Time Travel with Lemons: Recipes for Lemon Curd

January 12, 2014 in Creating The 18th Century, Feast or Famine, Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century by M C

World War II home campaign featuring lightning jars

As my friend Sherianne wrote “Recipes are signposts, telling us where we are and how we got there.” (read her recipe for coffee nog, and life).  But they are also a trap for the unwary historian.

There are assumptions I’ve made about 18th century cooking which are flat out wrong, and those errors center around my research of lightning jars.  it was a Vermonter, Henry William Putnam of Bennington, who, in 1882, invented a fruit jar that used a glass lid and a metal clamp to hold the lid in place: the Lightning Jar.  These jars became wildly popular because no metal could rust and break the seal (or contaminate the food), and the metal clamps made the jars easier by far to seal and open.  Hence the name “Lightening Jar.”

Home canning jars date from as early as the 1850s.  For most of history food was preserved by drying, salting, pickling, or in root cellars.  There is an impressive amount of science which went into preserving food before refrigeration and canning came along.  Science, and strong teeth.  But in 1850 the first home canning jars started appearing.  They weren’t entirely reliable, having a tin lid sealed with wax, but they introduced whole new possibilities for home preservation which cooks quickly grasped. But though the jars were cheap to produce, the difficulties surrounding the canning process limited their popularity.

But 1858 an inventor and tin smith in New York City, a John Mason, invented his Mason Jar.  The jar was sealed with a rubber gasket with the lid screwed onto the glass jar, holding the seal in place.  Very similar to a modern Ball canning jar, and not too different from any glass jar on a supermarket shelf today.

igp1833The ease, and affordability, of these new Mason Jars spread home canning across the nation.  It wasn’t just rural families, but urban ones as well, who started canning new family recipes for pickles, sauces, relishes, and jams.  In her diary written in 1881 a young woman in New York City records that she’d been given a gift of “two fruit jars.”  It was common for people in urban areas to buy, or be given as a gift, the fruit jars and the fruit to go in them, in much the same way Ball introduced boxed kits a couple of years ago which came with the glass, recipe book, and appropriate spice packet, to make home canned pickles, salsas, or spaghetti sauces.

Given this, I’ve always assumed jams, jellies, even pickles and relishes, were rare or unknown to the 18th century diner.  Imagine my surprise to discover not a recipe or two but entire chapters, pages of recipes, for jams in Cleland’s 1755 cookbook.  An entire section on pickling.  With lemon used for both flavoring and to maintain color in fruits like apples.  Peanut butter might not have been available to Jamie Fraser, but he could have covered his bread with bramble jam or currant jelly.

If there are jams and jellies, surely there will be lemon curd…

Ms. MacDonald ended her criticism with “I’ve looked over most of your recipes and I’ll tell you that they border on the ridiculous. You really should leave the cooking to the professionals.”

Well where’s the fun in that?  But by all means, let’s see what the professionals, c. 1755, had to say about Lemon Curd >>

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