During the holiday season, those who like to cook get their day in the sun. We look forward to the “signature dishes,” party foods and treats that only make an appearance once a year. This was the case historically, as well; families saved the best-fattened livestock and the prettiest examples of canned preserves for special meals. Boone County’s early holiday gatherings were a showcase of the “best available” to place upon the table. Of course, meals would vary from family to family, according to a number of factors including income, cultural tradition, available resources and time, but most would celebrate in their own way.
German immigrants to Boone County enjoyed familiar treats from the homeland, such as “Lebkuchen”. This German holiday cookie contains candied orange peel, almond and cherry brandy, not typical ingredients found in the local general store, so they required planning ahead. There were also varieties of German sausage reserved for the holidays. These could be homemade or purchased at a German butcher, often requiring a trip to the city.
On some local tables, greens seasoned with ham or fatback would be a welcome southern side dish. Historically, greens were cultivated and cooked by impoverished and enslaved families throughout the South, including Kentucky, and seasoned to cut their naturally bitter taste. They were once considered “weeds” by many of the privileged class, but are deliciously prepared the traditional way, and rich in nutrients. Thanks to necessity and culinary creativity, these dishes now grace the tables of many Americans, both during the holidays and on any given dinner table.
Before the days of modern convenience, holiday meal planning began well in advance. Families of means ordered delicacies sent from New Orleans or St. Louis by steamboat weeks before the arrival of out-of-town guests or yearly social events. Local farmers had a long-game, keeping an eye on the care and feeding of livestock throughout the year, the best of which may grace the holiday table and fill the smokehouse. Family gardens provided staples and treats for the holiday table, their bounty preserved through the hot work of canning done in late summer.
Martha Dinsmore, the matron of the Dinsmore Homestead, left a treasure trove of her own favorite recipes. Among them was her “French Cake” recipe which was special enough for the holiday table. The ingredients were: 1 lb. white sugar, ¾ lb. butter, 1 lb. flour, 1 lb. citron, the whites of ten eggs and a glass of wine. Preparation and instruction were not included with the recipe, so it’s not entirely clear if the wine was for the batter or the baker!
By Hillary Delaney