I was introduced to Priscilla Farlow Melson by one of her descendants, Lewis Melson, who sent to me a copy of "Recollections of Aunt Prissy," several pages of recipes and remembrances of one of his ancestors living in Melson, a small Eastern Shore town, during the 1850s.
In a few conversational paragraphs, Aunt Prissy shares her experiences cooking in a time before stoves, in a time when meal preparation was an all-day, all-consuming set of tasks — cooking in a time when technique still outweighed technology.
Perhaps unwittingly, Aunt Prissy tells us much about daily living in the antebellum Eastern Shore. Making just about any dish usually began with growing, gathering, or killing most of the ingredients. Processing the foods — butchering, cleaning, cooking, preserving — added extra labor-intensive steps to the recipe. Food was prepared and cooked on the hearth of the fireplace or out of doors in pits and bricked ovens.
An antebellum menu
The menu was largely limited to those foods produced locally. But in the antebellum Eastern Shore, when the known world sailed a course to Cambridge, St. Michaels, Oxford, and a dozen other Tidewater towns, the local produce was one part of an often rich and cosmopolitan fare.
Fruits and vegetables of all kinds were plentiful, both from kitchen gardens and at markets with neighboring farmers. Aunt Prissy talks of sun-drying apples, pears, peaches, and huckleberries; her recipes call for corn, pumpkins, and potatoes.
The Melson residents ate a variety of meats ranging from squirrel and rabbit to pork and beef. They ate chicken and, as Aunt Prissy tells us, "Turkey was food for special guests." Seafood, such as oysters, was plentiful, but had to come from Salisbury or the Tidewater fishery.
This relative plenty was a welcome change from 100 years earlier. As Lewis Melson pointed out in his letter, "You will be amazed at the number of early Colonists who starved in the midst of plenty. Those 1,610 to 1,750 inhabitants only survived when the resident Indians gave them corn and showed them how to hunt box turtles.”
By Aunt Prissy's time, Eastern Shore cooks had developed numerous dishes that have become standard items in Maryland's regional cuisine. Many of the tools and techniques Aunt Prissy used have evolved, but she still has lessons to teach contemporary cooks, even on something as simple as cooking oysters.
"Oysters were plentiful, 6 1/4 cents a bushel,” she writes. “Got them in Salisbury. Usually got four or five bushels at a time. Put a bushel and a half of oysters in a big tub — the biggest one you ever saw. Poured scalding water over the oysters to make them shuck easily.
"When the oysters were opened, I would cook them in the frying pan (this pan was 3 inches deep, about 20 inches in diameter, and had a handle a yard long), and stew them with plate cakes until boiling hot."
Note that four bushels of oysters cost the Melsons a quarter. Plate cakes were flat biscuits formed around a pie pan. The biscuits were often broken into pieces and added to the stewed oysters.
1,500 Strokes With an Ax
“Beaten biscuits” are another Maryland tradition. Before yeast or other leavening became widely available, pummeling, pounding, and beating biscuit dough with an ax helped entrain air in the dough and resulted in a characteristic consistency. Lewis Melson writes: "My late wife talked me into making a batch years ago and that took courage. Yet, the results were worth the effort.”
Here is a recipe for plate cakes, as written by Edith Melson Whaley, Levin F. Melson's sister:
MARYLAND BEATEN BISCUITS
3 1/2 pints sifted flour, mix in teaspoonful salt and tablespoon sugar. (About, never measured it — so test till right quantity is ascertained), 1/4 pound lard. Mix all well together.
Use enough water to make a stiff dough (more danger of getting it too soft than too stiff). Work it a bit to get it to hold together well.
Put dough on a biscuit board (placed on firm base) and beat with hatchet 1,500 strokes (about 1/2 hour).
Break up dough into pieces of proper size to pinch into form of small biscuit (about 1 1/2 inch diameter). Roll and pat in the hands. Place in pan with their pinched sides down. Mark on top in center with three “pricks” of a three-tined fork.
Bake until slightly browned and dough is cooked through.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website, reedhellmanwordsmith.com