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"Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" Michael Pollan.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Heavenly Herrings!


The oatmeal in this dish adds to its bulk and fiber as well as absorbing the rich oiliness of the herrings. Herrings were abundant along the New England Coast with many places still named Herring or Alewife Brook or Run. Their abundance must have seemed like a gift from Heaven! To remove backbone, press lightly down middle of back. Turn fish over and ease up the bone.


4 medium herrings, cleaned, heads and tails removed
1 egg and a dash of cream
sea salt and pepper
¼ cup Scottish or Irish oatmeal-fine grind
2 Tbsp. lard or oil
1 oz. butter

1. To remove the backbone of the fish, put on a board, cut side down, and press lightly with the fingers down the middle of the back. Turn the fish over and ease the backbone up with the fingers. Fold the fish in half. Season well, dip in egg mixed with cream and coat with the oatmeal.

2. Heat the lard and butter in a large frying pan, and fry the herrings for about 5 minutes on each side. Drain well before serving hot.


Maine is a state of stunning beauty: seascapes that take one’s breathe away, with snow capped peaks cradling its western border with New Hampshire. The short summer of big blue skies and warm sun almost makes up for a winter that sometimes feels like it won’t quit. It has always afforded an ample but hard won existence to those who call it home. Here in South Portland, Maine, the 19th century world that was created consisted of a stable agrarian landscape-market gardening occurred where the land was flat, fertile, and somewhat less of the pile of the rocks associated with a glacial moraine-otherwise it was grazing land for dairy cattle and the occasional sheep or two-dotted with tiny industry-centric villages. Fisherman and sardine canneries at the coast, the railroad further inland, and a rolling mill in Ligonia. In the pre-electric winter, ice cutting was a major and lucrative industry.

The layers of history that can be found here are flat out fascinating but often tinged with frustrating. Scotch- Irish research can be like trying to identify a gossamer layer of plaid. The link between the English West Country and Maine is fairly clear. The first English colonists in this area were associated with Robert Trelawney’s fishing station at Richmond’s Island- a small dot off the coast of Cape Elizabeth. It represented a dramatic shift in the placement of the English fishing fleet that occurred during the late 16th and early 17th century. The forerunner of this New World fishery had been an Icelandic fishery that was based in a set of seaports on England's north-eastern and Scottish coast. After English ships were banned from Icelandic waters by the Danish, the south-western seaports of England’s "West Country" rose in importance because they were ideally situated to exploit new fishing grounds that had been discovered on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1630, Robert Trelawney, a merchant ship owner and two other Plymouth based merchants obtained a “land grant” to establish a “plantation” on Richmond Island in the Gulf of Maine. This was the beginning of the English settlement that became Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland.

John Winter had been a Plymouth mariner and in 1633 was employed as plantation manager. Winter settled on Richmond Island and brought his wife and daughter from England in 1636. Trelawney initially employed around 60 men, all coming from the parishes neighboring the River Yealm in Devon, east of Plymouth. Many of these men signed three year fishing contracts and some stayed on afterwards. Learning as the plantation developed, in addition to fishing, this group built a farm on the mainland, grew crops, raised cattle on the Scarborough Marsh meadows and an abundance of pigs. They also began lumbering operations- exporting wooden staves for making barrels. They engaged in shipbuilding too, employing a number of house and ships’ carpenters, including Plymouth shipwright, Sampson Jope. Winter’s son-in-law, Robert Jordan, took over the supervision of the island fishery after Winter’s death and many of their descendants still live on land that was included in the original Trelawney grant. Trelawny died soon after the English Civil War and conflicts with Spain and Holland during the 1650s disrupted the fishery so deeply that the great English fishing fleet had declined by 1660.

There are many hints of interactions between Maine and Ireland and the Scottish borderlands. They are hard to ferret out but this is where a gossamer layer of plaid can be found, if you look for it. Robert Trewlawney was in the process of developing plantations in Ireland and Maine simultaneously in the 1620’s and 30’s and that there were many interactions and interconnections that are only now becoming visible from history.

Some hints:

There was an active English fishery in Ireland. English fishermen had been fishing for herring, cod, hake and ling in Irish waters from at least the 15th Century, if not before. In the 1530’s a huge fleet of Devon boats regularly returned with considerable quantities of Irish hake. In 1600, Devonians were still fishing the Irish coastal waters with as many as 2,000 English migrant workers fishing out of the Munster plantations on the south west coast of Ireland. These fishermen had a long tradition of fishing off the Icelandic coast, but during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, fishing in this area steadily declined for political and economic reasons. Iceland was a state of Denmark, which disputed the right of English fishermen to fish the Icelandic waters. This political fracas came at the same time as the English were finding the economics of fishing better in the waters off the coast of North America, where larger catches of fish could be found.

