Two hundred years before Whole Foods opened, Princeton’s elite families had to plan way ahead for holiday entertaining. These celebrations were held long after the last berries froze, the last corn was harvested, and icy waters made fishing difficult. The Christmas host, circa 1783, had to be scrupulous in stocking up on every category of food just to see his household through the long winter. Then extra care was expended to ensure that the larder would be full enough to fete friends — and important visitors — at the holidays.
This was certainly the case with Annis Boudinot and her husband, Richard Stockton, owners of Morven, an estate they built in the 1750s on land Stockton’s grandfather obtained from William Penn in 1701. Boudinot, who was widowed by the time of the Continental Congress’s five-month tenure in Princeton in 1783, was the sister of Elias Boudinot, president of the Congress at that time, and given this relationship, was a power hostess.
“She would have been feeding a huge number of people,” says Nina Golder, a culinary historian who has prepared a menu for a holiday gala being held at Morven on Saturday, December 6, to celebrate the anniversary of the Continental Congress’s year in Princeton, 1783. The current exhibit at Morven, “Picturing Princeton 1783: The Nation’s Capital,” features more than 70 portraits, accompanied by archival documents, decorative arts, and historic artifacts that tell the story of the Continental Congress’s stay in Princeton.
“Colonial families were large, maybe 15 people,” says Golder. The elite families were also responsible for a raft of servants, probably another 30 or so people, she says. “They needed to know what was growing, what they were canning, what was drying, what was freezing,” she says. “They counted everything.” Estate ledgers showed what had been grown and harvested, and household ledgers detailed exactly what had been stored away for the winter. There were also accounts listing exactly what had been spent to purchase fish or spices or the latest delicacies from abroad.
From these sources, and from other historical records, including some of the earliest American cookbooks, Golder developed the multi-course menu for the holiday gala, which concludes a year of 1783 celebrations at Morven. After interviewing four caterers, she chose MaxHansenCaterer to execute the dishes. Also contributing to the celebration, Gabrielle Carbone and Matt Errico of the Bent Spoon on Palmer Square are churning vanilla ice cream that replicates ice cream Thomas Jefferson brought back from Paris. And the chefs from Eno Terra, the new Kingston restaurant owned by the Momo brothers, are brewing Fish House Punch, a popular — and potent — Colonial drink.
Were the Stocktons still living in Morven, as in fact their descendants did until 1982, Golder would have been a neighbor. She points out that her home at 619 Lawrenceville Road is even older than Morven, having been built in 1740 by Samuel Worth, a farmer and miller, on land he, too, obtained from William Penn.
Golder’s life has been entwined with that of the Stocktons for the past several months, ever since she was recruited by Morven volunteer Valerie Simone to plan an historically accurate menu for the Morven holiday gala. Golder has been working on that menu since August, relying on sources ranging from the Library of Congress to early American cookbooks to renowned authorities on Colonial food.
‘I especially have to thank Debbie Buxon of the Historic Odessa Foundation,” she says. Located in Odessa, Delaware, the foundation is devoted to preserving Colonial homes and information about the Colonial period. Recently, when Golder was reading a recipe and couldn’t figure out what a “poddle” was, she called Buxon, who told her it was roughly a quart.
Through Buxon Golder found a number of helpful Colonial cookbooks, including “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” and “The First American Cookbook.” Another important source was Annis Boudinot’s recipe book, which had been put together for her grandchildren.
Armed with menu items, Golder went about finding a caterer. She interviewed many, and settled on Max Hansen, owner of 12-person catering company (215-766-3439) in Gardenville, Pennsylvania, near Doylestown. Hansen, who attended Vassar, where he studied art history, has been working as a chef for most of his life. He studied at the New England Culinary Institute and then trained with Thomas Keller at the famous French Laundry in Napa Valley. He has also worked at Memphis and the Plaza Athenee in Manhattan.
The son of a U.S. public health service doctor, Hansen lived all over the world as a young boy. “We lived in an all black town in Mississippi, on an Indian reservation, in Turkey…” he says. But when he was a teenager his family settled in Bucks County, where his mother went to work as the assistant to the headmaster of the Solebury School.
After working in Manhattan restaurants for many years, Hansen returned to Bucks County, opening a gourmet food shop, “sort of a mini Dean and DeLuca,” he says. That led him into catering, first as Max & Me and for the past several years as MaxHansenCaterer.
Hansen lives on a 12-acre farm in Carversville with his wife, Andrea, a stone mason. He has what he refers to only half-jokingly as a second career — farmer. “I grow a ton of flowers, fruit, and vegetables,” he says. “I got 1,000 pounds of tomatoes this year. I have 12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.”
