A taste of New England!
This post has a bit of an eclectic theme. I'm introducing you to a new character for the Peek into the Pantry gang, taking you on a quick field trip and cooking something that's so New England themed, it's almost painful. Bear with me, I promise it'll be fun. Or at least interesting? I hope?
Fall is my favorite season, October is my favorite month, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. You all know by now that I have a lot of love for my home region of New England, and I think it's safe to say for a fact that we really know how to do fall up here. People from all over come up to take a look at our leaves and get into the spirit with us. But the place that people flock to during October specifically is Salem, Massachusetts. The whole town dresses itself up for the Halloween season, playing up the history of the Salem Witch Trials with costume contests, haunted houses and ghost tours. It can be a bit of a zoo, but it's something most people say you should try to go see at least once.
When I was going to school in Boston, every year, people would talk about going to Salem to celebrate Halloween and every year, my plans to do it would fall through. This year, I finally managed to get myself out there, and I dragged Jane and my grandparents along with me.
Who exactly is Jane, you ask?
As much as I love American Girl, there are a few things that frustrate me. Lack of diversity and occasional neglect of the historical/BeForever line are both top of the list - where's our Black Girl of the Year, AG? - but one of my other complaints is that they don't have any characters from earlier than 1764. I love early colonial history, and would be really interested to see the company tackle Native and colonist characters from pre-1764.
So for the first time ever, I decided to take matters into my own hands!
Meet Jane! Jane Collier is a nine year old girl growing up in Jamestown, Virginia in 1614. Her father and older brother had come to the colony before her, her mother and two younger siblings, and Jane is initially not happy about the family's move across the ocean, which only gets worse when she finds out that her father had actually passed away while they were at sea. I haven't mapped out her whole story yet, but she does eventually get comfortable with her new living arrangements, even if she misses some of the conveniences of living back in England - apples, for example!
Although Jane is from Jamestown because it's my personal favorite settlement to study and talk about, I live up north, so she gets to be my companion visiting all of our local colonial historical sights. Hopefully someday, I'll get to head back down south and take you all on a tour of Jane's hometown!
Until then, to Salem!
Salem, Massachusetts was settled in 1626, and is an incredibly important center of events for colonial Massachusetts because it actually has a very deep harbor, making it an important center of trade. It's also the birth place of the National Guard! Of course, most modern people don't know that, and remember the name for one thing and one thing only.
Salem is most notorious for being the center of the witch hysteria that swept New England at the end of the 17th century. In 1692, a group of young girls began to accuse members of their community of witchcraft, saying that they had witnessed them signing the devil's book and were using magic to hurt them, which caused them to act insane and out of character. Twenty people were put to death, dozens more were accused, and it's remembered as one of the most infamous events in early American history, as well as the inspiration for Arthur Miller's The Crucible and several other popular works of fiction.
Technically speaking, the town of Salem that exists today is not the real location of the Witch Trials. They actually took place in Salem Village, the modern day Danvers, and several other towns in Massachusetts, but the modern Salem has happily adopted the history and has several places in town to learn more about the trials. I'm lucky to have a friend who lives in Salem and was very luck to have her accompany me and my grandparents around town, so we got to do the fun stuff without getting sucked into one of the more tourist trappy places.
Allison's favorite museum in town is the Salem Witch Museum, and was actually the only museum we visited while we were there. They unfortunately don't allow pictures inside, and only have two real exhibits, but it was very unusual and definitely entertaining.
You enter a room that starts off completely dark, and slowly different vignettes are illuminated with a narrator explaining the history of the trials and why exactly they took place. After, you're led into the second exhibit hall and get a brief history of witches, which explains how the legends we associate with them today have come to be and what modern witches are like. The whole thing took about an hour to do, and I really enjoyed it!
Afterward, Allison led us through town and took us to the memorial to the witch trials, which is right near the center of town. There's a sign outside explaining the trials and memorial.
