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Feeding the “Sweet Tooth” of Flushing’s Early Quakers


Classic Bakewell Tart, a favorite of the Bowne family of Flushing

Long Island, 1645: a group of English families is granted a charter by the Dutch of New Amsterdam to establish a village called Vlissengen, or what is now known as Flushing, in the Borough of Queens.  Many of these folks are Quakers (members of the Society of Friends), and over time, the area from Flushing to Oyster Bay becomes one of the strongholds of Quakerism in North America, along with Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

In 1651, an industrious man, John Bowne (pronounced like “town”) and Quaker wife, Hannah Feke, buy land from the Native Americans in Vlissingen and set up what is to become one of the most prosperous farms in the region.  This is the same John Bowne who will later lead the famous Flushing Remonstrance petition, earning Quakers the right to worship publicly in the Dutch colony, and who donates land to build the Friends Meeting House of Flushing, 1694, which is still an active assembly today.

Hannah Bowne's simple gravestone at the Friends Meeting House in Flushing

The fact that the Bowne family was so prominent in agriculture is saying something, because what later was known as the Borough of Queens was an extremely important early agricultural center in New York, due to the excellent soil nourished by its old forests and superior drainage facilitated by its rolling hills.  Since colonial economics were based on the substantial movement of raw and manufactured goods to and from the motherland – with all transactions taxed accordingly – agriculture was a highly competitive industry.

The Bay of Flushing/Newtown Dock was a major shipping hub to and from Europe, delivering such products as the extraordinary array of apples grown in New York, and receiving fine goods like wine, fabric, and sugar.  The leading nurseries of the day – import/export outfits where farmers purchased seeds and plants – were located in Flushing, including the Prince Linnean Garden and Nursery, founded in 1735, which had the monopoly on tree propagation in North America and sold the famous Newtown Pippin apple.  John Bowne was not a specialist, we know from the farm records dating from 1649 – 1692 that he cultivated a variety of products:  wheat, buckwheat, rye, oats, barley, and flax; for livestock he raised cattle, oxen, sheep, pigs, horses and bees; there is also evidence of vegetables and fruits including peas and turnips as well as apples.  All along the North Fork of Long Island, oysters and other shellfish were harvested in abundance, supplying the growing New Amsterdam.

Before all of this ambitious agricultural industry developed, the early English and Dutch settlers, in their basic struggle to survive in a new environment, relied heavily upon the knowledge of the Native Americans of the region, who, as we all know, shared their farming and cooking techniques.  Primary amongst their foodstuffs was what the Europeans called “Indian corn,” a useful vegetable that could feed humans and livestock alike.

A cloam oven

The English newcomers were especially fortunate, for they actually arrived having brought along virtually the same oven technology that the locals were using here.  According to William Woys Weaver, in his republishing of A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook, The Domestic Cookery of Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, (Stackpole Books, 2004), the Native American methods of cooking on a hearth using ash closely resembled what was being used in England at the time, nicely facilitating the exchange of recipes from one culture to the other.  In this hearth technique, kindling was placed inside the oven, burned down to hot ash, and then pushed aside making room for the item to be baked.  The temperature would be controlled depending on how much or how little ash was used.

A quick recipe from Clayton's Quaker Cook-Book by A.J. Clangtor

The primary example of a recipe passing effectively and lastingly from the Native Americans to the Europeans is the cornmeal cake – centuries of variations from points all over the country abound:  Indian cakes, journey cakes, hoe cakes, hearth cakes, quick cakes, ad infinitum.  These consisted of, at their simplest, cornmeal and lard; at their richest, cornmeal, butter, eggs, and milk, with a sweetener such as molasses or sugar.  The Dutch made a treat called ‘sappaen,’ or cornmeal mush, gleaned from the Native Americans, in which a softer version of the mixture was piled into a large serving dish.  A crater was forged into the top and milk was ladled in, which slowly seeped into the mound.

An old beverage urn on display at the Friends Meeting House of Flushing

As the flow of goods amongst the colonial networks increased, giving the Dutch and British access to sugar from the Caribbean and fruit from Europe, everyone was able to replicate their traditional recipes from home.  While the Dutch were making waffles and pancakes (poffertjes), doughnuts (oly koeks), and cookies (koeckjens), the English Quakers were baking meat-filled crusts (pyes), custard-filled crusts (puddings), and fruit-filled crusts (tarts).  In Quaker households, these treats were taken with tea, which was their hot preferred beverage, along with apple cider, weak beer and wine.

Rosemary Vietor, who is a descendent of John Bowne, and President of the Board of Trustees of the Bowne House Historical Society, http://www.bownehouse.org/, is passionate about the domestic and personal lives of the Bownes.  As the Bowne House undergoes a major renovation and gets ready to celebrate its 300th anniversary, the organization looks forward to better utilizing its fantastic collection of decorative arts and household items to tell the long and illustrious story of the Bownes in Flushing.  The house has a large collection of cooking utensils and, not surprisingly, one of the only known cloam ovens in America, a small brick oven covered in clay with an iron door that uses ash.

For those who are interested in learning more about early American culinary technology, you can take a day-long course at Hearth Studios in Smithtown, Long Island with renowned food historian Dr. Alice Ross, http://www.aliceross.com/.

To further investigate the broader history of food in New York City, don’t miss “The Culinary History of New York: A Moveable Feast,” organized by the Historic House Trust of New York City, taking place at historic sites all across the City: http://www.historichousetrust.org/page.php?p_id=61

-Written by Anne Shisler-Hughes

Original article here >>

Reprinted with permission