New Year’s Day was a day of religious observance for the Dutch in Albany, as it was with for Puritans who settled in Plymouth. But for the Dutch, the rest of the day was dedicated to celebration and revelry. There was beer.. LOTS of beer; there was cake.. LOTS of cake – eating of cake and giving of cake; there was visiting among friends and family; and discharging of weapons in honor of the New Year. LOTS of big bangs. One legend persists – that the bullet hole in the rooster weathervane that currently sits atop of the First Reformed Church on N. Pearl St. occurred during one of those New Year celebrations. (Yup, that rooster is that old.)
Over a hundred years later New Year’s customs appear to have changed very little. A French Marquis in Albany in the early 1780s describes being awaked throughout the night on New Year’s Eve by the sound of musket fire. He writes “In the morning . . . I met nothing but drunken people in the streets, but what astonished me the most was to see them not only walk, but run upon the ice without falling, or making a false step, whilst it was with the utmost difficulty I kept upon my legs.” Finally, in 1785 NYS laws banned the firing of guns on certain days, including New Year’s. There was hefty fine for violators; this tradition ended.
But the tradition of visiting all and sundry on New Year’s Day continued. In 1790 President George Washington became acquainted with it, when on a New Year’s afternoon in New York City a stream of visitors appeared to visit the Washingtons. (The house in which the President was living was on the corner of Cherry and Pearl – the site is now under the Brooklyn Bridge.) Upon learning that the New Year’s visit was an old Dutch custom, he was said to have remarked. “The highly favored situation of New York will, in the process of the years, attract numerous immigrants who will gradually change its ancient customs and manners; but whatever change takes place they will never forget the cordial cheerful observance of New Year’s Day.”
The tradition of cake continued; special Dutch New Year’s cake flavored with caraway seeds. It was made in large batches to feed the hordes of visitors and give as New Year’s tokens. Sometimes it was in the form of single cake, made in elaborate molds – the centerpiece of the table; other times it was in form of little cakes, the Dutch koekjes (cookies), stamped with all sorts of fanciful designs. A recipe printed in Albany in 1796 for New Year’s Cake calls for:
“..14 pounds of flour, to which add one pint milk, and one court yeast, put these together overnight, and let it lie in the sponge till morning, 5 pound sugar and 4 pound butter, dissolve these together, 6 eggs well beat and caraway seed, put the whole together and when light bake in cakes, similar to aa breakfast biscuit, for 20 minutes.”
Housewives competed to produce the best New Year’s Cake; some recipes called for orange zest or lemon zest or rosewater.
The tradition of visiting continued well into the late 19th century in Albany. Huybertie Pruyn, a member of Albany’s high society who lived on Millionaires Row on Elk St., recalled, “A New Year’s Day in Albany [as elsewhere] was a happy, but very exhausting one for the women, especially the lady of the house.” The best china and heirloom silver were brought out. There was a buffet on a grand scale,available from late morning until 10 pm, to serve between 200-300 male callers. “An extra man was stationed in the hall as doorkeeper, and messenger boys, newsboys with calendars, postmen, policemen and many others rang the bell. Each, man was handed a paper bag with 4 large New Year’s cookies, stamped with flowers, figures, or the State seal, as well as a dime.
For lesser mortals the tradition of Dutch New Year’s Cake continued through the 1800s as well. It was so important, that for years costs for New Year’s Cake appear in expenditure reports for the poor souls housed in NYS run institutions. While many Albany women still baked their own, using special heirloom molds, there are ads for “Genuine Dutch New Year’s Cake” offered by the City’s bakers throughout the 1800s. Tradesmen bought the cakes in bulk to give to their customers.
The tradition of cake continued until the early part of the 20th century. But after World War I the custom dies out (we don’t know why) and the last ad we find is from Drislane’s Market, an upscale food emporium of N. Pearl near Maiden Lane, in the early 1920s.
We need to bring back the tradition of the Dutch New Year’s Cake in Albany; cake is good.