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A Rare Glimpse and a Unique Resource

william ellis

Here at Jas. Townsend & Son, we’re presently researching, of all things, the history of pancakes.  We noticed a broad range of various pancake recipes as we perused the numerous period cookbooks in preparation for our video series, but we routinely skipped over them for more adventurous fare. But the ubiquitous pancake has finally caught the attention of our easily enticed eyes, and as a result, you can fully expect future blog entries as well as videos on this historically important food item.

But pancakes are not the point of this post.

Nestled in this grand terrain of flapjack, fritter, and crepe recipes rises a mountain of a treatise on pancakes by William Ellis, in his book The Country Housewife’s Family Companion. Lacking the pedigree of most of his competing culinary counterparts, Ellis, who was a maven of anecdote, drew upon his skills in observation and storytelling to present a grand collection of conventional wisdom. The frontispiece of this 1752 work on country life and cooking admits the rather unconventional qualifications for an author of a cookbook with the line, “The whole [of this book is] founded on nearly 30 years of experience by W. Ellis, Farmer…”

The few remaining references on Ellis’s life suggest that he was a popular 18th-century author, albeit only briefly, on English agriculture. His collection of best practices in agricultural affairs was popular among English country gentlemen, yeomen, and farmers, that is, until some of his readers visited his farm hoping to observe his prescribed methods as well as their successful outcomes. Instead, what they reported was a farm in complete disarray, and consequently much of Ellis’s writing was eventually dismissed as being largely fabricated.

Let that serve as a caveat to our modern interpretations, but even so, let us also avoid being too hasty to throw out the curds with the whey. The fact is, The Country Housewife’s Family Companion still gives us a rare glimpse into the daily customs, challenges, and conditions of  English country folk.

This book merits further study by those interested in 18th-century cooking, husbandry, and country living in general.

You can find a digital version of  The Country Housewife’s Family Companion here, with a superglossary offered here.

Printed versions are advertised here by Prospect Books.

Suet, Part One: Its role in 18th Century Foodways and Life


A section of Bartolomeo’s 1585 painting, The Butcher’s Shop. Fresh Suet, anyone?

Scan through almost any 18th century cookbook and you will find a recurring term: Suet. Suet was an important ingredient in English cooking. It’s still used today, though it seems to have reserved its spot on British grocery shelves much more so than here in the United States.


Beef Suet

Suet is a special hard fat found in the loins of beef and sheep — I’ll explain specifically what suet is (and what it isn’t) in my next post. As an ingredient, it fills the columns of the old cookbooks. It’s an essential component in many traditional puddings, dumplings, crusts, mince pie, sausage, haggis, and forcemeats and stuffings. It was used to create an air-tight seal for potted meats and preserved fruits and vegetables. In its clarified state, it was used for deep frying, broiling, basting, and grilling.

David Steel’s 1795 book, “The Ship Master’s Accountant,” explains how sailors were issued flour, currants, and suet one day a week (Sunday, according to other texts) in lieu of their normal ration of beef. With these ingredients, the men would make “Plum Duff” — a simple boiled plum pudding.

Suet had numerous non-culinary uses in the 18th century as well. Countless medicinal ointments used suet as a base ingredient. It was used as lamp oil, as well as in the production of soap and leather treatments such as dubbin and black ball.

Maria Rundell, in her 1807 cookbook, “A New System of Domestic Cookery” uses suet in a couple recipes for Pomatum — the 18th century version of Pomade. She goes on to explain how suet can be used as a rust inhibitor of metal pots and utensils.

Will Hays, in his 1775 book, “Valuable Secrets Concerning Arts and Trade,”  publishes a formula which uses suet for oil-based paint. And if you’re ever concerned that someone may find out that you make your candles out of suet, here’s his recipe for a suet candle that no one will ever suspect:

Hays also offers a recipe for fish bait which uses suet and various other sundry (and stinky) ingredients along with a little cotton fiber to hold it all together. More “fish paste” recipes can be found in the 1800 publication, “The Sportsman’s Dictionary.”

Probably the most serendipitous find in my research was Elizabeth Moxon’s instructions for making carbon paper in her 1749 book “English Housewifry.”

Rundell explains further in her book how this black paper can be used to copy clothing patterns.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll take a closer look in future posts at what Suet is and what it isn’t. In addition, I’ll explain what you should look for when purchasing suet and how to process it for use. I’ll also post a sampling of recipes from various 18th and early 19th century cookbooks that use suet as a major ingredient.

The Overlooked Purslane

Just as it is across half of the United States, this part of Indiana where I live is under the oppressive effects of extreme drought. I’ve given up on my lawn. The grass crunches beneath my feet and breaks off at the ground with each step. I fear spontaneous combustion should the sun even look at it wrong. The only signs of life in my yard are the towering weeds which have shown themselves once again to be the most well-equipped to survive.

The other day I braved the heat and went outside to uproot those few remaining living things. I felt a bit “Grinchy” doing so. As I made my way to the front of the house where the tallest stand thrived, I was delighted to find a splayed-out clump purslane growing up through the crack in my scalding hot sidewalk.

Purslane is considered an exotic weed in most parts of the U.S., but there is some fossil evidence that it was at one time native to North America. It is common throughout many parts of the world. It’s a succulent plant that stores water in its leaves, stems, and roots. It reminds me of a diminutive version the jade plant I have growing in my living room. Both purslane and my jade plant seem to be equally resistant to drought.

A nice bowl of simple soup made of beef broth, leeks, and morning purslane, seasoned with salt and pepper, and served over croutons of hearty bread.

Both the stalks and leaves of purslane are edible. It has a snappy texture and its taste can vary depending on the time of day it’s harvested: pick it before the sun rises and it can have a slightly tart flavor; by midday, it’s likely to taste more mild with a hint of earth. And what’s especially nice about this plant is that it’s extremely high in Omega-3 oils — more so than any other leafy plant you can find in the produce section. It’s also high in Vitamins A, B, and C. If you suffer from kidney stones or gout, however, you may want to be careful about making purslane a regular addition to your diet, as it also contains high levels of oxalate, a contributor to these ailments.

Purslane can be found in a number of 18th century cookbooks. It was typically used in soups and stews, as well as eaten raw in salads. It was also used as a garnish, often being blanched and pickled. Here are a few recipes:

A New and Easy Method of Cookery, Elizabeth Cleland, 1755

The Compleat Housewife, Eliza Smith, 1739

By the way, a “walm” is a bubble according the O.E.D. Boil the stalks in salted water for a dozen bubbles…in order words, blanch them.

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