Uptown. Downtown. Old Town (a term only for tourists). You have to love Marblehead’s institutions. Banks where everybody knows your name. Restaurants that consider you a regular after the second visit. Shops where the proprietors remember your preferences. A new book store! Art galleries. The Chamber. Two (!) Rotary Clubs. Baseball: peewee to semi-pro. The Little Theatre, our own Broadway.
You have to love our unabashed patriotism. The sparkle of Independence Day fireworks. Abbot Hall where the clock chimes 76 times in celebration. Stalwart ownership of the American Navy.
Rocky expanses, washed by cold salt water, called beaches. Traditions. Holiday Pops. Lobster rolls in summer. Garden parties in three seasons. And Joe Froggers, the “Marblehead cookie” all year round.
Everyone here knows the story of Joe Brown and Lucretia Thomas Brown, the couple who, centuries ago, lived on Gingerbread Hill, a lively neighborhood of bakeries and a popular tavern. Joe Brown tended to the seafarers with music and drink; his wife Lucretia baked wedding cakes. They teamed up on cookies: she baked, he marketed.
Recently, Marblehead Museum Director Lauren McCormack posed a tentative question about their molasses cookie in a newsletter article — while also correcting racial stereotypes and acknowledging the Browns’ dignity. The question: was Lucretia Thomas Brown the originator of the Joe Frogger cookie?
Noted food historian Sandra Oliver, who mined the depths of early New England cooking in her book “Saltwater Foodways,” found no evidence of the cookie. She did, however, highlight a galley-produced pancake called a “Joe Flogger” with an “L.”
But McCormack’s speculation lit a spark. Could Lucretia have actually “invented” the Joe Frogger? Not the traditional molasses cookie, but a sturdier version popular with sailors for its longevity at sea. Might Lucretia have improved on the cookie by using the techniques that had created the “ship’s biscuit,” a seaworthy brick-shaped cracker used to thicken shipboard chowder? (The forerunner of hardtack.) The ingredients and technology were right there. Did Lucretia apply them to a sweet? Might she eventually be the first recognized for it, many, many generations later? A thought worth considering.
Meanwhile, find the cookies at Maria’s. Or bake your own. I am not an accomplished baker, so this recipe is adapted from Nancy Baggett’s “The All-American Cookie Book” where Marblehead is recognized as their point of origin.
JOE FROGGERS COOKIES
Makes about 30 (3 1/2 to 4 inch) cookies
This detailed recipe works for occasional bakers. The cookies store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks; or, freeze for up to 2 months. They have not been tested at sea.
3 1/4 cups all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
¾ teaspoon ground cloves
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup light or dark molasses
3 tablespoons dark rum
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
¾ cu packed light brown sugar
¼ cup sugar for topping
1. In a large bowl, stir together flour, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together molasses, rum, shortening and brown sugar until smooth, about two minutes.
3. Beat half the flour mixture into the molasses mixture until smooth. Now vigorously beat in the remaining half of the flour mixture until evenly blended and smooth. If needed, add the extra 1 to 2 tablespoons flour to make the dough slightly stiff but not dry.
4. Divide the dough into three equal portions, placing each one between sheets of waxed paper. Roll each portion a quarter-inch thick. Stack the rolled portions, with paper still attached, on a baking sheet. Refrigerate for 4 to 8 hours. (Alternatively, freeze for 45 minutes.)
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 4 baking sheets with nonstick spray.
6. Working with each portion of dough at a time, remove the waxed paper from each side. Cut out the cookies using a 3 to 3 1/2 round cookie cutter. Transfer cookies to a baking sheet, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Sprinkle tops with sugar. Gather and reroll any scraps of leftover dough; continue cutting out cookies until all the dough is used.
7. Bake cookies, one sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 9 to 12 minutes, until nearly firm in the center and slightly darker at the edges. (For crunchy cookies, overbake slightly; for softer cookies, under-bake slightly.) Halfway through cooking, reverse the sheet pan for even browning.
8. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack; let stand for 1 to 2 minutes until cookies slightly firm up. With a spatula, transfer them to a wire rack to stand until cool.
Marblehead resident Linda Bassett has worked as a cook, trained up-and-coming chefs, studied food history and led food tours. Her book, “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” is about local cooks and cooking.