Eating Well: Looking at liver recipes from Kenneth Roberts’ table

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I was contemplating putting together an austere Maine fish chowder (made with haddock, water, potato, milk, bay leaf and a scraping of onion) when Down East’s updated edition of “Good Maine Food: Ancient and Modern New England Food and Drink” by Marjorie Mosser arrived.

Mosser’s book, first published in 1939, has the original notes made by Kenneth Roberts and a new foreword and recipe notes by food historian Sandra Oliver. When it was delivered, I immediately looked to see how Mosser made fish chowder in 1939 for Kenneth and Anna Roberts, her aunt and uncle, in Kennebunk, when she wasn’t busy typing the manuscripts of Kenneth Roberts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novels.

She skipped the bay leaf, but added crisply fried diced salt pork and put split common crackers, soaked in warm milk, into the chowder. That sounded delicious, and my opinion of Mosser’s good taste in recipes was set at excellent until I turned the page and saw a recipe for liver soup. I’ve never been offered liver soup, so I read the instructions to find out what it is — and why someone wouldn’t ask to be excused from the table when a tureen of this delight was sent forth.

To make liver soup, slice half a pound of calf’s liver into small pieces and boil it until tender. Cool, and then remove and discard the gristle, and put it through a meat grinder. (Already this is making me squirm.) Then, return the ground liver to the cooking water (gag) and add sliced onion, diced tomato, chopped parsley, a tablespoon of rice and some salt and pepper to the “liver water” and simmer until the onion and rice are cooked. Before serving, stir into the liver soup an egg sauce made by mixing the juice of one lemon into one well-beaten egg. Fortunately, this recipe makes only two servings. Mosser’s instructions don’t call for a Pepto Bismol chaser, but some digestive aid might be welcome.

I really like liver and onions sauteed together, and chopped chicken liver on rye (that’s a sandwich) is an all-time favorite, but I’ll never try liver soup, even though Kenneth Roberts must have spooned his way through a bowl or two. In the index to the new edition of “Good Maine Food,” there are a few listings for liver: braised, broiled, cakes, fried, porcupine and the deplorable soup.

Liver cakes – new to me, and another thing I’ll never try – are similar to clam cakes. Run a pound of beef liver, an onion and six common crackers through a meat grinder. Put the mixture in a bowl and add salt, pepper, chopped parsley, two tablespoons of milk, and two lightly beaten eggs. Form the mixture into small balls and fry in three tablespoons of melted butter until browned on both sides. This makes four servings. Because they are called cakes, I think you should flatten the liver balls into patty shapes before frying them. What do you serve the liver cakes with? Ketchup. Kenneth Roberts was famous for his unsweetened ketchup, and the recipe is in “Good Maine Food.”

Moving on to Mosser’s piece de resistance, we sit down to a dinner of porcupine liver in a chapter about cooking game and poultry. I’m not making this up. It’s on Pages 111 and 112. Roberts introduces the porcupine liver by telling us that his friend Wingate Cram, president of the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, had a friend in Nova Scotia who tried everything once — beavers’ tails, moose’s nose, muskrat — and found that porcupine livers are delicious, and compared them to duck livers. He tantalizes us further, saying, “Thousands of Maine gunners have eaten porcupine liver, and have unhesitatingly pronounced it one of the greatest delicacies.” So, are you going to invite your best friends to a porcupine liver bash?

Here’s how Kenneth Roberts would do it: Soak the liver in lightly salted water for half an hour. Remove from the water and cut it in slices about 3/4-inch thick. Drop the slices into boiling water for a minute. Drain, cool, and remove the thin membrane from the edge of each slice, and all gristle from interior. Wrap the slices in strips of bacon and broil them five minutes over coals, or fry them two minutes in a “blue-hot” frying pan. Serve them with lemon juice and new boiled potatoes. Kenneth Roberts, Marjorie Mosser and Sandra Oliver make dining on porcupine liver sound delightful, don’t they?

