become a nurse, or marry Roger and join him as caretaker of a gentleman farmer's rural estate. For a city girl, this could have been a difficult choice, but Bertha was not afraid of work, nor of the unknown. She consented, and as she says looking back, it was a wonderful life and she never regretted moving to the farm.
They had three boys, all of whom helped with the work. There were cows, chickens, sheep and lambs, pigs and horses to care for. While Roger ploughed, Bertha planted. She made vegetable gardens to support not only her family but that of the estate. She would freeze 42 quarts of peas just for the Marshall family alone. She loved picking and shucking them.
"Waste is want," was always a guiding precept. An irrepressible zest for life and a sunny disposition to see the positive side of every situation, kept her on an even keel. It was a real shot in the arm, she said, when she discovered wild raspberries at a "blowdown" (an area of fallen trees). It was an opportunity to put away fresh fruit for the winter, and she would pick 25 quarts of wild raspberries, as well as 25 quarts of wild blueberries a season. Nothing about the farm work deterred her. It was she and the boys who raised rabbits, and it was she who saw to the chickens, raising them from day-old chicks, and when they weighed from 31/2 to 7 pounds, fryers and roaster size, it was she who slaughtered and dressed them. She lugged a big pot of hot water from the house to the chicken pen, where she kept her slaughtering ax. After chopping off their heads, she scalded them in the hot water, pulled off their feathers, then disemboweled (or dressed) them until, under her hand, she had a clean poultry carcass, the kind you might see in a meat market (and never dreamed how it got there). She raised fifty meat birds at a time, half of them for the estate owners, the other half for her family.
And of course, Bertha cooked the chickens, too.
Now in her 80s, she still loves to make chicken fricassee, doing all the work herself just as she used to do. For this she gets older hens from one of her sons. They need the long, slow cooking that makes perfect fricassee.
How American is Chicken Fricassee? The term fricassee is derived from Middle French for stewing meat, usually chicken, in a sauce made of its own stock, often served with noodles, dumplings, or, in the American version, biscuits. There are variations of this dish in many cultures: Germans call it Huknerfriskassee; in Puerto Rico and Cuba it is Fricase de Pollo.
Bertha's Fricassee Chicken and Biscuits
1 4- or 5-pound chicken
Onion, cut up
Cut up chicken if not already in pieces. In a Dutch oven, brown chicken in fat, then almost cover meat with water, add other ingredients, and set temperature on low, cover. Cook until tender. Don't forget the bay leaf, Bertha says, it's essential for flavor.
1 3/4 cup flour
A little salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup shortening
About 3/4 cup milk
Cut shortening into mixed dry ingredients until the consistency of peas. Stir in milk until consistency of dough. Pat out to 1-inch thick. Cut out and bake at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes until medium-brown. They should be about 2 1/2 inches tall.
Make gravy using liquid from chicken; Bertha makes a paste first, then thins with the liquid to desired consistency. Cut biscuits in half, pour gravy over them. Serve chicken on separate platter. *