Each victim of the trials is commemorated with a stone bench inlaid in a stone wall with their name, method of execution and date of death. Visitors left behind flowers, coins and other trinkets as a sign of respect, and the bench for Giles Corey - a man who was pressed to death instead of hung because he stubbornly refused to admit guilt - had a bouquet of flowers with a note from his distant relatives letting him know that his family had survived and he was remembered.
One of the most frequently asked questions at Salem is where were the victims buried? And the answer is no one really knows. Originally, they were buried in what were essentially unmarked graves, but there are some stories that some of the families snuck back to dig up and rebury their family members somewhere private. The only description of the real burial site is delightfully vague, so don't go here expecting to find the graves of John Proctor and Giles Corey.
That said, Salem is home to a lot of historic graveyards. One is located right next to the memorial, and has a handy map of the cemetery to show you who's buried where. They forbid grave rubbings to preserve the graves, but many of them have the classic colonial artwork featuring a lot of skulls and angels. The grave I was most excited to see was Richard More's, which has been carefully preserved after apparently falling over at some point.
Richard More was a child who came over on the Mayflower, and passed away in Salem around 1692 or 1694. He has a really interesting and frankly incredibly upsetting story. Richard and his three siblings were forcibly removed from their mother after their father accused her of sleeping with another man, meaning the children weren't really his. He placed them in the care of several prominent members of the Separatists planning to head to the New World on the Mayflower as indentured servants. Richard's three siblings all died within the first year at Plymouth, and while he evidently lived a fairly full life, it's still a pretty tragic story and really highlights how awful it was to be a woman in the 17th century. His mother didn't even know what had happened to her four children initially and had to fight to be given the information.
More is the only Pilgrim buried in Salem, and was honestly the only person whose name I recognized in this particular burying ground. Still, it was very interesting to walk around and take a look at some of the graves!
Salem is also the home to the House of the Seven Gables, which we didn't have time to go see, and the Peabody Essex Museum. According to Allison, this is a really great museum, but doesn't really have much to do with the witch trials, and is thus something most people save for their next trip to Salem if they're coming for the Halloween stuff at first. Since that's what we were doing, I guess we're saving that for our next trip up this way!
They do put up amazing works of modern art out in front of the building, though. This years was pretty impressive, and the picture doesn't quite do it justice because it was just that big!
Thanks to Allison for snapping this picture!
Unsurprisingly, it also has some really interesting shopping options in the downtown area and along the waterfront for tourists. There are used book stores, a ton of different interesting boutiques and more touristy shops with t-shirts and all the witch related merchandise you'd need. There are also a lot of shops that cater to modern witches and pagans, who have a very active presence in Salem. During October, there are lots of street vendors out as well, and the occasional rabid fundamentalist Christian who's decided the best use of their time is yelling about how dressing up like a vampire mean we're damned to hell forever.
Some of my favorite shops were the two Harry Potter inspired shops, Wicked Good Books (which had a cute little Salem themed cookbook!) and predictably, Ye Olde Pepper Companie, the oldest continually operating candy shop in the United States.
Ye Old Pepper Companie specializes in handmade chocolates, hand pulled sugar candies, and gibralters, which are basically like large after dinner mints. The store is quite small, and there's usually a line out the door at this time of year, but it was very cute and had a really impressive selection. It was really difficult to figure out what I wanted to buy!
Overall, our trip to Salem was a lot of fun! That said, I don't think it would have been quite as much fun as it turned out to be without Allison. It was a lot of fun to hang out with a buddy who really knew where to go and what to avoid, and I would definitely caution any visitors that things do get crowded the closer you get to Halloween and there's a lot of stuff that's overpriced and not really worth the time or money. That said, haunted houses aren't really my cup of tea, and I do tend to be a bit picky with my historical tourism, so that could me my personal preferences coming out.
Still, it was so much fun to see how much effort the town puts into celebrating the season. I'm always a huge sucker for stuff like that, and get totally caught up in the energy and enthusiasm. There's a lot of stuff to do between shows, parades, museums, haunted houses and shopping, and I can definitely see why coming up to visit is a tradition for people both local and otherwise. Just be prepared to fight for parking, make reservations, wait in lines and deal with some crowds! It's worth the trip.
