What Did Our Ancestors Eat During Lent? Wigs

It isn’t so far fetched to see rolling farmland rising up from the countryside when traveling to the East End of Long Island. What is curious is that there currently sits a 47-acre piece of land that remains farmed to this day on the border of Queens and Nassau, in Floral Park, at the Queens County Farm Museum.

My first experience at this beautiful place was bringing my kindergarten class here when, in a former life (or so it seems) I worked as a teacher for the New York City Department of Education. The trip so wonderfully broke up the monotony of the strictly scheduled blocks of our day and allowed these gorgeous five and six year olds a chance to experience the outdoors in a way their everyday lives in the hustle and bustle of the city never allowed. It was a truly a rich experience for us all and I continue to make the journey to bring my own children here now.

The Queens County Farm Museum is a New York City Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. The farm’s history began in 1697, with over a hundred years and five generations of farming by the same family. Since then, it’s changed hands and has most recently become a place for families to come visit the animals, buy local produce and attend the museum’s countless festivals to mark the change of seasons.

As an homage to its rich history, the farm also holds educational classes—including a colonial cooking class. One recipe offered by the class invites students to create Wigs, a yeast bread popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The name comes from an Old Norse word meaning “wedge” and the explanation of how to form them vary from being cut from a loaf into a “wedge”, or a more traditionally round shape similar to the rolls we know today.

When I think of Wigs, I imagine greedy little children swiping them from a cooling windowsill back in colonial times. The butter and sugar the recipe calls for were expensive ingredients back then and wouldn’t have been used in everyday bread batters. The importance these ingredients held for colonists was an amazing factor in its preparation. These particular breads were made for the purpose of being served at funerals or at Lent. They were a treat for those who ate them and were saved for these solemn or holy occasions.

I cannot help but imagine the hard working hands, centuries ago, toiling with this batter. The dense bread is more like a biscuit and a welcome distraction from the preservative-laden dinners rolls we find at the supermarket today. These were eaten fully and carefully and as a means for survival and not just as an accompaniment to a meal. These truly were meant as sustenance especially in their history. They came from a time when food preparation was done strictly at home and for the necessity of living and survival and thus are filling in their richness. The spices used stand as a reminder of many of my autumn meals with the inclusion of ginger and nutmeg. They occupy my senses with their warmth and goodness.

It is a treat to create them and to imagine how they were once created long ago. Take a step into the past and use this historical recipe to put yourself in a time where eating served to sustain life and supply pleasure.

Wigs

Ingredients:

  • 7 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 nutmeg
  • 3 eggs
  • ¼ cup sack or medium sherry
  • 1 egg for wash
  • extra flour for kneading
  • ¾ pound (3 sticks) of unsalted butter
  • 2 ¼ cups Turbinado sugar
  • 4 tablespoons grated dried ginger root
  • 2 tablespoons dry granulated yeast
  • 1 cup milk, more or less as needed
  • ½ cup water
  • extra butter

Equipment:

  • 1 large bowl
  • 2 medium bowls
  • grater
  • birch twig OR wire whisk
  • tin baking sheets or tin plates
  • clean feather for egg wash (or brush)
  • flipper
  • bake oven and peel or bake kettle and fire shovel
  • wooden spoon
  • small saucepan and trivet
  • nutmeg grater
  • wooden board for rolling out dough
  • measuring cup
  • measuring spoons
  • linen cloth

Directions: (preheat oven to 350 degrees)

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grate half the nutmeg into medium bowl. Grate ginger on top of nutmeg, add sugar and mix together.
  3. Put water in saucepan on trivet over coals and heat to 100-115 degrees, then pour this into another medium bowl.
  4. Sprinkle yeast over the surface and keep warm.
  5. Pour milk in the saucepan and heat to the same temperature as the water.
  6. Put the flour in large bowl and run butter into it with your fingers until the mixture has the consistency of coarse bread crumbs. Add sugar and spices to the flour in the large bowl.
  7. In empty medium bowl, whisk eggs completely.
  8. Add warm milk and eggs to yeast and water mixture, stirring to blend.
  9. Put this liquid mixture to flour mixture and stir. Add more milk or flour if needed to achieve a light, slightly sticky dough.
  10. Sprinkle board lightly with extra flour. Put dough in center of floured board and knead lightly.
  11. Clean out mixing bowl and rub it inside lightly with extra butter. Form the dough into a ball, put it in mixing bowl, and roll around until covered with butter. Cover dough and bowl with linen cloth.
  12. Allow dough to rise in a warm spot free of drafts until it has doubled in bulk. Punch down dough and divide into small pieces. Form each piece into a “finger,” and place on baking sheets. Cover these with a linen cloth and allow them to rise again.
  13. In a clean down, whisk the egg with a little water to make a wash. Using a clean feather (or brush), brush each wig with egg wash. Place on baking sheets in oven and bake until wigs are nicely browned.

*Recipe given by the Queens County Farm Museum and adapted from “The Pennsylvania Housewife English Household Receipts in the Middle Colonies” and prepared by Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts.

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