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Clary Sage, The Colonial Taste Of Spring

Winter-worn American colonists nibbled on clary sage leaves to mark the arrival of spring. Check out pics from Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

  • A finished clary sage fritter

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    Colonial snack pro tip: fry up a leaf.

  • A restored colonial-era farmhouse in upstate New York

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    The Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York, was the center of a 52,000 acre flour production and trade operation from 1693 to 1779.

  • The makings of a clary sage fritter laid out on a table

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    History interpreter Kathy Browning gathers ingredients for her colonial fritter demonstration: clary sage, eggs, flour and salt.

  • A bowl of freshly picked and washed clary sage leaves

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    Photo: Chad Bouchard

    Clary sage picked fresh from the garden provides a welcome burst of green flavor after a long winter season. The biennial herb was brought over to America from Europe, a native of the northern Mediterranean coast.

  • A scoop of freshly ground flour

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    The grist mill at Philipsburg Manor produced 15 tons of flour per week at its peak. The mill and manor were run by 23 African slaves.

  • A woman beating eggs with a wooden colonial beater

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    Photo: Chad Bouchard

    The colonial tool for beating eggs is more of a spindle than a whisk, spun quickly back and forth between two open hands.

  • Clary sage leaves dipped in a light batter

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    Photo: Chad Bouchard

    Though the batter recipe calls for black pepper, colonists might have saved their imported spices for special occasions, and substituted a pinch of indigenous dried chili pepper to flavor field fare like this.

  • A battered clary leaf cooking on a griddle

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    Colonists used hooks of varying lengths to adjust the pan's distance from the fire and control the cooking temperature.

  • A woman in colonial costume fries a clary leaf on a griddle

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    Photo: Trish Anderton

    Kathy Browning flips a clary leaf on the griddle. Such fritters could serve as a late morning or afternoon snack, or as a side with the main noontime meal of the day.

After long, harsh winters, early American colonists were voracious for fresh greens. Europeans brought many herbs and vegetables with them across the water, including clary sage, a garden staple that provided a welcome burst of early spring flavor. The biennial herb originated in the north Mediterranean, and was also known as “clear-eye,” because its slimy seeds were used for removing dust from the eyes.

Colonists in New York grew winter wheat, which was harvested in early summer and later ground into flour and shipped down the Hudson river, when waterways were clear of ice. At Philipsburg Manor, 23 African slaves carried out all of the cooking, dairy, grain threshing and milling operations that produced up to 15 tons of flour per week.

The menu and cooking methods were all adapted to match ever-changing weather and seasonal conditions of farm work.

“It all revolves around the demands of the growing season,” said Kathy Browing, a volunteer and colonial cooking expert who demonstrated how to make the fritters on a griddle over an open fire. “If your wheat crop is ready to harvest, everybody’s in the barn from dawn to dark, you’re only going to stop for a few minutes and then go right back to work.”

The Philipsberg Manor volunteers can’t serve the demo food made on site, but a home kitchen (and foraging) experiment confirmed that clary sage fritters are simple, tasty herbal treats — best eaten griddle-hot.

Browning used recipes found in a 1744 cookbook, Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery; or, the Kitchen Garden Display’d.

Clary sage leaves dipped in a light batter

Photo: Chad Bouchard

Though the batter recipe calls for black pepper, colonists might have saved their imported spices for special occasions, and substituted a pinch of indigenous dried chili pepper to flavor field fare like this.

Clary Sage Fritters

Ingredients

  • 6-10 clary sage leafs
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Cooking Directions

  1. When your clary is wash'd, pick'd and dried with a cloth
  2. Beat up the yolks of six eggs with a little flower and salt
  3. Make the batter light, and dip in every leaf
  4. And fry them singly

Clary Eggs Another Way

Ingredients

  • 1 handful clary leaves
  • 8-10 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 onion, chopped small

Cooking Directions

  1. Beat eight or ten eggs well in a porringer (shallow bowl)
  2. Then take some clary leaves, and chop them small
  3. Add a little pepper and salt and some onions chopped small
  4. This mixture must be fired (on a skillet) in hog's lark or hog's seam (lard)
  5. And serve it with slices of lemon

More: Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills: Telling The Story (Historic Hudson Valley)

Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

View all posts by this author »

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