“It was about this time that my Father planned and founded a Club (that) met every Thursday evening, I think at the house of Abigail Jones, a coloured cook famous at that day…Most of the prominent men of ability and character in New York belonged to the club, which also through its members, invited strangers of distinction. Conversation was the object…The evening closed with a good supper, one of the members being caterer every Thursday, while Abigail Jones carried out the programme to perfection in the way of cooking.”
James Fenimore Cooper (Jr.), The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, 1921
By 1820, with a population of around 120,000, Manhattan was the most populous city in America, yet less than a tenth the size of London.
The small-town feel was vanishing, but the harbor still fluttered with sails, and there was air and space and light in even the meanest streets. Bold, wily pigs ran loose all over town, one for every five New Yorkers, or about the ratio of cars to residents today. The streets were mostly unpaved. Everyone used an outhouse.
The very first tourists were arriving, and they were not impressed with the second-rate accommodations and limited entertainment New York had to offer. There were four theaters, one of them disreputable, and one, at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer, with exclusively African-American players. All had segregated seating. At night, New York was nearly as dark as a country town, its streets lit only by smoky, faltering, infrequent whale-oil lamps—the municipality’s first efforts at nocturnal crime control—or, as the decade wore on, by sparse and slightly unearthly gaslight. We are at a tipping point in the history of the city, just a few years away from the seismic changes that will transform the cosmopolitan little port town into the commercial capital of America, maybe the world.
New York had been known for its urbane, morally tolerant character since its infancy as a Dutch trading outpost. But in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the city’s reputation was less sophisticated metropolis, more lowbrow temple of Mammon. Englishwoman Frances Trollope, visiting in the late 1820s, was among many visitors from abroad who found New Yorkers philistine.
“I visited all the exhibitions in New York,” she wrote, with typical candor. “The Medici of the Republic must exert themselves a little more before these can become even respectable. The worst of the business is, that with the exception of about half a dozen individuals, the good citizens are more than contented, they are delighted…
One gentleman, with much civility, told me, that at the present era, all the world were aware that competition was pretty well at an end between our two nations, and that a little envy might naturally be expected to mix with the surprise with which the mother country beheld the distance at which her colonies were leaving her behind them.”
Indeed! Trollope’s drawing-room scuffle enacted in microcosm the growing pains of the emergent New York intelligentsia which, like the young upstart it was, both demanded and defensively repelled the acceptance of its cultural elders.
In this moment of commercial growth and artistic self-definition, still at the edge of acceptance by the wider literary world, enterprising Manhattan established itself as the publishing capital of America, attracting in turn a host of men and a few women who made their living as writers, editors, publishers, sellers of books and periodicals.
They, like Trollope, denounced the city as a haven for a crass nouveau riche who viewed art as just another commodity. “Nobody cares anything for literature in New York,” wrote William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the New York Evening Post, “and the man considered a genius is the man who has made himself rich.”
Many in the nascent Manhattan book world were literary nationalists, committed to producing and promoting work that was distinctively American in style and subject. Their tastes prevailed, revolutionizing what, and who, Americans read. In 1820, about 30 percent of the books printed in the city were written by American authors, 70 percent by British; by 1850, these figures were reversed. What was good for business was good, in this case, for art. The American Renaissance was in bloom.
Along with a consciously American literature, professional literary New Yorkers of the early nineteenth century were disseminating their own collective status as New York intellectuals, a breed of American thinker as distinct from their countrymen as they were from their European counterparts. Their most tangible legacy, the Knickerbocker Magazine, was born in 1833 out of the desire to flesh out the relentlessly Puritan narrative of American history proselytized by New Englanders. By 1840 this assertive celebration of New York intellectualism was the most popular literary magazine of its time, with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant regular contributors.
If The Knickerbocker presaged the The New Yorker, the Bread and Cheese Club was the venerable ancestor of the Algonquin Round Table.
The Bread and Cheese Club began meeting weekly in 1824 at or near 300 Broadway. Their meetings were catered by then-renowned African-American chef, Abigail Jones.
Cooper, like so many other hot young writers, relocated to Manhattan after publishing his first bestseller. The other members must have been flush as well. Jones’s establishment was considered the Delmonico’s—the very finest—of the era.
The bread below is taken from American Domestic Cookery, published in 1823 by a Lady. It is, if not the very first, one of the earliest distinctly American cookbooks, predating both Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) and Lydia Maria Childs’ The American Frugal Housewife (1829). This recipe yields a light, complex-tasting bread the virtuoso cook and entrepreneur Abigail Jones could have proudly prepared for the golden boys of the Bread and Cheese Club, where members were voted out with a bit of cheese, and in with a bit of bread.
To make Bread with Leaven.
Verbatim with notes from A Lady. American Domestic Cookery, Formed on the Principles of Economy, for the Use of Private Families, by an Experienced Housekeeper, Illustrated by Nine Engravings, to Which is Added the Complete Family Brewer. New-York: E. Duyckinck, 68 Water Street, 1823.
This is a wonderful cookbook. The author has wide expertise, earning her place as a stand-in for Abigail Jones, and her recipes are delicious to the modern palate. She strongly advised using fresh-ground whole meal —harder to find, she acknowledges, in the big cities—and prefers an old-dough preferment. Though the recipe below includes an overnight bulk rise, similar to Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipe, she recommends a long and through knead to produce good-quality bread.
Below the recipe, I’ve included her method for making leaven. More information about various kinds of yeast cultivation can be found at The Fresh Loaf, a comprehensive, extremely helpful resource for new and experienced bread-makers.
Text and formatting verbatim. All notes in parentheses are mine.
The proportion of leaven to flour, is a piece of the size of a goose’s egg (3.5 – 4″ long) to half a peck (7 pounds) of flour. Take such quantities of each as the occasion may demand, make a hole in the middle of the flour, break the leaven into it, and put as much water, made blood warm (100° – 115°), as will wet half the flour. Mix the leaven and flour well together, then cover it over close with the remainder of the flour, and let it stand all night. The next morning the whole lump will be well fermented or leavened.
Add as much warm water, taking care it is not warmer than blood, as will mix it, and knead it up very stiff than (sic) firm till it be smooth and pliable. The more pains that are taken in kneading the dough, the better and smoother the bread will cut; as well as tasting softer and pleasanter in the mouth, and being easier of digestion. When the dough is well kneaded, let it stand by the fire about two hours, then make it up into loaves and bake them. The time of baking must depend on the size of the loaves. A quartern loaf (Note: 4 pounds) will require two hours and a half. Some salt must be added in the morning with the fresh quantity of water.
THE METHOD OF MAKING LEAVEN.
When leaven is to be first produced, a lump of yeast dough must be put into a pan and set it in a cold damp place. In about ten or fourteen days it will be in a proper state to use as a ferment for bread. At every making of bread, a sufficient quantity of the leavened dough should be laid by for the leaven against the next baking. The makers of bread with leaven, have learnt. from experience, that it is best to use the same pan for keeping the leaven and the same tub for making the bread, without ever washing them.