Home Life in Nelson: The Table

Rev. Edwin Noah Hardy (1861-1950)
Transcribed and edited by Roberta Wingerson

The wooden table was long, narrow, and roughly-made often supported by saw-horses in the early days. The tablecloth, then known as the board-cloth was made of the most durable hand-woven linen. Napkins were not used until later. The knives and forks were made of steel and bone-handled. The forks were small with only two tines. Spoons were largely made at home from pewter poured into molds for that purpose. A few of the more prosperous had some silver utensils. Many of the large mixing spoons were hand- carved of wood. Large and small wooden trenchers, in fact, most of the table ware including plates and pitchers were made of wood. Pewter began to replace wood as people prospered. Wood was also commonly used for milk pans until locally made heavy red earthenware became available for setting milk in the buttery and for storage in jars and crocks of various sizes.

Cider was the common beverage and used in great quantities. Home-brewed beers were also much used in the spring and summer. Distilled or “ardent” liquors were, undoubtedly, used for the first fifty years. Afterwards, because of a very strong local temperance sentiment, heavy drinking was considered a disgrace and even moderate drinking soon became increasingly unpopular. Few towns can boast of a finer temperance record than Nelson. Many herbal substitutes for tea were used until that beverage became less expensive. Coffee came very slowly into common use. A delicious coffee was, however, made from the hard and dried crusts of rye-Indian bread.

Fruit was little used as an article of food that was served with meals. Apple trees were set out very soon after the arrival of the early settlers and soon furnished an abundance of this delectable fruit. Among the smaller fruits cultivated, gooseberry and currant were great favorites. Wild strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry grew in astonishing quantities when the land was first cleared. Blueberries were dried and other berries preserved. The apple, which many have named as the most useful product of the field next to corn, expanded many household’s diets. It was made into delicious apple pie, dumplings, and apple jack. It was the chief ingredient in various kinds of sauce, cooked alone or with other fruits. But the crowning concoction was the New England boiled cider apple sauce. This was made from choice quarters of apples stewed for a long time in boiled cider. This boiled cider was an indispensable article for old-time cooking.  The process of cider making is too well known to require any description. While the cider was sweet, it was boiled down to thick syrup or a rich red color. This, properly jugged, would keep without fermentation for years. Not infrequently a barrel of apple sauce would be made before Thanksgiving for the winter use. The sharp acid flavor was particularly enjoyed when served with rye-Indian bread or with the pork and fat meats which were consumed in large quantities.

The table never lacked for the best of garden vegetables. Turnips, carrots, parsnips, onions, squashes, pumpkins, cabbages, peas and beans were everywhere raised

by the farmers. All these were highly esteemed and the boiled dinner of the summer with all the vegetables boiled together in the big iron kettle provided a dinner fit for a king. The vegetables were used in a great variety of ways. Pumpkin was dried and made into pies and sauce. Squash was stewed, made into pies or served with butter when baked. Artichokes were greatly enjoyed in the spring and cucumbers were eaten both green and pickled.

The old cellar served for the storage of products of the garden and fields. There were great bins of the choicest potatoes and various vegetables, barrels of the strongest cider vinegar, cider for winter consumption, and salt pork cured with a super abundance of saltpetre. Hanging from the cellar beams would be a long line of bacon and hams. Underneath the stairs would be great earthenware crocks of June butter. In the cellar cupboard carefully protected from the mice would be the large cheeses and the tallow candles, and bottles of refreshing raspberry shrub, elderberry wine, blackberry cordial, wild cherry bitters and other drinks which served as beverages or medicines that the household needed. Here also would be found big jars of jam and preserves, various kinds of pickles, especially a firkin of salted cucumbers to be freshened and pickled in the early spring.

At the head of the cellar stairs was another cupboard largely used for food in daily use. This cupboard was very dear to the growing boy. It lingers in memory as one of the choicest recollections of the past. Never did a crust of bread, a cruller, or a piece of pie taste as good as when a hungry boy, heated and weary from toil, feasted on his mother’s cooking at the old cellar cupboard.

Every spring, the more frugal would salt down a tub of mud suckers. About the time the oak leaf was the size of a squirrel’s ear, the suckers began to run from the ponds up the brooks where they were caught in large numbers at night. Suckering was one of the most cherished pastimes of a boy’s experience. The fish were firm-fleshed and really appetizing as long as the water in the stream was cold. These suckers when properly salted furnished a passable meal and were found in tubs in many cellars.

The full cellar gave the good housekeeper a most gratifying sense of abundance and prosperity. No wonder then, with a granary similarly filled, the family was more conscious of divine benefactions and could enter more fully into the spirit of Thanksgiving.