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Celebrating Salem with a feast from 1810

desserts Desserts were placed in a miniature deer park with molded-sugar deer. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / March 17, 2010

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SALEM — If you squinted just slightly, and ignored certain anachronisms, you might have thought yourself transported to the early 19th century on a recent Saturday evening here.

In stately brick Hamilton Hall, built in 1805, guests gathered for a ball (or an “assembly,’’ in the language of the day). Fiddlers and flutists provided live music; a troupe of costumed dancers performed and taught such long-ago hits as “Haste to the Wedding’’ and “Allemand Swiss.’’ For those craving more sedate entertainment, whist and loo were dealt in the card room. Attendees, many of them garbed in period attire, could have asked for nothing more, short of a time machine.

The celebration honored the bicentennial of the Salem Athenaeum, a private library, and event organizers went to great lengths to re-create the flavor of 1810. Of course, the menu would have to reflect the period, too. No problem: Just look in the cookbooks of the day and find a few suitable recipes, right?

“It was possibly the most daunting challenge ever,’’ says Martha Sanders, whose Lantern Hill Catering, of Topsfield, was tapped for the job. “There were things I’d never heard of; the recipes were vague; they contained ingredients I didn’t think I’d find.’’

But after a bit of back and forth, “we pretty quickly came up with some items I thought I could work with, and some that were actually quite good.’’

It took months of digging through the historical record to find those items. “We started researching in September,’’ says Martha Mayo, chair of the comestibles committee, recalling with a laugh the Herculean effort that went into creating the 1810 feast.

The research began at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, with its renowned collection of cookbooks. The group soon found its way to Lucy Emerson’s 1808 cookbook, “The New-England Cookery,’’ and to other cookbooks, both historical and current.

Certain food items that cropped up in the old cookbooks seemed strikingly modern. “One of the big surprises was how constant macaroni was, and how early,’’ says Mayo. And it was typically served in a rich, creamy, cheesy sauce. Sound familiar? That “creamed macaroni’’ made it onto the menu, but the dish served at the party — more lightly moist than richly sauced — would seem austere to those raised on today’s blue-box version.

For a “potato pudding’’ that’s quite similar to our mashed potatoes, Sanders made some concessions to modern palates: “I cut the sugar way back, though I did add some,’’ she says. “And I kept the lemon zest and cinnamon.’’ The sweetness wasn’t overpowering, and the pronounced lemon flavor was an interesting, almost trendy-seeming, twist.

Kedgeree, a dish of rice, chopped hard-cooked eggs, and white fish, also in a creamy sauce, was an unexpected treat. “When I mixed all the ingredients together, I was surprised at how good it was,’’ says Sanders. “It’s a great one-dish supper item, something I will certainly make for my family.’’ A bit bland, but pleasingly so, the kedgeree at the party was like sophisticated nursery food, and could have passed for a distant relative of tuna-noodle casserole.

For the most part, the committee resisted the urge to modernize the dishes. The beef course, as it turned out, proved the biggest challenge. “We kept coming across recipes for calf’s head in jelly,’’ says Mayo, and authentic as that would have been, she concedes that it also sounds “repulsive.’’ Instead, Sanders came up with a much more appealing (and still historically accurate) beef steak with a rich, chutney-like onion sauce.

It wasn’t practical to serve the meal to the 190 guests in the authentic style of the day, on silver platters, so Sanders made do with a buffet lined with silver chafing dishes. But desserts — mince tarts, Shrewsbury cakes, and other “kickshaws’’ — were presented in a miniature deer park, complete with molded-sugar deer, tiny hedges, and small-scale ruins, an elaborate tableau that echoed the style of period chef Antonin Carême.

Afterward, the evening’s success had Sanders wondering why we ever stopped eating some of those old dishes. “Sometimes we move on, not because a dish isn’t good, but just because it goes out of fashion,’’ she mused.

And Sanders was delighted to see how closely the event re-created the atmosphere of another day. “You really had the sense you were looking at an assembly from 200 years ago,’’ she says — though, she added, “I wish we could have ditched the plastic chairs.’’