Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Here's an easy one... Cambric Tea

Whaddya know, two posts in a week! I gotta slow down or I'll spill all the beans before my book is even published. I was speaking to a guy from the "Mormon Times" page of the DesNews and he wanted to write a piece about Mormon Food, so I told him about Cambric tea. But then in the parting moments of the conversation, I mentioned the previous blog post about Brigham's Doughnuts, and of course that sounded so much more sexy. So I'm writing about Cambric tea here. If any of you find this site because of the Mormon Times link, I hope you'll drop a note and say "hi".

So as I was plugging away at the "beverages" chapter of my book, I stumbled upon a quote from Mrs. Mary Steerforth of Nephi, Utah. Elizabeth Kane had asked her if the early days in Utah were terrible starving times. She replied, "No, not exactly. We always had something to eat, though the poor children used to long for the time when they might eat as hearty a meal as they wanted. We had to reckon so closely how much we could allow for each meal, that we never rose up from one with our hunger satisfied... With a little milk we could make cambric tea, which was found to be one of the best remedies for hunger-- taken hot, and with a little spice or aromatic herbs to flavor it."

Growing up Mormon, I had been trained to think all things "tea" were of the devil, so I had no idea what "cambric tea" might be. Those of you who grew up reading of Laura Ingals and the Little House on the Prairie probably remember her recounting of cambric tea. Cambric of course refers to a delicate white fabric, as in "Tell her to make me a cambric shirt (parsley sage, rosemary and thyme), without a seam or needlework." In most contexts this is a tea made primarily of hot milk and used for childrens' tea parties or for feeble older people whose constitution won't tolerate stronger stuff. Traditional preparation would have a spoonful of sugar in a tea cup, over which was poured a bit of hot water, and the remainder of the cup filled with hot milk. Sometimes a shot of stiffly-brewed black tea is added.

In the case of Mary Steerforth however, the tea was used by adults and children to stave off hunger. As such, milk would have offered more nourishment than tea. In the early days of Utah settlement, sugar was uncommon and expensive; Mrs. Steerforth's sweetener would have been molasses made from beets, parsnips or sorghum cane. Nutmeg, as we learned in the previous post about Brigham's doughnuts, was the common spice of the era. Mrs. Steerforth would have a pierced tin nutmeg grater, and a small stash of whole nutmegs.

So there you are my dears-- a legitimate Mormon tea from the pioneer days. Its delicious, its nutritious, and very refreshing. Try a cup on the next cold night before jumping into bed with your sweetie. Cheers!


Kenzie said...

oh, i do love the tea! thanks for your foodie insight. how is the book coming along?
thanks for letting me know what that fruit was, i didn't care too much for it either, although i am sure it was not in its prime when it got to me.

Ramon said...

Well I am here because of the article in the Mormon Times. When traveling through Kirtland this year for work, I asked about pioneer style food but to no avail. I was concerned I would actually use something I learned in college and go to the archives to learn about 19th century cooking. Glad I found this instead!

Scarehaircare said...

Mmmm, sounds like our modern day steamers.

I found you from the Desnews article on Brigham's doughnuts. As a child, I loved the book "Brigham Young and me, Clarissa" where she talked about doughnuts for breakfast. I was excited to find this site.

I was also fascinated with the food in Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Cambric tea, as well as the Church suppers. I once made a Vinegar pie, just to see what it was like.....what a disaster. My family still won't quit laughing. It's become family legend.

Brock said...

I'm glad you found the site! Let me know what sort of food history you're interested in, and I'll help if I can. Cheers!

Sara said...

My mom used to make me cambric tea when I was little: same thing, black tea diluted with milk, hot water and sugar. While we aren't Mormon, my mother's people are from the upper Midwest (South Dakota. I suspect it's a pioneer thing, like my Nana's no-milk gingerbread recipe.