Feature: Dutch New Year celebrations in 18th and 19th century America

Article by Peter R. Rose
Kniepertjes (Foto: Marianne van Erker)

Kniepertjes (Foto: Marianne van Erker)

Seventeenth-century Dutch settlers who founded the Dutch colony of New Netherland, a huge area wedged between New England and Virginia, brought with them not only seeds, tree stock and cattle, but also their well-established food ways and customs.

One Old World and New World Dutch custom was visiting relatives, neighbors and friends on holidays such as Easter, Pentecost, and especially New Year’s Day. The visiting at New Year’s time became very much a part of social life in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. This Dutch tradition, however, had fallen out of fashion in the United States by the early 20th century. Luckily, we know quite a bit about the American custom through handwritten diaries and printed records. For example, John Ward of New York City wrote in his diary on January 1st 1861 that he and his brother Press (who insisted on making only “very few calls”) visited thirty-three families. Accompanied by his friend Benjamin Church, he did much better after the Civil War. Ward served in Virginia as Captain of Company A of the 12th Regiment during that war. They called at 107 houses on New Year’s Day of 1866. Such a large number of calls required a strategy worthy of a military man. According to a carefully made plan, the two friends made their way from Washington Square on up to 47th street, finding seventy-one houses open for receiving and leaving thirty-six cards at the others. His descriptions are quite complete. He remarks about eating plum cake at one house and talking about the persistent rain in Paris at another. He obviously enjoyed meeting the young ladies in the various families he visited. No wonder, a period etiquette book of the late 1800s explains in a deliciously old-fashioned way that: “In receiving their company on New Year’s Day, ladies have the largest liberty and freedom. They can chat with anyone who comes properly introduced, with the same frankness and lack of reserve that they would with their most intimate friends.”

While the gentlemen went calling on New Year’s Day, the ladies stayed home to receive them. Gleaming silver and china were used for the tables, which were laden with the best the household had to offer. “A New Year’s Day in Albany [as elsewhere] was a happy, but very exhausting one for the women, especially the lady of the house,” writes Huybertie Pruyn about the period between 1885 and 1892. Food was served from eleven in the morning until ten at night. Male relatives and friends coming to visit meant an average of two hundred to three hundred callers. She continues her explanation: “An extra man was stationed in the hall as doorkeeper, and messenger boys, newsboys with calendars, postmen, policemen and many others rang the bell and said ‘May God bless everyone in the house and a Happy New Year to all!’ Over and over we would hear this and the man at the door would hand each caller a paper bag containing four of the large nieuwjahrskoeks, stamped with flowers, figures, or the State seal, and filled with caraway seeds. In a dish were a pile of dimes, and a dime accompanied every bag.”

According to the etiquette book mentioned earlier, the two or three days after the New Year’s Day open house were “calling days” for the ladies who would come together to toast the New Year and discuss “the number of their gentlemen visitors, the new faces they have seen, and the matrimonial prospects for the year.”

For young boys, being allowed to go visiting was a rite of passage. In a charming book full of social history entitled Grandfather Stories, the author, Samuel Hopkins Adams described New Year’s Day in Rochester, New York: “The fine flower of local custom was New Year’s hospitality. On that day the Old Families kept open house with pomp, circumstance and a lavish prodigality of refreshment equaled today [the book was published in 1955] only by a gangster’s wake.” Everyone was welcome and “dressed in their best bib-and-tucker”, they would do the rounds “eating their voracious way like a swarm of social locusts.”

What is most helpful in understanding the culinary aspects of such an old-fashioned event is his description of what was served: “It was accepted as an article of faith that the Brewsters should serve five kinds of pie, including Marlborough [a rich pie filled with stewed apples, lots of butter, eggs and cream]; that the Rogers’ chicken salad was beyond all competition; that the Stedmans could be relied upon for that meatiest of luxuries, scalloped oysters; and that the Pecks offered not only two kinds of turkey, but also duck and goose.”

While this book and John Ward’s diary give an impression of how things were done in the cities, Isaac E. Cotheal, a gentleman farmer of Fishkill, New York talks about New Year’s Day in the country. In his diaries, which span some twenty-five years, he began each year with “a happy New Year to all”; he noted the temperature and the weather; and listed who came to call that day. Some years he had as few as one or two callers. Other years as many as eight. These are not quite the large numbers of visits that are possible when houses are in close proximity of each other as they are in a city. One year, 1869, when “the day opened with a heavy storm,” which had not abated by 9 p.m., he recorded he “received no calls.”

In the eastern part of The Netherlands (and nearby areas of Germany), a special treat for New Year’s Day was Nieuwjaarskoeken (also known as kniepertjes). This traditional treat (still popular in Holland today) was brought to the New World and was the forerunner of the ‘nieuwjahrskoeks’ to which Pruyn refers. The paper-thin wafers were made in a special wafer iron which left a different imprint on each side, sometimes a religious picture, other times birds or flowers. Enormous quantities of wafers were prepared on New Year’s Day, since they were distributed to everyone who came by the house.

In the New World, the character of New Year’s cakes changed as time went on. The wafers made in an iron became a cookie rolled out and imprinted with a cake board. I believe that the American New Year’s cake is a fusion of two Dutch pastries brought here by the 17th-century settlers. The first is the Nieuwjaarskoek, the second speculaas, the hard gingerbread made from spiced dough formed in a wooden mold or cake board for the Saint Nicholas celebration (smaller forms, commercially made, are now often called ‘windmill cookies’ here).

In the late 18th century, this homemade pastry prepared in heirloom wafer irons by the Dutch changed to a mostly store-bought product, purchased by the population-at-large. They were produced by bakers, who found it much more expedient to roll out a dough, imprint it with a cake board, cut it and bake it. Therefore, the custom of serving New Year’s cakes remained, but the pastry, in its novel new-country form, became a cookie with imprint, baked to a pale color.

The cake boards developed into a unique kind of American folk art. Like the speculaas molds in The Netherlands, they recorded the events of the times. American cake boards depict political figures, the American eagle or the seal of the state of New York. They were not necessarily only from the hand of Dutch-American carvers. Particularly well known was the work of Scottish carver John Conger who worked in New York City from 1827 until 1835. Small, simply carved cake boards were for home use while the large, elaborate boards, which needed the skilled hands and tricks-of-the-trade of a professional, were displayed in baker’s shops in the same way large speculaas or taaitaai poppen molds are still displayed in Dutch bakeries today.

Recipes for New Year’s cakes appear in the handwritten scrapbooks and cookbooks of influential Dutch families such as the Van Rensselaers, the Van Cortlandts and the Brooklyn Lefferts, among many others. The recipe that follows is based on the cookbook of Maria Lott Lefferts (1786-1865) and was adapted for my new book Delicious December: How the Dutch Brought Us Santa, Presents, and Treats. (SUNY PRESS, 2014). Baker Otto Thiebe of Albany baked these caraway-flavored cookies until his death in 1965.

The custom of baking New Year’s cakes survived well into the 20th century. This forgotten holiday celebration of the past is inextricably interwoven in the fabric of American society and is part of the many contributions of the Dutch settlers who started a new life in the New World.


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Posted by on Jan 2 2015. Filed under Food, History, North America. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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