Back in college, I had a roommate who was a great baker, and one of her specialties was Joe Froggers. I didn’t realize at the time that these wonderfully soft, thick gingerbread-like cookies had a colonial origin, and a good story behind them. They are named for Joseph Brown, or “Black Joe,” a freed slave whose mother was black and whose father was Native American. Black Joe fought in the Revolutionary War and in the 1790s opened a tavern in Marblehead, Massachusetts, north of Boston, where he had lived before the war.
Joe and his wife, Lucretia (known as Aunt Crese) threw rowdy parties at their tavern, with much drinking, gambling, and dancing. According to Marblehead historian Joseph Robinson, “a more uncouth assemblage of ruffians could not be found anywhere.” Joe accompanied the dancing on his fiddle, while Aunt Crese supervised the kitchen. Joe Froggers were her creation, named after her husband and for the big frogs that lived in the pond behind their home. Well, that’s one story. Another is that the cookie batter formed frog-like shapes when it was poured in the skillet. (Other sources say the shape was like a lily pad.)
Made with molasses, flour, spices, butter, rum, and seawater, Joe Froggers became popular throughout town, and barrels of them were taken by Marblehead sailors on sea voyages because they did not go stale easily, perhaps because the rum and sea water acted as preservatives.
There is no record of the original recipe, but Aunt Crese supposedly passed it on to other women in town. The Joe Froggers sold in the region today are probably much like what was served at Black Joe’s Tavern in the early 1800s, except that now they are baked, and seawater has been replaced by a combination of salt and hot water. And unlike the colonial version, which was supposedly the size of a salad plate, the cookie is now usually just a two- or three-inch round, although some bakers cut the dough in rectangular shapes, and many add raisins to the batter. (This is how my old roomie made them.)
Black Joe’s Tavern still stands in Marblehead, but it’s no longer a tavern. One of these days I hope to make a pilgrimage there and try the local bakeries’ Joe Froggers. In the meantime, I enjoyed blogger Katy Elliott’s photos of the house (which dates to 1691), the pond, and the cookies.
It seems a bit unfair that Black Joe is now famous in Marblehead and his wife is not, though she did get mentioned in Anya Seton’s novel The Hearth and Eagle. One writer has suggested that the cookies should have been called Lucretia’s Froggers. And Lucretia Brown does seem to have been an impressive woman. After her husband died, she became known not just for her cookies but also for wedding cakes, and she made perfume as well. Had she been born 200 years later, she might have had an empire to rival Martha Stewart’s.
Adapted from a recipe by Aimee Seavey in Yankee Magazine
3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
⅓ cup hot water
2 tablespoons dark rum
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsulphured dark molasses
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together 3½ cups flour with the salt, baking soda, and spices. In a small bowl, combine the hot water and rum.
2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy (about 3-4 minutes). Add the water-rum mixture and beat well. Stir in one third of the flour mixture, then half the molasses, and blend well.
Repeat with another third of the flour mixture followed by the rest of the molasses, blending well. Finally, add the remaining flour and blend. This is a very wet dough and will be refrigerated to firm up more, but if it seems unworkably wet, add a few tablespoons of flour; if too dry, add a tablespoon or two of water.
3. Divide the dough into two balls, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease two baking sheets. Roll the dough out on a floured board with a floured rolling pin until ½-inch thick. (Alternately, roll between sheets of waxed paper.) Use a floured 2-inch cookie cutter to cut rounds from the dough — or, if you’d like larger, giant-frog-sized cookies, use the top of a coffee can. Place rounds two inches apart on the prepared sheets and bake for 10-12 minutes, until firm but slightly soft in center. Cool on wire racks. Serve with milk or a mug of hot tea!
UPDATE: I recently received a charming gift of authentic Marblehead, Massachusetts, seawater, brought to me by friends of friends who live in Marblehead. (They call themselves “Headers.”) This was intended as a joke, but I really wanted to try making Joe Froggers again using this water, just like people did in the old days. However, it looked awfully murky:
After googling “ocean water safe for cooking?”, I decided to strain it and boil it and make a half-recipe of Froggers. I only needed a quarter cup or so of the water — how dangerous could this be? Well, the cookies tasted a little like sea urchins, and frankly, I was spooked. I ate one, but no one else in my family would touch them. As the friend who brought me the water from the Marbleheaders aptly summed up the situation, “Everything has changed since colonial times…including the water.”