Comfort Food

Comfort Food

Cowcumbers!

Who would think that there would be a link between the British colonization of India and cucumber tea sandwiches? There is!
Cucumbers will cool you off … especially if you sprinkle a little salt on them. When the folks from England started settling in India, they couldn’t stand the heat! They quickly learned that eating cucumbers helped!

Cucumbers are mentioned in the Bible. Food historians believe they originated in India. Historians also believe that cucumbers arrived in Britain in the 1300s, but it was not until the Victorian Era that they became popular as a sandwich ingredient for teatime!

Let’s go back a bit! During the time of Christ, Emperor Tiberius had cucumbers on his table every day all year long. According to documents from the time, the Romans had greenhouse systems that allowed year-round growing. How cool is this?

"Indeed, he was never without it; for he had raised beds made in frames upon wheels, by means of which the cucumbers were moved and exposed to the full heat of the sun; while, in winter, they were withdrawn, and placed under the protection of frames glazed with mirrorstone."
— Pliny the Elder 

In 16th Century America, explorers and trappers traded with Native Americans for food. These tribes had learned long before how to grow cucumbers from the Spanish, so cucumbers were a part of the traded harvest.

In 1630, Reverend Francis Higgenson with the Massachusetts Bay Company, wrote in his book New England’s Plantation about the Governor’s garden and that there was more produce than they grew in England … and that it was sweeter and bigger … including the ‘cowcumbers’!

By the end of the 1700s, the cucumber hit the bottom of the popularity list! In England and in America, it was deemed only appropriate as cow food. We don’t know which came first … the word ‘cowcumber’ or the notion that is was only good for cows.

At the same time cucumbers were going out of grace, taking tea was becoming a Royal custom. Britain’s Queen Charlotte created what we know as afternoon tea because she started feeling faint in the afternoons and needed sustenance.

Thank you, Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford for (in 1840) broadening the popularity of teatime to the Victorian Era! The Duchess was Lady of the Bedchamber for Queen Victoria started having afternoon tea served to the Queen and it became popular with the Royals. Even the common folk enjoyed afternoon tea, but they drank theirs from mugs and they ate heartier foods than tiny cakes and petite sandwiches!

As long as I can remember, tea parties have been popular. In my favorite vintage period, the 1950s and 60s, it was popular to have just one ‘something sweet’ like a sponge cake or angel food cake served with hot tea. The notions of what to serve comes and goes! Now we love to have towering trays of lots of things … sweet and savory.

I have to admit, the only tea part ever held in my childhood home was when I spread my little girl china out on the basement floor and entertained whatever cat lived with us at the time. My favorite Aunt Evelyn, however, taught me just how to have a real tea party on summer afternoons! We’d go from having a cup of hot tea in a pretty china cup with a slice of something very sweet … to shifting gears the next day and consuming an iced cold Coke in a big green bottle. Both were treats I didn’t have at home and both little parties were held on her screened in big back porch that had a swing in it! I carried these traditions to my own family and taught my daughter the true graces of tea … and we’ve taught my granddaughter the same thing. I believe both of them could take tea with the Queen of England and feel very comfortable! We’ve studied teatime culture. In fact, when we attend teas that are poorly set or poorly coordinated, we go away feeling cheated!


My Aunt Evelyn was a master and making something really special out of not very much! I inherited those genes and I’m glad I did. We called her ‘Sissy’ because she was my daddy’s baby sister and that is what he called her. She lived in a tiny little house and she and Uncle Earl raised two children They worked hard. There was nothing wealthy about her, but she could create ‘fancy’ things! Cucumber sandwiches at her house were often served for lunch. She would cut the crusts from the bread, mix mayonnaise and cream cheese and a little sugar together for the spread … then layer very thin slices of cucumbers over it all. We’d eat those open faced and they were so very special. I’m sure she saw this in a magazine because her mother (who might have taught her such things) died when she was so young that she hardly remembered her. I’m sure my daddy provided the cucumbers from his massive garden that he shared with many families! We thought we were royal! We were usually eating those sandwiches off a piece of her vast collection of Depression Glass. That is another gene I inherited!

A few weeks ago, when we gathered for Sunday Dinner, I took something unusual. I made cucumber open face sandwiches using a loaf of bread I had made and a cream cheese foundation that I made using lots of fresh herbs. I’m never sure what my granddaughter or son-in-law will eat in the vegetable line … but yahoo! They loved them.




Cream Cheese Herb Spread 

8 ounces of cream cheese at room temperature
2 Tablespoons soft butter
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
1 cup of chopped fresh herbs
½ teaspoon garlic powder

To assemble these sandwiches, use a multi-grain or rye bread. That kind of bread will hold up under the spread and weight of the cucumbers. Put all the spread ingredients in the food processor and blend until smooth. The choice of herbs is up to you, but we enjoy basil, sage, thyme and rosemary. Another good combination is sage and mint. A third combination is basil, oregano and Mexican tarragon. You can also add chopped nuts or seeds to add a little crunch. Make it your way! There really isn’t a recipe!

The proper way to prepare the cucumbers is to peel and slice them. Place the slices on a sheet pan lined with paper towel. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the cucumber slices and let them release moisture. Blot the tops with paper towels and then layer them on top of the cream cheese spread on the bread slices. Garnish with any kind of fresh herbs.




This post is part of my 2020 Vintage Vegetable Project. If you’d like to see similar posts just click the menu tab. I’m also sharing with a couple blog parties, so check the list on my sidebar.

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