To Dress Cucumbers Raw

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You'll find this recipe in:
Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery
By: Eliza Leslie
Philadelphia, 1851

The Original Recipe:

TO DRESS CUCUMBERS RAW.-They should be as fresh from the vine as possible, few vegetables being more unwholesome when long gathered. As soon as they are brought in lay them in cold water. Just before they are to go to the table take them out, pare them and slice them into a pan of fresh cold water. When they are all sliced, transfer them to a deep dish, season them with a little salt and black pepper, and pour over them some of the best vinegar, to which you may add a little salad oil. You may mix them with a small quantity of sliced onion; not to be eaten, but to communicate a slight flavour of onion to the vinegar.

My Experience:

To Dress Cucumbers Raw is a rare recipe from the 1850s that doesn't require a modern adaptation. It's very a simple dish. Peel and slice the cucumbers, put them in a bowl, add vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and a few onion slices. Since I only had half a cucumber to cut, I didn't bother with putting the already-sliced cucumbers into cold water while I continued slicing the rest. Miss Leslie doesn't specify which type of vingegar is the "best", so I chose to use raw apple cider vinegar and complemented it with olive oil.

The onion slices are a very nice touch. I first sampled the cucumbers when they had been marinating in the fridge for about 30 minutes. I was careful not to dish out the onion as advised in the recipe, but a delicate onion taste definitely carried through to the vinaigrette.

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Eliza Leslie learned her cookery expertise after her father's death in 1803 in Philedelphia. To make ends meet, her mother opened a boardinghouse and Eliza found herself supervising the servants, including a Cook. She had little experience in the kitchen herself, so she enrolled in a cooking school run by Mrs. Goodfellow in her confectioner's shop and soon the Leslie family's boardinghouse was known for its fine meals.

Miss Leslie didn't aim to be a cookbook author, though. She was an author of children's stories and short fiction, and it was thanks to others encouraging her to share her recipes that her cookbook career was launched. In 1828, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was published, followed by Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery in 1837, followed by many editions and a list of cookbooks & etiquette books.

Miss Leslie would be appalled, and perhaps stupefied, that I made this recipe today. In April. In Canada. She seems to have held a strong opinion about cucumbers and their longevity, stating that "few vegetables being more unwholesome when long gathered". Who knows when my grocery store cucumber was harvested, but I still found this recipe to be delicious. It's fresh-tasting, subtly flavoured by the salt, pepper & onion.

I chose to make this recipe now, instead of when cucumbers are in season, because I'm doing a week-long Cleanse these days and I thought I'd set myself the challenge of finding a historic recipe or two that I can eat. It wasn't easy to find a nineteenth-century recipe that doesn't include meat, dairy, wheat or sugar, but here's one that I would happily make again – Cleanse or not.

If you're curious to read more about Eliza Leslie's life, read this Manuscript Cookbooks Survey article, which also delves into this question: how many of Miss Leslie's published recipes came from Mrs. Goodfellow, who taught her how to cook?

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Read the Cookbook:

A scanned copy of the 1851 edition from the New York Public Library on the Internet Archive (this recipe's on pages 194-195)