It was billed as a dinner to die for, with dishes from an 1876 cookbook edited by Benjamin Franklin's great-granddaughter (crab soup, sirloin roasted on a spit, Scandinavian Almond Cake) and "entertainment" at the grave sites of Philadelphia culinary notables.
"Dig In: A Culinary Tour and Class," held June 11, featured dinner by chef Chris Koch at the Marketplace at East Falls, after which two dozen or so daring participants walked across the street with West Chester University English professor Michael W. Brooks for a twilight stroll through Laurel Hill Cemetery, bats and all.
For Laurel Hill, which offers programs at least once a month year-round, the culinary venture was a successful first.
"It seemed like a natural idea," said Alexis Jeffcoat, cemetery spokeswoman. The cemetery had its heyday from 1836 until about 1910, and Fairmount Park was not founded until 1855, so people often picnicked on the cemetery grounds overlooking the Schuylkill.
Dig In participants paid $30 each and, for whatever reason, the adventure drew a remarkable number of women with their sisters.
Amber and Saege Steele, sisters from Wyndmoor, were among the first-timers at the cemetery. Rachel Wolgemuth, who works at Laurel Hill's sister cemetery, West Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd, attended with her sister, Melissa Wolgemuth, a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a recreational chef.
Sisters Kerri and Maiti Gallen had been to the cemetery enough times to know "the birthday game," in which the first to find her birth date on a tombstone wins and the others pay for her drinks later.
At the Marketplace, where he teaches a full schedule of culinary classes, Koch made dinner with "receipts" he adapted from the National Cookery Book, edited for the Women's Committee of the 1876 Centennial Exposition by Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, Franklin's great-granddaughter.
The cookbook was sold as a fund-raiser at the Exposition, held in Philadelphia, and featured regional recipes from the growing nation, with an emphasis on foods from the 13 original colonies. The book was reprinted by Applewood Books in 2005 and is available on Amazon.com, but in the original format - without specific quantities for ingredients or explicit directions.
"Good luck roasting a beast or baking a cake from this book today," Koch said. Instead of using a churn, he made butter for the crowd in a food processor, and used a modern rotisserie for the roast.
Koch made sassafras soda from the bark of a tree in Montgomery County he said he had permission to chop.
His Homemade Ginger Ale is probably more easily replicated: Simmer one cup of peeled, grated ginger in 2 cups of hot water for five minutes; remove from heat and let sit 20 minutes; strain, then discard ginger pieces. Meanwhile, make a simple syrup with one cup each of water and sugar, boil and cool. For each glass, mix 1/2 cup ginger water with 1/3 cup simple syrup and 1/2 cup club soda, and serve over ice.
That's definitely a brew that will amaze today's kids.
Although crabmeat is quite pricey these days, Koch's Crab Soup (see recipe) serves four with just a quarter pound, relying on fresh carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, and tomatoes to create a hearty blend.
Again going to the garden for pickings, Koch made Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Beets (see recipe) and a Cucumber Salad (see recipe) whose cool crunch contrasted nicely with the meal's hot spots: the roast, green beans with brown butter, and marble potatoes - served with a hearty Hunter Sauce made with tomatoes, mushrooms and shallots, seasoned with equal parts Espagnole sauce and glace de viande (brown stock).
Koch's Scandinavian Almond Cake (see recipe) was topped with raspberry syrup, but fresh fruit would do just as well.
The grave site of Gillespie, the cookbook author, was on Brooks' cemetery tour, along with that of Kate Furness Thompson, a social secretary, or event planner, to debutantes of the day (early and mid-1900s). Thompson handled the guest list, menu, and music, often employing Robertson's Flowers (still in Chestnut Hill) and Jimmy Duffy Catering. Among the regulars at Duffy's Walnut Street Cafe, Brooks said, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who modeled a character in The Last Tycoon after Duffy.
The final resting place of Louis Antoine Godey, who published recipes in Godey's Lady's Book and encouraged the notion of an American cuisine, was on the tour, along with that of Sarah Josepha Hale, Godey's editor, who was behind the move to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and composed the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," a somewhat-culinary distinction for lamb-chop lovers.
Also on the tour: the tomb of food scientist Mary Engle Pennington, who attended the University of Pennsylvania in the 1890s, when the school allowed women to study but denied them undergraduate degrees. She went on to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food research lab and revolutionized the way perishable foods were stored and shipped.
It's never easy traipsing around a cemetery in the waning light of day while watching out for groundhog holes. But when night falls, fireflies emerge to light the way and bats reduce the mosquito population nicely. Through it all, the group hung on Brooks' every word.
Oh, if only for a bit more time (likely a common lament in cemeteries), Brooks said he would have taken the group to the final resting place of Boise Penrose, a Republican who represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate for 30 years and for whom the Penrose Avenue Bridge spanning the Schuylkill is named.
Penrose, widely viewed as a glutton, weighed 350 pounds, Brooks said, and ate so much at each meal that restaurants would often seat him behind a screen to avoid offense to other patrons.
Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Beets
Makes 4 servings
1 pound fresh beets
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
6 whole allspice
1 onion, sliced thin
1. Remove the greens from the beets. Place the beets in a pan and cover with water, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer, cooking for about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the beets; strain and reserve the cooking liquid. When cool enough to handle, peel and slice the beets.
2. In the pan, combine the beet juice, sugar, and spices, cover, and bring to a boil. Remove from burner.
3. Place the sliced beets and onions in a container, cover with the liquid, and chill overnight.
Per serving: 144 calories, 2 grams protein, 38 grams carbohydrates, trace fat, no cholesterol, 61 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Scandinavian Almond Cake
Makes 12 servings
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
2/3 cup milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 stick (8 tablespoons) margarine or light butter
Almond meal or slivered almonds
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray pan with oil and sprinkle in slivers of almond or almond meal (use a Scandinavian pan or a standard loaf pan).
2. Beat egg, add sugar, and beat together. Add extract and milk.
3. Combine flour and baking powder and beat into wet ingredients. Beat in melted margarine
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack.
- From chef Chris Koch with inspiration from the National Cookery Book
Per serving: 211 calories, 2 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 102 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
2 cucumbers, sliced
1 large red onion
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 tablespoon salt
1. Layer the cucumbers and onions in a bowl.
2. Mix equal parts of vinegar and water, enough to cover the onions and cucumbers. Pour over, sprinkle with salt, and chill for 15 to 30 minutes. Serve cold.
Per serving: 24 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, trace fat, no cholesterol, 804 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 16 servings
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large white potato, peeled and diced
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1/2 pound green beans, cut into one-inch pieces
1 cup fresh corn kernels
1 cup lima beans
1/2 cup green peas
4 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1 1/2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 pinch crushed red pepper
2 cups water
3 cans (14.5 ounces) whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
1. In a large soup pot, combine the carrots, potato, onion, celery, green beans, corn, lima beans, peas, and seasonings with water. Add the tomatoes, crushing them in the process, and add the juice from the can. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.
2. Clean the crabmeat and be careful to remove any shell pieces. Preheat the broiler in the oven. Place the tray of crab under the broiler for just a minute. Turn the crab and repeat.
3. Add the crab to the soup and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper.