Kentucky Housewife: The Curious Recipes of Lettice Bryan

by Lauralee Estill

Kentucky is not the culinary capital of the world. It has always been a little backward and peculiar, but also full of gritty southerness. Love it or hate it, Kentucky is still this way through a modern lense. We were the second state to raise our big red hand for Trump, and our tax dollars have contributed to a giant, theme-park replica of Noah’s Ark. But every year we run The Kentucky Derby, churn out barrels and barrels of fine bourbon, and yes, raise up more gritty, thrifty southern women.

Lettice Bryan was one of those women. She was a Kentuckianne housewife. And she wrote a whole book about it called Kentucky Housewife in 1839. Only 50 years earlier, Kentucky was considered the frontier of America.

I want to know what and how people were cooking in Kentucky in 1839. How were people entertaining, wining and dining in Kentucky back when Costco wasn’t a thing? To answer that, I’m going to pick a few of Lettice’s recipes and then make them and write about it. Kind of like the movie Julie & Julia where modern day Julie works through the cookbook of renowned chef Julia Childs, but without the Michelin stars. To start, I’m going to throw a Christmas Party and serve up some of Lettice’s holiday classics.


Mix together one pint of lemon juice and three pints of ice water, pour it into a large bowl on a pound and a half of loaf sugar, and let it stand still till the sugar is dissolved; then stir in one quart champaign or claret. Send it round in glasses, with nutmeg grated thickly on. Pg. 407.

To start the evening, let’s have a Negus (because you can’t flip through a cookbook that features boiled squirrel without a cocktail first). The recipe first calls for making lemonade. Then, Lettice instructs, stir in the lemonade with either “champaign or claret”–sparkling white or red table wine. What are we makin’ here, Lettice? Sangria? A mimosa? A French 75?  This is where I realized that there’s no room for purists in in Kentucky Housewife. We make our cocktails with what we’ve got. Fortunately, we’ve got bubbly and red wine, so we’ll try both.

If we were really doing this the Lettice way, we would make her version of “champaign.” It must have been the only way of getting anywhere close to French bubbly in 1830s Kentucky. Otherwise, I don’t know why someone would craft a concoction like this and leave it to ferment. I’m not going to make my own “champaign” (I don’t even own the required “bung”), but here’s the recipe in case you want to make your version of the Negus the most authentic possible:

Champaign (optional)

Dissolve twelve pounds of loaf and ten of brown sugar in ninegallons of water, mix in the whites of four eggs, boil it gently and skim it well, add concrete acid of lemons, or crystallized acid of tartar, six drachms, and before it gets entirely cold, mix in a pint of good yeast and ferment. When it is nearly done working, add one gallon of perry, three pints of brandy, and bung it up for three months: then draw out a quart, dissolve in it one ounce of isinglass, pour it again in the cask, to clear it, and in two weeks it will be ready to bottle. If a red color is desired, mix in an ounce of cochineal before it is first bunged. Pg. 400.

The Negus was an absolute hit among the party goers. The way you layer this drink is essential for getting the flavors to mix well. I poured the lemonade, then Angostura bitters (a clutch last minute decision by my friend Leslie), sprinkled the nutmeg, and then floated the champagne on top. The flavor is like a refreshing ginger ale. The nutmeg makes it the perfect holiday drink. Seconds and thirds were had all around. I also tested the claret (red wine) version of the drink. It was fine, but the champagne version was the clear winner.

Cranberry Tarts

Prepare some plain paste as directed… butter some large scallop pans, putting over each a sheet of paste, put in your cranberries, having first stewed them tender, and strew on at least half their weight in sugar, add to each a large spoonful of butter, rolled in one of flour and broken up, a wine glass of wine and a large tea-cupful of water, lay strips of twisted paste over the top, put round the edge a border of paste leaves, neatly notching and linking them together, and bake them in a moderate oven. Grate loaf sugar over them as soon as you take them from the oven, and eat them warm with rich sauce and boiled custard or cold cream. pg. 263.

The dessert of the evening is a cranberry tart. I’ve never had one of these, and neither had any of the party guests. Has this recipe died because it’s not great, or is it like the Negus, an old recipe from Lettice’s time just waiting to be revived?

The cranberry tart first calls for making a “plain paste” or what I think Lettice is describing as a homemade pastry dough. Store-bought pastry dough will do just fine. To save on dishes, I made one large cobbler using Lettice’s cranberry filling recipe.

The cranberry tart filling is perfect for this time of year. First, I stewed the cranberries down with white wine, butter, water and sugar. After the cranberries started to pop and cook down into a deep pink color, I added a little whole wheat flour. The filling thickened and I poured it into the pie dough. I latticed, or criss-crossed, the top of the filling with extra pie dough and popped it in the oven for about 40 minutes at 375 degrees F. Yum! The cranberries taste much like tart cherries. If you like tart berry pies, you’ll love this one.

Overall, these early American frontier recipes were excellent. I went safe though, skipping over the boiled squirrel and baked snipe recipes. But I want to explore more of the book’s recipes and Lettice’s story.  You can follow my intrigues at

You can buy your own copy of Kentucky Housewife here


Photos by Alexandra Nichols


5 thoughts on “Kentucky Housewife: The Curious Recipes of Lettice Bryan

  1. …speaking of scruff; oh, my ever lovin’ that pup is the cutest. Baking pies during the holidays is my absolute favorite and now I can not wait to add mixing up a festive cocktail to the list. I’ll definitely be trying this one out while I’m visiting Western Kentucky for the holidays. xoxo


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s