Back at his day job, Hansen has clients in the political world, although Morven will be the first event connected with the Continental Congress on which he has worked. “I catered Ed Rendell’s inauguration,” he says, referring to the Pennsylvania governor. “There were 10,000 guests.” There were twice as many people on the staff needed for that event — 500 — than are expected to attend the Morven gala, which he says he will be able to handle largely with his own in-house staff of 12.
He also catered the whistle stop tour following George W. Bush’s nomination at the GOP Philadelphia convention in 2000. “I do Democrats and Republicans,” says Hansen, who recently catered the side dishes for a fundraising event for Barack Obama. Taking place as the economy slid, that event was a microcosm of what he sees happening throughout the greater Princeton area.
“People want comfort food,” Hansen says. When he learned that beef brisket would be the main dish at the Obama fundraiser, he says, “I knew right away that I had to serve macaroni and cheese.” But not just any macaroni and cheese. Anyone going the comfort route, but still looking to impress — holiday hosts, for example — needs to add an a touch of sophistication, he says. “Use truffle oil,” he suggests, “or really good cheese.” For the Obama mac and cheese, Hansen added Japanese bread crumbs, browned butter, and fresh Parmesan cheese. It was a hit. “Alice Waters (founder of famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA) was there,” he says. “She loved it. She asked for the recipe.”
There may be a lot more mac and cheese on holiday menus if the grim economic news continues. “I’ve been in business for 15 years, and this holiday season is like nothing I’ve seen,” says Hansen. “Not even 9/11. Then people were saying, ‘we’re not going to let the bastards get us down.’” Now, he is finding, people are down — way down. His corporate business is going away. “We just lost a linchpin pin,” he says. “PriceWaterhouse. We did a party for them seven years in a row. Now they’ve canceled all holiday parties. We’ve had the dates since June.”
PriceWaterhouse, in the financial services business, has not been hit nearly as hard as the investment banks, the auto industry, or any number of other sectors. Still, as they explained in canceling their parties, the company feels it “just can’t been as celebratory.”
The bright spot this holiday, says Hansen, is what he calls “social” entertaining. “People want that celebration,” he says. “They can’t let the economy extinguish the holiday spirit.” So, while corporate business is down, individuals and families are still planning to host holiday parties. But they are being more frugal in drawing up menus.
Morven, too, has had to be frugal in planning its gala. Golder says that her budget was cut in half after she had already put together her menu. After spending long volunteer hours since August on the project, she is frustrated. Hansen, however, took the cuts in stride. “We just had to fine tune,” he says.
Hansen did not use any unfamiliar ingredients in making the dishes on the gala menu. Golder points out that wealthy 18th century Princeton families had access to “everything.” Philadelphia was the Manhattan of its day, she says, and Princeton householders frequently dispatched servants to mine its riches, which poured into Philadelphia’s harbor from around the world.
“They could get coffee and tea, chocolate, sugar, even citrus,” she says of top-tier Colonial Princetonians. “Anything was available to elite households.”
Golder took this into account in planning her menu. She also took careful note of regionality and seasonality. “What game was available? Who was growing food?” were questions she asked. “The Delaware River was close by,” she points out, “so there was plenty of fish.” Beyond these practical matters, she delved into the preferences of Colonial diners. Shad, she says, would never, ever have been served to guests. “It was considered garbage, literally,” she says. “No one would serve it to anyone.” And while the gala committee with whom she was working insisted on oyster stew, she says that it would not have been served at a Colonial party. Oysters may be a pricey delicacy now, but in 1783 “you could get them anywhere, up and down the coast,” she says.
In fact, Golder says, there would not even have been a cocktail party in a Colonial household, there was no such thing. “They had sit down dinners,” she says. “Big, elaborate dinners.” Teas were also common. “Tea was served, but also sherry,” she says.
The upcoming gala will contain many historic elements, but, says Golder, “in a 21st century format.” Hearth cooking, the only way to get hot food to the table in 1783, will be replaced with more modern methods. Hansen will do most of the food preparation in his Bucks County kitchens and will assemble and finish the dishes in a tent on the Morven grounds.
No unfamiliar foods will be on the menu, but, says Hansen, there will be some unfamiliar combinations. One is the savory minced meat tarts. Unlike the sweet pies filled with dried fruit that contemporary Americans tend to associate with Thanksgiving dinner and hard sauce, these minced meat tarts will actually contain minced meat. This is not a common dish, but Hansen says that in taste tests of the menu, it was a run-away favorite. “I’m putting it on my own menus,” he says.
