Two hundred years ago, settlers in the Medway area found game plentiful. It included bear, deer, rabbit, turkey, quail, partridge, duck, geese, pheasant, ground hog, raccoon, opossum, and squirrel, besides small birds, fish, frogs and eels. Most of the larger game was shot, small game trapped or snared, fish caught with hook and line.
Preparation was of the most basic kind. Animals were skinned, gutted, hung to drain. Birds were beheaded, hung to drain, feathers plucked (and saved), gutted, washed. Fish were gutted, scaled or skinned, washed.
Eels. Well, eels were dealt with this way. “Because eels are slippery and tough to hold on to, prepare in the following way. Dispatch the eel by either a blow to the head or placing in a deep container and adding salt. Do not bury eel but rather coat liberally. This removes slim also. When dead, skin the eel by this method. Secure head to tree or board. Cut skin around the body just behind the gills. Using fingers or pliers, strip skin down and off. Next, slit underside from stem to stern. Open and remove entrails. Cut head off. Wash thoroughly and cut meat into portions for cooking. Fry or bake as for fish.” In local history stories it was found that Mad River contained eel at the length of 3 to 4 feet.
Boiled eels were simply cleaned, cut meat boiled in salt water and laid in a hot plate and served with parsley sauce. Most eel recipes called for a sauce. I have no doubt it was needed. Fried eels were fixed the same way as fried fish. A sauce was recommended again. Grilled eels were skewered and rubbed with salt, pepper and sage; cooked on a hot gridiron with suet or lard and served with melted butter.
Snapping turtles were also on the menu, care being taken to avoid the head and mouth at all cost. Cleaning the turtle was a bit more involved than dressing out a chicken. The turtle’s nervous system can keep working for hours after supposed death. Its mouth can still snap and sever a finger, its legs can still walk away. Included here-in is a recipe declared to be simple. Of course, that is after you get it in the pot.
Salt water was used to cleanse and freshen game and birds. Soaking a cleaned squirrel in salt water for several hours was said to tenderize and add flavor while removing a strong gamey flavor which was disliked. If the squirrel was old it needed to be par-boiled, then baked or roasted with a larding of thin-sliced bacon. (My question would be, how do you tell if the squirrel is ‘old’?)
Ducks, geese and turkeys were drawn, plucked and dressed as for chickens. Roasted, broiled or baked, they were stuffed with salt and onions for added flavor. If young and lean they were larded with bacon, salt pork or basted with butter frequently.
One thing that hasn’t changed in 200 years is that sauces go over meats. It may be to fancy them up now, perhaps to enhance a bland flavor, or as a pretense for what was once known as gravy. Early recipes for sauces included spices, herbs and good homemade butter.
Egg sauce for fish and wild birds was made this way. Using as many hard-boiled eggs as there are people being served, chop first the white then the yolk, mix them together. Do not chop too fine. Add to a quarter pound to one pound of good melted butter. Bring to a boil, take off heat and serve up in boat (gravy boat) with meat.
Celery sauce was recommended for turkey, goose and other game birds. Finely cut a large bunch of celery after having washed it thoroughly. Place in enough water to cover and boil until tender. Water should have reduced. Add a half pint of cream, salt, pepper, mace, nutmeg and a spoonful of good butter which has been rolled in flour. Simmer until thickened.
As far back as 1820, the use of sauces was so common that a general rule was to melt a desired amount of butter, season with walnut catsup or “put in as many things as you choose.”
Simple Turtle Soup
One pound turtle meat, fat removed
1-2 stalks celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup milk
Salt and pepper
Simmer meat with celery, bay leaf, salt and pepper in water until tender. Remove meat from the bones, discarding bones. Strain liquid, discard celery, bay leaf and any bones. Save liquid.
In saucepan, make a thin gravy by browning flour in butter. Slowly add the milk. When thick, season to taste with salt and pepper. Chop meat, add to gravy. Add one cup of turtle liquid. Add more liquid for thinner soup. Other old recipes added finely chopped onion, carrots, corn, potatoes, or barley all of which would help thicken soup.