One of the most fun aspects of working with the Lefferts family papers for me was getting to see some of the cookbooks the collection contained. In particular, the handmade and handwritten cookbook that likely belonged to Maria Lott Lefferts (1786-1865) with some possible contribution from her daughter Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt (1824-1902).
The hearth and kitchen was an important part of the Lefferts homestead and Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt talks about it early on in her book about the family’s history, The Lefferts Family:
…on the crane a great iron pot of hot water was always boiling, and in the early morning or the afternoon, the tea kettle sang its simmering song. From the pot hooks and trammels hung the kettles of all sizes, for the cooking of the day… The “Dutch oven” of brick, at one end of the fire-place, filled the space between the fireplace and the wall… Some six or eight peis and half a dozen loaves of bread could be baked at one time in this oven, beside some smaller pans of cake if required.
With so much room in the Dutch oven for breads and pies it makes sense that the Lefferts family’s cookbook would contain recipes for an impressive assortment of baked goods.
Most of the pies and cakes are pretty standard and classic and if I had more time I would love to compare them to modern recipes. Some recipes, however, might seem a bit more exotic to modern tastes. For example, this Oyster Pie that I would actually like to try:
No, really, I think I would like to give it a taste (my baking skills might not be up to pulling it off myself, though). Oysters, native to the Gowanus, make this Oyster Pie some legitimate Brooklyn faire. I was also surprised that there could possibly be so many puddings to choose from:
Between this and the way Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt describes the well-stocked pantry, they seem to have been a well fed family. Later cookbooks in the Lefferts family collection offer interesting family recipes as well. The book of Receipts Donated by the Members of Saint Anna’s Chapter of Saint Paul’s Church in the Village of Flatbush (1909) was owned by Carrie Lefferts, wife of James Lefferts (1855-1915) of Flatbush. The recipes are all noted with the names of their contributor. While none of the published recipes seem to have been contributed by Carrie Alexander Lefferts, there is a recipe hand-written into the margins of the book for “Mother’s Muffins”
The cookbook also contains bits of cheeky doggerel like, “Cheese is a digestible little Elf/ Digesting everything but itself” and moments of erudition such as where it quotes Longfellow with “Who’ll dare deny the truth, there’s poetry in pie?” My favorite bit of poetry in the book, though, is a piece on hash attributed to “Bee” titled “Suggestive”:
The implication seems to be that there is a lot of mystery meat in hash. I am not sure that sort of humor would fly today in a cook book. That’s partly why I love it.
Another cookbook within the collection produced in a manner similar to the Saint Paul’s Chuch book is Housekeeping in old Virginia: Containing contributions from two hundred and fifty ladies in Virginia, edited by Marion Cabell Tyree. Being that the book is from Virginia, it’s likely that it belonged to Mary Gray Lefferts, one of the Lefferts family members who lived in Virginia for a time and who has an assortment of materials appearing in the Lefferts family papers. Unfortunately this book has lost its cover so I cannot provide you with a nice shot of the title. I can, however, show you some more exotic recipes:
I’m not one to shy away from offal, my grandmother occasionally served tripe and I usually enjoyed it, but I’ll pass on Brain Croquettes. Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate might be more up to the public’s palate and with that some Sally-Lunn:
I was amazed that there were so many recipes for Sally-Lunn (at least five), a sort of English bun cake. Like the other cookbooks, this book contained a handwritten recipe, this one for “Sweet Pickled Fruit” written into the margins:
I am unsure how much these women (particularly Carrie Alexander Lefferts and Mary Gray Lefferts) felt they were carrying on a tradition of kitchen and hearth when they used these cookbooks (and judging by the stains and the wear from use, these books were certainly used). However, I still find it an interesting thread extending through the women of the Lefferts family, in this case extending over time and geography. If you’d like to learn more about the Lefferts family, check out the guide to the Lefferts family papers. And if anyone winds up trying any of these recipes, let us know!