Recently I was asked by the Culinary Historians of Northern Illinois to speak at their first anniversary meeting. Our hosts, John and Deb Lorentson, have beautifully and wonderfully restored and renovated the historic Jesse Wheaton Home. Their home was the perfect setting for sampling Wheaton family recipes prepared by Donna Hesik of Suzettes Creperie; and learning about the mission of the Culinary Historians from founders, Gerry Rounds and editor of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, Dr. Bruce Kraig.
Using county histories and the resources at the DuPage County Historical Society I was able to cook up some culinary history. And I’ll share some of the crumbs from my short presentation titled “DuPage County Eats.”
“Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.”
– Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto XIII, stanza 99
The first cooks in the land we call DuPage County today were pre-historic, nomadic tribes of hunters and gatherers. Primitive stone tools were used to kill and butcher large prey like mastodons that were eaten raw or thrown into a fire (perhaps to thaw). As the glaciers receded and big game gave way to smaller game, temporary hunting villages were formed by the Archaic (8,000-1,000 B.C.) and Woodland (1,000 B.C.-A.D. 1,673) peoples of northern Illinois and DuPage County. Early explorers noted that native tribes had at least 40 ways to prepare corn and ate boiled eels.
The French were the first Europeans to make contact with the Potawatomi, Sak and Fox during the Historic period (A.D. 1673-1850). The diet of the French traders relied heavily on the bounty of the beans, peas, squash, and corn planted by and traded with the local tribes.
Evidence from the 2006 and 2007 archaeological digs at the Joseph Naper Homestead site in Naperville reveal some of the eating habits of the Napers and the other settlers. Bones, teeth, and tusks of wild boar were discovered along with prairie fowl, deer, squirrel and rabbit. River clam and oyster shells were found, the latter found in abundance. Domesticated hog and beef bones showing butchering marks were also found. A few of the seeds found in the privy dumps were tomato, grape and strawberry. The Potawatomi shared a unique fruit from the Paw Paw tree which tastes like a banana and a mango.
Emigrant guides in the 1830s and 1840s suggested what settlers should bring to feed “man and beast.” The New England settlers of DuPage County “after the fatigue of [their] journey, and a short season of privation and danger, [find themselves] surrounded with plenty. [The] cattle, hogs and poultry, supply [the table] with meat; the forest abounds in game; the fertile soil yields abundant crops…bread, milk and butter; the rivers furnish fish, and the woods honey.”
Flavorings available to the early DuPage County housewife were, salt, sugar, honey, vinegar, clove and cinnamon. Pepper and nutmeg seem to be rarer.
Mrs. Willard Scott, Sr. of Naperville was said to have made a “prodigious loaf of corn bread” from meal she ground between two stones. “Although the repast was pronounced by all most delicious, yet it was entirely eclipsed by that of Mrs. [Bailey] Hobson, who had her ‘party’ soon after, and entertained her guests, not with corn bread alone, but corn bread and molasses graced her festive board.”
The technological advances of the Industrial revolution and the war production efforts during the American Civil War did much to alter the cooking and eating habits of DuPage households. The coal stove was improved, railroads provided a larger variety of food stuffs including store-bought canned goods.
In the 1860s and 1870s, DuPagers bought, read and practiced cooking and household hints from books like “Mrs. (Isabella) Beton’s” 1861 and “Miss (Maria) Parloa’s” 1872 guides.
The earliest example of a community cookbook in DuPage County was made by the ladies of the First Congregational Church of Naperville in 1897. Three years later the ladies of the Wheaton Methodist Episcopal Church produced the Wheaton Cook Book.
The Spanish-American War 1898 and the WWI 1917 made the world a smaller place and the DuPage County cookbook fatter. Improved transportation allowed from even more exotic fruits and vegetable to find their way to the kitchens and dining tables in DuPage County. The 1930s were noted for their frugality and many “mock” recipes were introduced.
Science used to help win the Second World War gave DuPage housewives new technologies including the microwave and an even larger global marketplace. In the Glen Ellyn Cookbook this note was found, “Sun. Sept. 25. ’60, H. went to hear Pastor McCully speak at the 3PM Dedication at Bible Church – Trying out my new little electric oven.”
Tech industries Fermi Lab and Argonne brought many ethnic families to DuPage County from Asia and the last 50 years have witnessed the growth and abundance of restaurants offering flavors from around the world.
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