The second most popular dish is the oyster stew. Golder was worried about how party guests, dressed in their finest and juggling drinks, would handle the stew, but even she was a convert in the end, praising the richness and smooth texture of the stew, which Hansen is serving in demitasse cups. Unflappable, Hansen says he does elegant soups at many of his events.
Golder says that all of the food will be authentic. “I didn’t dumb anything down,” she says. Well, she admits, there will be one exception, one category that just could not be served as the Colonials enjoyed it. Desserts had to lightened up. Eighteenth century Americans had a sweet tooth that just cannot be believed, says Golder. “It would be the equivalent of eating a five-pound pile of sugar with jello on top, and then eating it again,” she says.
One of the richest Colonial desserts was syllabub. Wikipedia describes it as “a traditional English dessert, popular from the 16th to the 19th century.” Syllabub, the reference site says, “is usually made from rich milk or cream seasoned with sugar and lightly curdled with wine or cider. The frothing cream was poured straight into a bowl containing Sille, a wine. The general ingredients were whipped cream, whipped egg white, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, nutmeg, and an alcohol. One author’s recipe says to mix the other ingredients together in a large bowl, place the bowl under the cow, and milk it full.”
There will be no cow on hand at the gala, and the syllabub will be served as a drink, and not a dessert. There will also be other drinks, lots of them. In addition to the Fish House Punch, from a recipe concocted at Philadelphia’s exclusive Fish House fishing club, there will be new drinks, made especially for the event at Eno Terra.
While she is re-creating culinary history for the Morven gala, Golder is living with history in her home. When she moved from New York City to Princeton 13 years ago, she was looking for a “quirky” house, and one large enough to include her mother. Scouting what was available, she saw the Worth house and decided she had to have it. She went ahead with the purchase of the home, which had been on the market for “eight or nine years,” despite the advice of her real estate agent, who warned that it was in extremely poor condition.
The 268-year-old house sits right on the road, just past the bridge at Quaker Road. A good distance behind the main house is a large stone barn that has been renovated for Golder’s mother, Harriet Golder, an artist who will turn 85 next month. Just up the hill from the house is a structure Golder refers to as “the ruins.” Once a root cellar, the crumbling, but still impressive walls are a Lawrenceville Road landmark. (Lawrenceville Road is more commonly known as Route 206.)
The transformation of the ruins into an art studio is at the top of the list of restorations that Golder is planning. She is working with an architect and will soon begin the project. She will keep as much of the stone as possible and will add a lot of glass, including a glass roof.
After more than a decade in the historic home, Golder says that there is still a lot to do. As she describes it, the 1740 house was all but falling down when she bought it. The single mother of three young children, fresh from apartment living in New York City, she says that she really had no idea of what she was getting into in taking on the house.
There was essentially no heat in the house when Golder bought it and very little in the way of illumination. For many years work on her home was just triage, she says. Seated in her kitchen, which is warmed by an enormous hearth, she talks about how massive leaks prompted a quick replacement of the home’s roof and how failing basement pipes gave rise to big plumbing projects. As time went on, though, Golder was able to turn her attention to the job of returning the home to its former understated elegance. Worth was a Quaker, she says, and in keeping with the simple living precepts of that faith, the house was not ostentatious. But it was the home of a wealthy man, and its size and appointments made that clear.
Now a good part of the downstairs has been restored. Patterned period wallpaper in Colonial blue greets visitors in a large entry foyer, which leads to a carefully restored circular staircase that is Golder’s favorite part of the house. Rooms of a generous size open on either side of the entryway. Many have fireplaces, but none approaches the size of the kitchen hearth. Though the whole house is welcoming, it quickly becomes clear that the kitchen is the room to which Golder is drawn, where she spends most of her time, whether reading, cooking, or entertaining.
Once a part of the servants’ quarters, the kitchen has not yet been fully renovated, but it could not be more comfortable. Throughout a recent chilly late-fall afternoon, Golder got up frequently to add logs to the hearth, which is decorated with Samuel Worth’s saw. She works at a table in front of the hearth that she has covered with a brightly-colored striped cloth and topped with a silver pitcher filled with sunflowers and bright pink miniature carnations. Mismatched chairs around the table are fitted out with an eclectic mix of cushions. Ted, possibly the largest golden retriever on the continent, and very probably the most gentle, circles the table before settling down for a nap. (His sister, Roxanne, is out in the barn with Golder’s mother, getting a massage. Upstairs two red Russian Siberian monastery cats sleep. Golder explains that they are from a working breed whose job it was to warn monks of approaching invaders by making a “strange chirping sound.”)
