Putting Stock in a Pot au Feu Recipe

Soup seems like it should be so easy - a matter of throwing a few vegetables, bones and seasonings in a pot, then leaving it alone until it becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it seems that this is never the case for me. I almost always make stock from the carcasses of roast chickens, but I never feel as though I'm doing it correctly. I have the urge to taste, to fiddle, to poke at the bones floating in the soup to see just how much they've really cooked. And so, though making stock is a normal activity for me, I've never been able to make proper stock, the sort that jiggles once it's cooled. So, out of interest, I turned to the recipe for pot au feu in La Cuisine Créole À L'Usage Des Petits Ménages, the 1904 cookbook we're tackling this month. I thought that a cook from Louisiana might have guidance for making real stock (the kind that some New Yorkers are now guzzling from artisanal street stands, at least when it's renamed "bone broth")* .

I read the recipe:

''Take two pounds of round of beef, cutting off all the fat very carefully, put it in a good sized saucepan, add cold water enough to cover the meat well, put the lid on half way to allow the steam to evaporate, let it simmer by a fire of live coals an hour, and skim carefully as the scum arises. While your broth is cooking, prepare your vegetables, have them nice and fresh, wash and scrape carefully (requisite care must be taken), throw them into a pan of cold water until the time to use them. Cut three carrots in half, too leeks the same way, or half an onion, a small piece of cabbage and a bit of garlic, a piece of celery, parsley and pepper pod. Put all these vegetables in your broth, adding two or three tomatoes, or two spoonfuls of tomatoes; let it simmer for two hours, skimming it carefully. It can be served with or without vegetables. Without vegetables it can be served as bouillon, to which you add rice, vermicelli, macaroni, or any other Italian paste, or bread dried in the oven, or drop in a poached egg, one for every person, if your dinner is a little short. These recipes were given to me by an old colored (sic) cook who was brought up in James Madison's family, and she said they were served on Mr. Madison's table when he entertained the distinguished guests of his day.''

How to tackle this complete lack of attribution? James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, was the third generation of Madisons to live at Montpelier, a plantation near Orange, Virginia. Several generations of enslaved people of African descent lived and worked against their will at Montpelier. One of them was Paul Jennings, who was James Madison's valet and succeeded in buying his own freedom after the former president had passed away; the reason we know his story so well is that he learned to read and write, subsequently publishing a memoir. The cooks of Montpelier, though, did not gain freedom in this way, and so their voices remain unheard. Without a name, much less any identifying features, it's impossible to say who really "owns" this recipe, other than Madison himself, by virtue of being the owner of the woman who made it for him.

The presence of enslaved black cooks is all over La Cuisine Créole À L'Usage Des Petits Ménages. For instance, the introduction by S. Weir Mitchell starts with the words: "A friend of mine, in the South, once said to me, that the surrender at Appomatox had brought about two serious calamities—an end to duelling and the disappearance of the colored (sic) cook". Mitchell goes on to say that "As a race, we are certainly not gifted with culinary talent," assumedly speaking of the white Southerners who benefited from the institution of slavery. Mitchell continues, "I am sure there are many who will be charmed by the pretty little songs in the Creole patois of the far Southern kitchen, and will in a double sense appreciate the taste of the receipts, and the effort to preserve the folk-lore of the Southern cook. As I recall her, in Virginia, she was usually a fat woman of middle age, with a gay bandana kerchief about her head— proud of her art, somewhat despotic, and usually known as Aunty..."  

Now, recipe attribution has been in the news lately in Quebec, with "#poudingchomeurgate" becoming shorthand for the discussion of who gets to "own" the sort of recipe that is both fairly simple to make and culturally significant. In the case of "unemployed person's pudding" the moist caramel-topped cake is shorthand for "Grandma's cooking" to many Francophone Canadians inside and outside of Quebec. Does it matter if we know who created this recipe, if it's something easy to customize? I would say that yes, it does. Even if we only knew the first name of the woman who made pot au feu for James Madison's table, it would give her agency that she has lacked in life and in death - a way of being remembered. Even in this cookbook that insists on honouring the legacy of slavery through bemoaning the disappearance of the "colored" cook, a name would mean that the woman's descendants could make this recipe in her honour, a taste of "Grandma's cooking" from a person they never had the privilege of knowing. Recipe books are, I think, a valuable way to examine history in that they give a voice to many of those whose lives we need to work harder at finding out about; the homemakers, rather than the politicians.

So -- I don't know who perfected this recipe for pot au feu. (Indeed, I don't even know what James Madison, a president who came from the state of Virginia, is doing immortalized in a "Creole" cookbook). I do know that, with a few pieces of beef shank and tail, with bones and cartilage included, thrown into the stockpot, my broth turned into jelly when cooled for the first time. If I'd followed the recipe as written, this wouldn't have happened. Perhaps more importantly, there wouldn't have been any seasoning in my soup, other than parsley and pepper. There's something to be said for these old recipes, whether or not we know who created them.

* For those of you who are not sold on the idea of "rebranding" stock, a kitchen staple, as "bone broth" to the tune of $5 per paper cup, I did find one article on the trend which notes that the term is used instead of 'stock' in order to differentiate the slow-cooked soup from its instant, just-add-water relatives, which are a shortcut in many kitchens.