Colonial American Food

Sally Lunn Bread – A large sponge cake-like bread, more like a bread than a cake that is either yeast or baking powder based.

Philadelphia, the city of almonds, pomegranates, olive oil, chick peas, lentils, dates, grapes, and fava beans? Thanks to the Jews who first settled the North American colonies, Philadelphia was blessed with the introduction of these Mediterranean foods. It is fun to recreate colonial recipes today in order to experience the flavors and aromas of those times and connect with an often overlooked period of the Philadelphia Jewish experience.

The first Jews arrived in this area before the land was deeded to William Penn in 1682. These were Portuguese Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. The first place they settled was Recife, Brazil, while it was a Dutch colony. When the Portuguese conquered Brazil from the Dutch, bringing the Inquisition with them, the Jews moved to North America. First they went to Dutch New Amsterdam (New York). Subsequently Jews migrated from New Amsterdam and settled in Philadelphia to trade furs with the Native Americans. When King George deeded the land to William Penn, the latter embarked on his “holy experiment,” creating a colony where anyone who lived peacefully was welcome. The Jews stayed.

Colonial American food was a combination of English, French, and West Indian food. Local ingredients were incorporated into the diet. Benjamin Franklin encouraged people to eat corn, turkey, and other Native American foods in order to cease their dependence on British exports. Confectionery was very well developed in Philadelphia. It had the best ice cream in America!

Bowl of Pepper Pot Soup


Pepper Pot Soup

One of the most accessible and popular dishes of the time was pepper pot soup from the Caribbean. This was a one-pot meal made with inexpensive meat, seasonal vegetables, and hot peppers. George Washington served it to his troops after crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton in 1776. For those who wish to try this at home, Mrs. Esther Levy gives a recipe for pepper pot soup in her Jewish Cookery Book, the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States, in Philadelphia in 1871. Below is an adaptation for the modern kitchen.

Visiting Historic Philadelphia is fun and interesting. Recreating the meals of the colonists is a hands-on way to connect with the past. As they say in Ladino, buen provecho–with good enjoyment!

Pepper Pot Soup

From Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book and Historic Cold Spring Village recipe collection


3 quarts water
2 onions diced
2 green peppers diced
4 potatoes peeled and diced
3 teaspoons black pepper
1 dried hot pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 quart beef stock
1 1/2 pounds beef
1 1/2 pounds lamb
1/2 cup rice
Parsley, thyme, bay leaf
Place all the ingredients in a pot and stew over a low flame for about two hours until very tender.
Sally Lunn Bread

From Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book and Dairy or Pareve.
A favorite yeast bread that arrived in Philadelphia from England was Sally Lunn bread. It is still served at the City Tavern, where Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams congregated. It was traditionally served with clotted cream.

Chamin – an early Sephardic dish.

1 cup milk
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
4 cups flour
Dissolve the yeast in warmed milk. Let stand for 5 minutes.
Mix butter, sugar, salt, eggs, flour, and milk/yeast mixture.
Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
Beat down and let rise again for 45 minutes.
Spoon batter into a lightly greased and floured 9-inch pan.
Bake at 350*F for 35 to 40 minutes.
Chamin – an early Sephardic dish.

Chamin Meat

From and Sephardic Israeli Cuisine: A Mediterranean Mosaic.

The earliest Jewish food in Philadelphia was Sephardic. The Jews brought olive oil and almonds from the Mediterranean to Spain and Portugal. They introduced these ingredients to the cuisine of the New World. In Philadelphia, local fish was fried in olive oil, not lard. This became known as “Jew fish,” and was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Almonds were baked into a pudding. The Jewish Sabbath stew, Chamin, made with beef, beans, and onions was also introduced. To replicate a Colonial Sephardic Shabbat meal, one should cook Chamin.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves
2 cans (15 ounces each) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 beef bones with marrow
3 pounds brisket or chuck roast, cut into 4 pieces
3 pounds small potatoes
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Freshly ground pepper

4 to 6 large eggs
Preheat oven to 225 degrees F
In a large pot, heat the oil and sauté the onions and garlic until soft and translucent. Add the chickpeas, bones, meat, potatoes, honey, paprika, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Add enough water to cover, place the unshelled eggs in the center, and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for 1 hour. Skim off the foam occasionally.
Cover the pot tightly, place in the oven, and cook overnight, or cook on low on the stove for 5 to 6 hours, or until meat is tender and done.
In the morning, after cooking all night, check the water level. If there is too much water, turn the oven up to 250°F or 300°F, cover, and continue cooking. [If cooking over Shabbat, traditionally observant Jews would refrain from changing the heat level, for doing so would run counter to Sabbath laws against manipulating flame and cooking.] If there is no water, add another cup, cover, and continue cooking.
To serve, place the chickpeas and cooking liquid in one bowl, and the eggs, potatoes, and meat in separate bowls.


Almond pudding.

From the New York Times, “Food, Passover Hand-Me-Downs,” by Joan Nathan

Almond pudding

One of the most authentic Portuguese Jewish foods is almond pudding. It is the perfect dessert to serve at the Shabbat dinner.

4 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Oil for the pan
matza meal for the pan
1 pint strawberries or 1 cup strawberry puree
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat the egg yolks until foamy. Add the sugar, almonds, and almond extract.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff.
Fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture.
Pour into an 8-inch oven safe dish, which has been oiled and dusted with matza meal.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly.
Top with strawberries or strawberry puree and serve.

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