Across the kitchen from this cozy domestic scene is an enormous steel refrigerator. Somewhat incongruous in this room, it would look at home in a hotel kitchen. But, after all, Golder does love to cook. And she has more time to do so now that her three children are away at school — two in college and one in boarding school. Golder describes Max, 21, as a classicist who is “fluent in Greek and Latin.” Zoe, 18, she says, is an accomplished equestrian, who is studying journalism. Georgia, 14, is in ninth grade. Her artwork hangs in the home’s side entrance.
Golder is a Philadelphia native and graduate of the University of New Mexico. She says that her late father, Mel Golder, who had been an architecture student, invented shoulder pads for men’s suits, and then opened the Penn Pad Company in Philadelphia to manufacture them.
Golder was married for a number of years to George Eager. The two met when they were both working at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, and together they formed and ran a successful design and marketing company, Origins. Eager, an administrator at Rutgers University, is the son of the late George B. Eager, who worked as director of communications at Princeton University for many years. Before that, the elder Eager worked at Colonial Williamsburg. “The boys grew up wearing period clothing,” says Golder of her former husband and his late brother, Bruce Eager, who starred in the film “Come to Colonial Williamsburg.” Essentially, theirs was a Colonial upbringing. Cars and all signs of wiring had to be hidden, Christmas decorations had to be put up by the Colonial Williamsburg staff, and, disconcertingly, the boys would wake up in the morning, look out their windows, and, says Golder, “see black slaves pulling oxen in the tobacco fields.”
Golder and Eager’s company had one big commercial hit, dinosaur-themed sneakers for Converse’s children’s division. Golder came up with designs for the shoes, which made dinosaur footprints as a child walked in the sand or dirt, and Eager, who discovered that Converse’s children’s line was out of ideas and losing money, made the deal in the early-1980s. “Converse sold $16 million of the sneakers,” says Golder. “We received royalties.”
After the couple separated, Golder formed her own company, Nina Golder Design (email@example.com). She specializes in design for surfaces, she says. Drawing her inspiration from museum collections, she designs everything from tablecloths to dishes, and emphasizes that her designs could work in a wide range of products.
Drawings for her most recent collection are created from images that have been important in American history. “I saw flagging patriotism,” she says. “I want to celebrate our rich heritage.” She researched the period from 1790 to 1830, looking for symbols reflecting the young nation’s awareness of itself as an independent republic. “Most symbols of liberty are unique,” she says. “Most have a story behind them.” She gives the bald eagle as an example. An important symbol of the United States, it is never seen in Europe.
Beyond design and cooking, Golder is busy with a number of activities. She spends time every day working with Amnesty International, specially the Mercer chapter, which meets at Trinity Church at 7:30 p.m. every other Thursday. She is involved in trying to help women around the world who have been victims of violence, and tells wrenching stories of the unimaginable torture inflicted on women in the Congo. Most days she writes letters or works on arranging events to publicize and ameliorate the atrocities.
On a lighter note, Golder is guessing that there could be a good amount of drinking at the upcoming Morven gala if it hews closely to its Colonial template. Partygoers in 1783 did enjoy their spirits. “They drank with wild abandon,” says Golder. “They got swacked.”
Perhaps cabs will have to be called. At one point a horse and carriage was to be part of the celebration, but it will not be available for emergency rides homes. Apparently it, too, was a victim of budgetary constraints.
But, on the bright side, both Golder and Simone are excited to announce that George Washington, “the real George Washington!” will be on hand. So sincere were they in making this announcement that it would have been rude to say “what?” or even “which real George Washington?” Perhaps it is a fellow who portrays him at Mt. Vernon, or maybe at Colonial Williamsburg. In any case, he is being put up at the Nassau Inn, and will be on hand to enjoy the oyster stew, Fish House Punch, minced meat tarts, and Thomas Jefferson ice cream.
Tribute to 1783: Libertas Americana, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Saturday, December 6, 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Black tie “Colonial garb optional” gala. Authentic Colonial menu with period-accurate beverages, butlered hors d’oeuvres, and elaborate dessert table. A special commemorative version of the famous “Libertas Americana” medal designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1783 will be unveiled by Hamilton Jewelers. $175 and up. Limited junior tickets available for $125 each to the first 20 people/couples who express interest. 609-924-8144, extension 106 or www.morven.org.
Festival of Trees, Wednesday, December 3, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Galleries adorned for the holidays by area businesses and garden clubs, including trees decorated in the style of 1783. Through January 11. $5.
Picturing Princeton 1783: The Nation’s Capital. Exhibit of more than 70 portraits, accompanied by archival documents, decorative arts, and historic artifacts that tell the story of Congress’s five-month stay in Princeton. On view through June, 2009.