I spent today as a Historic Foodways Artisan at the Heart and Hands Festival. This is an annual event at Joseph Schneider Haus Museum and Gallery here in Kitchener and showcases practitioners of various traditional crafts. Since the museum’s time period is 1856 I was cooking over the open hearth in the wash-house and using some older equipment than that used by most women in 1906 when The Berlin Cook Book was published. I was at the haus all day so I had time to showcase two recipes from the cook book. I prepared Apple Catsup, a recipe I first tried on Day 64 of my year-long project, as well as a new one called Beet Pickle. It was contributed by Mrs. C. A. Kern.
It is always bit scary to try a new recipe in front of others but I thought this was simple enough to risk a possible mistake. The wonderful staff at Schneider Haus cooked the beets for me ahead of time. I just had to peel and trim them and then start chopping. If you’ve ever worked with beets you can imagine the state of my hands by the time I finished peeling and chopping. Modern cooks might choose to wear gloves to protect your hands but the rest of us just dig in and proudly show off our stained and dripping digits.
I chopped about five beets to reach 1 quart (4 cups). Next I sliced off a chunk of a beautiful fresh cabbage. It didn’t take long to have 1 quart (4 cups) of chopped raw cabbage. I mixed the beets and cabbage together in a bowl and then started adding the rest of the ingredients.
I added two cups of white granulated sugar and stirred it into the vegetables. In 1856, white sugar was special and was purchased as a cone of sugar that had to be stored covered in blue paper to keep it white. A chunk or lump of sugar was cut from the cone and pulverized every time you wanted to use sugar in a recipe. It was much easier in 1906. Sugar was purchased prepackaged in bags or in barrels or in bulk from the local grocer. The sugar was basically the same white granulated sugar we buy today in the grocery store. In fact many of the brands are still available today.
I added the tablespoon of salt and the teaspoon of black pepper. Spices were purchased whole in 1856 and then ground at home as needed. By 1906, the women of Berlin Ontario could buy whole or ground spices. Since I was working in 1856 today, I had to grind the whole black pepper in a mortar with a pestle before adding the spice to the beet pickle. They grow horseradish in the garden at Schneider Haus so Kathryn kindly dug some fresh for me to use in this recipe. I cut a small piece of the horseradish root and peeled it using a knife. Then I grated it using the same knife until I had one teaspoon to add to the pickle.
Now it was time to add the vinegar. I wanted to be able to tell visitors . . . and you, how much vinegar was needed so I first poured it into a cup and then added it to the bowl of well mixed ingredients. I found that three cups of apple cider vinegar just covered the chopped vegetables. I stirred well and began to serve samples — after I tasted it first!
Mrs. C. A. Kern is likely Augusta H. Mai wife of Charles A. Kern. The couple lived in Berlin Ontario for the 1901 and 1911 censuses but had lived in Bentinck in Grey County in 1891, and then Brantford. Charles grew up in Grey County and was probably born there too. He became a barber and that’s the occupation listed in census and directories. Augusta was born in Germany and emigrated with her parents around 1872 when she was just four years old. By the time she was 23 she was married with a two-year old. When the cook book was published in 1906 Augusta and Charles had four children Gertrude age 16, Otto 12, Augusta “Gussie” 10, and Karl 2. I was curious about the gaps in ages among these children. I found that there was another child between the first two children. Little Oscar Julius Kern died in 1893 just a month short of his second birthday. Cause of death was listed as congestion in lungs. A sixth child was born in 1907, the year after the cook book appeared. Augusta died in 1933 at the age of 68.
I have concerns about attempting to preserve the Beet Pickle the way Mrs. Kerns describes. I’m not even confident about canning this using modern equipment since nothing has been cooked except the beets. Instead I would consider this a salad, much like a five bean salad. It will keep in a modern refrigerator for several days. And based on the visitor response to Beet Pickle, it won’t last long. This was an incredible hit for nearly all the tasters. Surprisingly about 90% of visitors liked beets or were at least willing to try a sample. Most of the tasters liked the beet pickle and took a copy of the recipe. The appeal seemed to be in the balance of sweet and sour and of crunchy cabbage with softer beet.
I was provided with some nice sweet tasting beets. I was worried the pickle would be too sweet with so much sugar but it seems to work well. A modern cook might want to try reducing the amount of sugar. Beets vary in sweetness so I’d recommend tasting the beets before adding all the sugar. Some tasters thought the cabbage might be nice in shreds rather than in little square pieces and I think that could work. If you don’t have access to horseradish root, you can use commercially prepared horseradish or skip it entirely. No one really noticed it so I’m not sure it is an essential ingredient.There is scope to alter this recipe in a number of ways including changing the spicing or even the type of vinegar. I used a regular green cabbage but a red cabbage would make it very striking. I spoke with two people who really liked this recipe and found it familiar. One was visiting from Germany and the other grew up there as a child. Both said Mrs. Kern’s Beet Pickle reminded them of several dishes from back home. I’m not surprised since the contributor of this recipe, Augusta H. (Mai) Kerns was born in Germany. With several hundred people of all ages sampling Beet Pickle today, there was hardly a speck left by the end of the day. I was very surprised to see toddlers enjoying it as much as their parents and grandparents. This is definitely a time travel success!
UPDATE: Find out more about Joseph Schneider Haus and Gallery here: http://www.regionofwaterloo.ca/en/discoveringtheregion/josephschneiderhaus.asp
If you enjoy food and this blog, consider attending the Forgotten Food Symposium. Details can be found here: http://www.waterlooregionmuseum.com/upcoming-events/2013-october/forgotten-food-symposium.aspx
Mrs. C. A. Kern
1 quart raw cabbage chopped fine, 1 quart boiled beets chopped fine, 2 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of grated horseradish, cover with cold vinegar and keep from air.