The town of Scarborough was given that name because, when seen from the oceanside, Black Point looks exactly like the coast found at Scarborough on the north eastern coast of England. This practical knowledge seems to come from the experience of seamen who had been involved in the North Sea and Icelandic fisheries- that then transferred to Maine. It seems highly likely that, when northern fishery opportunities declined, Scottish and borderland fisherman moved to where work could be found-the West Country ports of Devon and Dorset and the plantations in Ireland.

In the correspondence between Robert Trelawny and Richard Winter, reference is often made to Trelawny’s Irish endeavors. Goods and people seems to have flowed between the two plantations. Irish stockings and other woven goods and foodstuffs are sent to Richmond’s Island. People noted as either Irish or Scot, like David Thompson, mix and intermingle with the fisherman that are designated as West Country folk until you look at where they were born. The early settler Thomas Skilling seems to have been born in Ayr before emigrating to Maine with the fishery. Other Skilling relatives spent 80 years in County Down of Ulster before following Thomas to Maine in the 1718 migration.

Others, especially as time goes on and the Scotch Irish arrive in Maine in significant numbers, became marked as Puritans and supposedly English which is based solely on which town in New England they are born in, without any concern for where their parents came from! Many of those in the second and third generation migration from Massachusetts up into Maine actually had Scotch-Irish ancestors. And, even more confusing-a Knox inspired Presbyterian who was forced to became a Congregationalist by the tithe-tax system [or pay double taxes] also acquired the Puritan moniker along with a seat in the pew.

This pervades much historical research-I recently read an excellent article about a Scottish settlement in Vermont where the author noted that the wives that were married into the community had come from a certain town in Massachusetts and were creating a Creole and Anglified society. In fact, if she had added just one generation to the research she would have found that the Scots were marrying Scotch-Irish lasses and got along just fine due to cultural affinity and not creolization.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Another good reason to buy local produce!

It seems that out Grandmother's had more nutritious foods to cook with-back in the day!I found this study about the declining nutrient content of our fruits and vegetables-a good reason to seek out quality produce from small local producers who care for their soils!

Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?
by Donald R. Davis,Biochemical Institute, The University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712

Three kinds of evidence point toward declines of some nutrients in fruits and vegetables available in the United States and the United Kingdom:
1) early studies of fertilization found inverse relationships between crop yield and mineral concentrations—the widely cited "dilution effect";
2) three recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results;
and 3) recent side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yield cultivars of broccoli and grains found consistently negative correlations between yield and concentrations of minerals and protein, a newly recognized genetic dilution effect. Studies of historical food composition data are inherently limited, but the other methods can focus on single crops of any kind, can include any nutrient of interest, and can be carefully controlled.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What does a Scot do when they can't grow Oats? Move !

I have a strong interest in landscape studies-especially the relationship between people and the land through food production. This relationship is quite sensitive to climate-and small changes can create big results. I have been studying the peopling of Ulster and New England by lowland Scots and find it interesting that so much attention has been focused on politics and overpopulation as motivating factors for the great wave of migration that occurred after 1606 and so little attention has been focused on the weather. For example: Oats play an important role in the Scottish diet. In Southern Scotland, higher altitude arable land has commonly been used to grow oats, but there was extensive abandonment of these same lands between 1600 and 1700-often with the people associated with their cultivation leaving for Ulster and later, America. When scientists measure it, they have found that because oats require a certain amount of warmth or degree days to ripen and that for many years in the 17th century the cool weather led to dramatic and reoccurring crop failures. The viability of any farmland depends upon its ability to sustain a family from one harvest to the next and these failures caused upheaval in the farming system of the lowlands and led to land abandonment and migration, for the lucky. Many others starved to death. The years between 1693 and 1700 were called the ‘ill years of King William’s reign’ because of crop failures in 7 out of 8 years. More people in southern upland Scotland died of starvation than had killed during the great plague of 1348-50.
Starvation is a good motivation for migration. Its interesting that New England, also affected by the so called “little ice age” also experienced a terrible drought during the same decade-including the famous year 1692.

I have been preparing a statistical analysis of temperature, land abandonment, witchcraft accusations, and hopefully migration records for 17th century Scotland. Temperature, witchcraft accusations and land abandonment in southern Scotland were all highly related and statistically significant at a .05 marker level. In one correlation that I did, temperature was found to explain 38% of the rate of witchcraft accusations. This means that when the temperature went down, the level of witch accusations spiked up. The migration records have been difficult to put together-the estimates of total migration out of Southern Scotland vary from 20,000 to 200,000 out of a total [Highland and Lowland] population of about 800,000! Pretty impressive. It should be noted that both England and Ireland were in the process of absorbing an enormous tide of Huguenot migrants[more than 100,000 over time] from France at the very same time! It seems that King James endorsement of the Ulster plantations and English New World settlement was actually sound political policy in the face of a natural disaster and demographic and political pressures that makes our Katrina pale in comparison!