I was reading up on New Year’s customs in early America so I could write something at once insightful and witty for the holiday. In the 1600s, I learned, Dutch colonists in New Netherland “opened the house” for family and friends on New Year’s Day. Hosts offered their guests nieuwjaarskoeken – or New Year’s cakes. Made with caraway, cardamom, coriander, or honey, the little cakes – or koekjes – were stamped with pictures of plants and animals. After the colony became New York – the Dutch lost the territory to the English in 1664 – English settlers borrowed the tradition and Anglicized the word koekjes to “cookies.” Well into the nineteenth century, New Yorkers marked New Year’s Day by giving and eating the stamped cookies.
Reading about the Dutch open houses made me want to bake cookies. But it also put me in mind of my fellow historians. We are a sociable bunch, happy to accept free food and unlikely to say no to a drink. Since it’s the time of year for looking both forward and back, my mind wandered to some of the early Americanists who had died during the last twelvemonth. We lost some of our greats.
In July, one of the best and most influential early American historians, Edmund Morgan – who ranged over topics from the Puritans, to slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia, to the life of Benjamin Franklin – died at 97. A month later, Pauline Maier – student of popular uprisings and Revolutionary declarations – followed him. And just a few weeks ago, William Pencak, less famous than Morgan or Maier but a keen scholar of expansive interests and generous spirit, died unexpectedly and too soon.
Oddly, none of these scholars wrote much about dessert. (Whether they ate much dessert, I can’t say.) Nonetheless, each shaped my interest in or approach to the history of desserts and food more generally. Pencak’s Jews and Gentiles in Early America taught me much about early American Jewish communities and made me curious to know more. It is because of him I plan to teach a cooking class later in the year on Sephardic food in colonial British North America. For her part, Maier’s insistence that we look to the deeds and words of the less known to understand major events is reflected in my view that the stories people tell through cooking and cookbooks illuminate important chapters in our history.
It is Morgan who had the biggest impact on me. History belongs to all of us, he said in a public conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed about his approach to writing. History belongs to all of us and we should not make it obtuse. That simple statement has guided me since I heard it. It has shaped my writing. And it inspired me, finally, to marry my love of history to my love of food – something else that is best, as those New Netherland New Year’s Day hosts knew, when shared.
No stamped cookies for me today, but I’ll raise a glass to the legacies of William Pencak, Pauline Maier, and Edmund Morgan.