But “Good Maine Food” is truly an excellent cookbook. I just happened to be amused by the recipes for cooking liver. Many of the recipes were sent to Roberts by people who read his “Trending into Maine,” published in 1930, in which he reminisced about dishes served to him during his youth. Mosser used those recipes and added new favorites as times and tastes changed. Some of the dishes are from away, says Sandra Oliver, because Maine is surrounded by Away.

For those of you who were out to lunch during high school English classes, Kenneth Roberts (1885–1957) is a famous Maine writer. He was born at the Storer House in Kennebunk, and it was his grandmother’s tales of their ancestors’ contributions to the War of the Revolution, the War of 1812 and other historic events that sparked Roberts’ interest in telling stories from the past.

After graduating from Cornell University, Roberts wrote for the Boston Post and for the Saturday Evening Post before becoming a novelist. Some of his works are: “Arundel,” “Rabble in Arms,” “Northwest Passage” (made into a movie), “Oliver Wiswell,” and “Lydia Bailey.” In 1957, Roberts received a Pulitzer Prize citation for his historical novels. The Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk has many Roberts artifacts.

Historian and food writer Sandra Oliver of Islesboro makes “Good Maine Food” even better than it was in its earlier (1939, 1947 and 1974) editions with her notes and asides about the recipes and ingredients. Oliver, who publishes a newsletter, Food History News, is famous for her books, “Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century” and “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes.” Oliver launched the fireplace cooking program at Mystic Seaport Museum in 1971. She also writes a column for the Bangor Daily News.

Grandma’s Tomato Ketchup

Kenneth Roberts loved ketchup, and this recipe is nearly as famous as Roberts. Note that this is not a sweet ketchup, because he deplored the addition of sugar to this condiment. Apparently, it is his grandmother’s recipe. “Sharp vinegar,” mentioned in the recipe, means cider vinegar. Oliver reminds us to use modern canning methods.

This ketchup is more easily made if 8 pint cans of tomato puree are substituted (or one hotel-size gallon can) for the strained tomatoes. If this substitution is made, the mixture need be simmered only one hour.

1 gallon strained tomatoes

6 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons allspice
2 tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon red pepper
1 pint sharp vinegar

One peck of ripe tomatoes, cooked and strained, makes 1 gallon. Mix all the ingredients together and simmer 4 hours, stirring frequently to prevent spices from sticking. Cool and bottle. Olive oil poured in the neck of each bottle will preserve this indefinitely.

Baked Beans

Kenneth Roberts liked baked beans with his ketchup.

1 quart pea, yellow-eye, kidney or other dried beans
1 pound salt pork
1 onion
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons celery salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon pepper

Soak beans in cold water overnight; then parboil them for 1/2 hour, or until the skin cracks when blown upon. Put the onion in the pot, then part of the beans, pork near the top, more beans, molasses, salt, mustard and pepper. Cover with boiling water and the bean pot lid and bake all day (10 hours) in an extremely slow oven.

At the end of the first hour and every little while thereafter, add boiling water to replace that which has boiled away. The most important trick in bean baking is to keep the water level constant by adding only a little boiling water, and often. If the water is allowed to boil far down, so that a lot must be poured in, the beans will be greasy. An hour before supper, remove the cover to let the salt pork brown. Add no more water.

Serves 8 to 10.

Beans and Spareribs

In place of the conventional salt pork in baked beans, Mainers frequently place 6 spare ribs in the bottom of the bean pot.

Sidebar Elements

Susan Lovell and her husband John, a great cook, live near Pat’s Meat Market & Cafe in Portland, with a hungry Maine coon cat and a poodle who eats cat food. An eighth-generation Mainer, she likes shellfish, steak, baked beans, cole slaw, corn bread, blueberry pie and Moxie. Her great great-grandfather, from Wellfleet, Mass., and his cousin founded Boston’s Union Oyster House and she really likes oysters and Guinness. And Boston cream pie.“Good Maine Food: Ancient and Modern New England Food and Drink,” by Marjorie Mosser, with notes by Kenneth Roberts and a new foreword and notes by Sandra Oliver, published by Down East, October 2010.