When I got home, I knew I wanted to feature a recipe that has a lot of New England flavors. It's not really a region I get to feature often on the blog despite being located and raised here because none of the historical characters are from New England (why, American Girl?), but I had a really interesting one set aside that I thought would be fun to do today.
It comes from the Cafe Mitsitam cookbook, and features ingredients that are almost all indigenous to New England - the only ones that aren't are the butter and white sugar! Like most crumbles, the whole thing is pretty simple to make. You take four cups of fresh or frozen cranberries (I used fresh because that's what my store had), a cup of sugar, and a half cup each of honey and maple syrup. Cranberries and maple syrup are both staples of New England food culture and have been pretty much since humans have lived in this part of the world. The Native people of New England used both regularly, and showed the European colonists how to use them to add texture and flavor to their diet. This was something that was happily welcomed by the colonists, who often only had very bland foods in the first few years of their settlement in the New World.
This all gets cooked on the stove over medium low heat until it simmers and the cranberries begin to burst. The cookbook says this should take about ten minutes, but I think mine actually started bursting a little sooner.
You pour the fruit into a buttered eight by eight baking dish, and then put the topping over it.
The topping is cornmeal based, and is similarly simple as the filling. You just need a half cup of melted butter, a cup of cornmeal, a quarter cup of maple syrup and a half cup of honey. This is supposed to be mixed together just until all the ingredients are combined to make a thick batter.
I actually didn't find my topping to be all that thick just using the recipe's measurements, so I added in some cornmeal to make it a little thicker before spooning it over the top of my cranberries.
I popped it in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes as instructed. According to the cookbook, it was supposed to look like this, with a topping that looks like a nice, fluffy cornmeal biscuit:
But when I pulled it out, it looked like this:
I don't think I should have been surprised, and I wasn't exactly, because the topping doesn't have any flour or baking soda or powder in it. You can't have a nice, fluffy biscuit on top without ingredients like that, but I still wasn't expecting it to be so flat and soupy. Besides that, this is technically classified as a crumble, not a cobbler, and that means the topping is supposed to be less cakey or biscuity than a cobbler. The picture is just a bit misleading, I guess.
When I first mentioned that this was a recipe I wanted to try to my mom, she made a face and made it clear that she thought this was going to be incredibly sour and nasty. Cranberries are, after all, known as one of the more sour berries you can enjoy snacking on, and I was prepared going into this that it might be a very tart dessert.
Boy, was I wrong!
With a cup of honey, almost a cup of maple syrup and a cup of sugar, this was one of the sweetest desserts I've ever made. Like, unpleasantly sweet at times, and I'm actually already thinking of ways to improve on it. I think the basic structure was good, but you need to tweak the ratios of sweetners to make this a little less overwhelming. I actually like cranberries being a little tart, so losing that in the sweetness was a tiny bit disappointing. The topping was also super buttery, and I think I would have preferred it being more of a genuine cornbread. It did, however, give a nice gritty texture to the crumble, which made it more interesting than just eating cranberry jam out of a bowl.
It's not often that I take a recipe and start thinking about ways to improve it. I've viewed this blog as more of a chance to learn how to cook and review recipes I come across, and usually feel too intimidated to try any of my own unique projects because I've never had any formal culinary instruction. This recipe though seems like something I could definitely experiment and tailor more towards my taste, and I think I'd really like to give it a shot! I do have a lot of cranberries left over. I'll definitely keep you informed if I come up with a new play on this recipe that's worth trying out yourself!
Well, that was quite a post! Hopefully you guys stuck with me to the end. I just want to say thanks again to Allison for being such a gracious host and tour guide, and to my grandparents for being such good sports in being dragged around with their quirky granddaughter. I had a lot of fun this weekend and will definitely remember it for a long, long time, even if the crumble was a little bit of a disappointment!
But I still want to experiment with it! Stay tuned!