"Squirrels' troublesome little bones" are on the NYE menu

But good luck finding a butcher who has "time for this bullshit"

Dear History Cranks and Fiends,

I’ve got your historic New Year’s Eve feast covered, with recipes below my signature. 

For libations, I turned to Karen Abbott, author of The New York Times bestseller The Ghosts of Eden Park:The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder that Shocked Jazz-Age America. Abbott sent along a recipe for a gin rickey, a drink George Remus, one of the most successful bootleggers during Prohibition, may have served at the ostentatious New Year’s party he and his wife, Imogene, threw in 1922. It’s remembered for the kind of decadence that The Great Gatsby, published three years later, condemned: As the hundred guests departed, men were handed diamond stick pins and women keys to a brand new car. 

Or perhaps you’d prefer to drink milk, as President James A. Garfield did. (As he lay dying from gunshot wounds in the summer of 1881, a cow grazed on the White House lawn.) Maybe it went well with squirrel soup, his favorite delicacy. I called a Brooklyn butcher to see if such a rodent was kept on hand, but he hung up on me, saying, understandably, “I don’t have time for this bullshit.” I assume rabbit is a decent substitute, though, having cooked neither, I wouldn’t know if the directions, “to get rid of the squirrels' troublesome little bones,” transfer well. 

You’ll want to soak up all that broth with salt rising bread, a recipe from the oldest known cookbook by a Black woman: Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, published in 1866. The only known copy is at the Clements Library in Michigan, and what we know about Russell is from the preface, “A Short History of the Author.” Born free, Russell was ready to trade in eastern Tennessee for Liberia at the age of 19, but a thief stole all of her money before she reached a port in Virginia, and she was forced to remain in the south, where she cooked, nursed, and kept a wash-house for decades. After a white guerilla party raided her home during the Civil War, Russell, then a widow, lit out for Michigan with her crippled son. It never felt quite right. She wrote the cookbook, “hoping to receive enough from the sale of it to enable to return home,” and was confident that it would “sell well where I have cooked, and am sure that those using my receipts [recipes] will be well satisfied.” 

I asked Jon Mooallem about “swamp frog thighs,” which appear in his book, This Is Chance!:The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together; it’s the kind of passing reference that stays with a reader. He sent back "Jon Mooallem and Alexis Coe's Genie-Chance-Crab-Mold-New-Year’s-Eve Challenge” and a promise to reward those who accept it with a signed copy of This Is Chance!.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his 51st birthday in Warm Springs, Georgia, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and patients from the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. (1933 via Bettmann/Getty)

FDR was a freak for fruitcake, which is probably why the recipe below yields eight loaves. I plan on halving the recipe and omitting almonds because of a nut allergy in the family, but I think it’s still worth it, if only to channel some of that first hundred days' energy. I have also included Malinda Russell’s version, but I’m afraid I’m not well versed enough in fruit cakes to work with a list of ingredients but no directions. 

I won’t dwell on the trauma and tragedy of this year, of which we are all survivors, battered in our way, but rather will look toward the end of 2020 with anticipation. Life won’t go back to normal on January 20th, but we’ll see a dramatic reduction in the blatant attempts to destabilize our democracy from the executive branch. And that’s something to celebrate. 

See you in 2021,


Gin Rickey

“George Remus, the bootlegging protagonist in The Ghosts of Eden Park, was a real-life inspiration for Jay Gatsby: Both men owned a string of pharmacies, chased an enigmatic woman, and were driven by the need to reinvent themselves. F. Scott Fitzgerald (who once conjugated the verb “to cocktail”) famously preferred the gin rickey, the only libation mentioned by name in The Great Gatsby. Pour 75ml of gin (my vote is for Hendrick’s) and two tablespoons of lime juice into a chilled highball glass filled with ice; top with club soda and garnish with lime wheel. Remus never tasted a gin rickey or any other cocktail. The bootlegger — who once owned a staggering 35 percent of America’s liquor — was a teetotaler who never had a drop to drink.”

Abbott Kahler, author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park 

Squirrel Soup

From the 1887 White House Cookbook

Wash and quarter three or four good sized squirrels; put them on, with a small tablespoonful of salt, directly after breakfast, in a gallon of cold water. Cover the pot close, and set it on the back part of the stove to simmer gently, not boil. Add vegetables just the same as you do in case of other meat soups in the summer season, but especially good will you find corn, Irish potatoes, tomatoes and Lima beans. Strain the soup through a coarse colander when the meat has boiled to shreds, so as to get rid of the squirrels' troublesome little bones. Then return to the pot, and after boiling a while longer, thicken with a piece of butter rubbed in flour. Celery and parsley leaves chopped up are also considered an improvement by many. Toast two slices of bread, cut them into dice one-half inch square, fry them in butter, put them into the bottom of your tureen, and then pour the soup boiling hot upon them. Very good.

Salt Rising Bread

19th-century cookbooks were a lot like the technical challenge in The Great British Baking Show: They offered minimally written guidance on the assumption that the rules have already been mastered. A Domestic Cook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen tells us what Black women cooked not just for white people, but for themselves, which is why it is unique compared to earlier books by Black writers, including The House Servant’s Directory: A Monitor for Private Families by Robert Roberts and The Head Waiters and Housekeepers Guide by Tunis Campbell. Like any cook, Russell suffered her share of burns and shares advice for instant relief.  

“Jon Mooallem and Alexis Coe's Genie-Chance-Crab-Mold-New-Years-Eve Challenge”

“Hello Studiers, Marriers, and Killers. I am proud to share "Genie's Quick and Easy Recipes," a little pamphlet of recipes collected during the call-in segments of Genie Chance's first radio show, This is Genie, circa 1962 in Anchorage, Alaska — a time and place in which most everything had to come canned, but there was apparently an infinite supply of cottage cheese. I will mail a copy of my book This is Chance! to anyone who makes the crab-and-cheese mold recipe for New Year’s Eve, as part of "Jon Mooallem and Alexis Coe's Genie-Chance-Crab- Mold-New-Year’s-Eve Challenge." (That can be the hashtag for your crab-and-cheese-mold selfies.) I still have ten copies of the book in a box in my office. I can't imagine more than ten people will bother to attempt this, but if you wind up being the eleventh, I'm sorry. The upside is you have a crab-and-cheese mold.”

— Jon Mooallem, author of This is Chance!

Fruit Cake

Recipe by Henrietta Nesbitt, the Roosevelts’ cook and housekeeper, via the FDR Library

 ½ pounds brown sugar

1 ½ pounds butter

1 ½ pounds flour (6 cups)

18 eggs

1 ½ cups honey

2 lemon rinds, grated, and juice

1 ½ teaspoons mace

1 nutmeg, grated

2 teaspoons salt

3 teaspoons cloves

6 pounds dates

6 pounds raisins (seeded muscatel)

1 ½ pounds almonds cut lengthwise

2 ½ pounds mixed peel (1 ½ citron, ½ lemon, ½ orange)

¾ cup brandy, poured over fruit the night before

¾ cup sherry, poured over fruit the night before

1 cup of above flour sifted over fruit before adding to batter 

Cream butter and sugar together. Beat whole eggs light, then add some of the creamed butter and beat very light; next the flour, and so on until all are mixed. Add the fruit last. Set cake forms in pans of water and bake in slow oven for 3 hours. All flour for cakes should be sifted twice before measuring. Bake in bread tins in pans of water in 350 degree oven for 2 hours. Yield, 3 pounds in bread pan. Yield, 8 loaves.

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