Monday, January 14, 2013

Mary Randolph's Curry

The scene ... Philadelphia, late eighteenth century.   As recounted by Dave DeWitt in The Founding Foodies, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the British Empire, only after London.  Approximately three times each week, ships entered the harbor.  These ships brought goods from around the world ... citrus, coconuts, bananas, plantains, guavas, oranges, dried plums, dried cherries, and, of course, spices and powders, like curry powder.  The goods were auctioned off at dockside, with taverns and caterers buying them for their use in their businesses.  The size of the port in Philadelphia ensured a wide diversity of foods, including curry dishes. 

I can just picture the cooks in local taverns, seeing and smelling the strange spice mixtures that had just arrived in the city.  The unique smells and tastes were sure to pique the interest of the guests and set the dishes apart from the typical fare.  The only question was how to incorporate the spice mix into the dishes.  Few, if any, recipes have survived from the late 1700s, making it very difficult to surmise what those cooks made with the new-found spices. 

One of the first recipes for a curry is found in The Virginian Housewife, written by Mary Randolph in 1824One of the most influential books on housekeeping and cooking in the nineteenth century.  The recipe was entitled "To Make a Dish of Curry After the East Indian Manner."  Mary Randolph does not explain how she developed the recipe or what sources upon which she relied.  Nevertheless, as DeWitt explained, spices were brought to the colonies -- through Philadelphia -- and it is reasonable to assume that the fascination with those spices led cooks in the taverns and in homes to try to recreate those East Indian dishes.

This recipe is particularly difficult, mostly due to Mary Randolph's failure to include cooking times.  Therefore, I had to rely a lot upon my eyes, nose and gut to determine when a step was completed and it was time to move to the next step.   To make things more difficult, boiling pieces of chicken does not take as long as boiling a whole chicken.  So, the recipe requires a lot of attention during the cooking process to ensure that everything is cooked well and not overcooked.  And, after a lot of thought, I decided that I would follow Mary Randolph's lead and not include cooking times.  It was just two difficult to do, particularly since I spent more time looking at the chicken cook than I did at the clock. 

Finally, Mary Randolph suggests that this dish could be served with rice.  While Randolph provided a recipe for making rice, I just followed the directions on the package.  I realize that I lose some of the authenticity, but, white rice cooked using the methods of the late 18th and early 19th century looks a lot like white rice cooked using the methods of the 21st century. 

Recipe by Mary Randolph, The Virginian Housewife (1824) at 80
and reprinted in Dave DeWitt, The Founding Foodies at pgs.47-48
Serves 4-6

2 whole chickens, organic and cage free
1 tablespoon of salt
1/2 pound of butter
2 cloves of garlic
1 large onion sliced
2-3 tablespoons of curry powder
Juice from a lemon or orange, optional

1.  Prepare the chicken.   Cut the chicken into pieces as for a fricassee (basically, remove the backbone, remove the breastbone, and cut the chicken into eight to twelve pieces).  Wash all of the chicken pieces and put them into a stew pan with as much water as will cover them.  Sprinkle them with a large spoonful of salt.

2.  Boil the chicken.  Boil the chickens until tender, covered closed all the time, and skim them well.  When boiled enough, take up the chickens, and put the liquor of them into a pan.

3.  Saute the vegetables and chicken.  Then put have a pound of fresh butter in the pan, and brown it a little.  Put into it two cloves of garlic and a large onion slice, and let all fry brown, often shaking the pan.  Then put in the chickens and sprinkle over them two or three spoonsful of curry powder; then cover the pan close and let the chickens do till brown, often shaking the pan.  Then put in the liquor the chickens were boiled in, and let all stew till tender.  If acid is agreeable, squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange into it.

In the end, the effort was worth it.  The chicken was cooked well and the curry powder provided a wonderful taste.  (I am a big fan of curry powder, and, curries in general.)  The only drawback that is not addressed by Mary Randolph is the thickness of the "liquor" (that is, the liquid used to boil the chicken).  I added the liquor back into the pot with the chicken, onions and curry powder, but, even after letting the ingredients "stew" for a while, the liquid still remained very thin.  I tried to boil it down a little, hoping that the butter would help to thicken it, but, after several minutes, I realized that it may take took long.  The effort was worth it and it was a great introduction into cooking a historical recipe as close as possible to how people would have prepared the dish back during the Colonial era. 


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