In Marine Park, Brooklyn, on the corner of Avenue S and East 35th Street, there’s a bar called Mariner’s Inn. It’s got a brown wood stone facade and a green awning, an American flag hanging above its door. It looks like a place you might stop in to catch a sports game on a Sunday afternoon, if you were into that sort of thing. It’s next door to a nail salon, which is next to a liquor store, and across the street from a dry cleaner called Classic Cleaners.
It’s also half a block away from the longest continually owned house in New York City’s history.
If you were to pass it by chance, you might not think anything of the Hendrick I. Lott House, which bisects the block behind Mariner’s Inn. You might think, Hmm. That house has an especially large front and back yard. It’s small and unassuming with white clapboard walls and dark hunter green window shutters. It’s surrounded by grass both in the front and the back and sits at an angle to the street. It appears as a kink in the Robert Moses fever dream that is the grid-obsessed New York City organization.
You might not have guessed that this house actually predates Robert Moses, the urban planner who oversaw the expansion of New York City into Brooklyn and Long Island. Or that inside the house is a hidden passageway that once formed part of the Underground Railroad. Or that four sets of cookbooks, passed through two centuries’ worth of hands, were found sitting on the shelves of its kitchen, collecting dust.
Neither did Alyssa Loorya, an archaeologist and historian, until those cookbooks — and the well-being and maintenance of one of New York’s most important historical relics — were placed into her hands.
Loorya had grown up near the property. She remembers riding past the house — small and abandoned-looking with a disastrously overgrown yard — on her bike on the way to the mall, yet never thinking much of it. It wasn’t until years later when, as a student in the archaeological school at Brooklyn College, that the Lott House circled back into her life.
As a grad student, Loorya had explored the grounds of historic houses across the Greater New York area. As she and her cohort began to look for fresh sites to excavate, she remembered the farmhouse at 1940 East 36th Street. Could the ramshackle property she’d spent her childhood skirting around hold archaeological potential?
As it turned out, yes. And then some.
The first Lotts to arrive in North America — Engelbart Lott and his two sons Pieter and Engelbartsen — were French Huguenots who emigrated from Holland in 1652. They settled in modern day Flatbush, a wide, treeless grassland. The prairie and its nearby streams were originally the Canarsee tribe’s summer settlement where they mined the waters for oysters and clams until they were displaced and their population ravaged by the onslaught of disease brought over by European settlers.
In 1719, Pieter’s son Johannes and his wife Antje Folkerson bought a farm in the southern area of the Flatlands and laid the groundwork for a house that would pass through his family for the next two centuries. An ambitious and successful farmer, Johannes amassed a property that skirted along the coast of Jamaica Bay and swallowed the whole of what we today call Marine Park.
The house’s location lends itself to highly fertile farmland. As Loorya puts it, “This area was created out of glacial outwash, so it’s all these highly organic alluvial deposits in the landscape. Because of the high number of creeks and streams, we have a relatively high water table but an exceptionally well-drained soil.”
In other words: Everything grows and it grows really large.
The Lott property owes much of its early agricultural prosperity to the slaves that coaxed its earth. According to census records, the Lotts had 12 slaves in 1803. By the end of that decade, however, Johaness’ son Hendrick freed them all and hired them back as paid workers). Historians posit that the Lotts were abolitionists as Hendrick’s actions predate the 1827 abolition of slavery in New York City.
Another important discovery supports this theory. In 2002, The New York Times reported on a clandestine closet, tucked into the house’s architecture, purported to have hidden slaves making their way to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
The house belies many old artifacts. Some, like the closet, reveal truths about the family’s beliefs, others provide texture on mundane patterns, quotidian habits. A storage bin full of oyster rakes hearkens to a time when New Yorkers ate bivalves like hot dogs. Once while repairing a kitchen leak, the house’s caretaker Wendy Carroll unearthed an assortment of corncobs, assembled together in a pattern. Archaeologists point to a cosmogram, a West African symbolic tradition, as an explanation.
And then there are the cookbooks.
Loorya was gifted the cookbooks by Catherine Lott, whose father lived in the house. She received a box full of recipes in various conditions — bound, stained and stapled pages, journals filled with faded phrases, tears and watermarks, and fraying edges. Amidst the flotsam, Loorya and her team teased the Lott residence back to life.
Since she first became involved with the site’s excavation in 1998 as a graduate student, Loorya has been instrumental in the Lott House’s most modern era. She has since founded her own archaeology firm, Chrysalis Archaeology, and become vice president of the board that works with the city to manage and operate the house.
Part of that management means ensuring the city allocates proper funding to the upkeep of the property. At other times, her involvement skews more — quite literally — hands on. Recently, she and her team have been participating in what they call experiential archaeology.
It all began with a cake. First a chocolate one. Then a white one. The recipes, simple cakes in no-fuss loaf pans, reminded Loorya of her grandmother alongside whom she learned to bake. She felt a pang of nostalgia both for her own family and a new one she was beginning to learn about. The kitchen became the flashpoint for animating the Lott House, abandoned since 1998 and falling into disrepair once again.
A recipe for “Demon Cake” produced a sludgy molasses cake so sticky it had to be begged out of the bowl.
The recipes with their dated ingredient lists and reliance on outdated products clashed with modernity. “It so often says to bake in a modern oven and I’m like … what does that mean?” Loorya laments. “A modern oven? Do we have a temperature? Do we have a time? No!”
The directions for Grandma Voorhee’s mincemeat pie begin by imploring one to “get a cow.” It later suggests leaving something in a stoneware crock on the porch for three weeks. Another recipe sent Loorya to the grocery store looking for Borden’s condensed coffee, only to discover that she was actually in search of a coffee concentrate that existed around the time of World War I.
The recipes have proven valuable to Loorya and her team. They feel closer to the Lotts and this project than they do to many others.
“In one of the photos I have, they took a dining room table and put it out on the front lawn. The table was set and everything,” Loorya tells me. “Any one of those items in that cookbook could’ve been on that table.”
It’s this ability to forge intimate connections with the past that brought Loorya to archaeology. Rather than the promise of grandeur or the golden relics of history’s greats, it’s the way a dusty photograph, or a fleeting slice of cake, can animate the past that tethers Loorya to the project.
“It’s kind of my baby.”
Caitlin Welks, an archaeologist who works at Chrysalis with Loorya, has also taken a particular liking to the Lott House. When we talk on the phone, she excitedly points my attention to the ways recipes reveal the passage of time. Presented in chronological order they function as an archive, and by combing through them from back to front you can watch the way technologies, tastes, and trends evolve.
“You go from the turn of the century,” says Welks, “to Wheaties.”
The recipes also work as farm records. In one year, for instance, they harvested over 400 heads of cabbage. There appeared in the cookbook, suddenly, dozens of recipes for canning and preserving cabbage.
“New York City could not become the city we know today, this international capital — which it has been since the 17th century — without the support of the farms in the outer boroughs, growing the food so [those in the city] could focus on business,” Loorya tells me. “The Lotts were one of those families.”
Read the rest of the story at Food52.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: The oldest cake recipe from the oldest house in New York