Regrettably, in Newburyport, you can not obtain Joe Froggers anywhere. The closest for purchasing them are in places like Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport or in Marblehead. My first introduction to Joe Froggers was when I was a teenager and they were being sold outside Simply Sweet where they were on display. The store hadn’t made them but were simply selling them on behalf of a local bakery which is now lost to memory. Much later, my wife was able to get the original frogger recipe from the Danvers Public Library and make them. They were simply excellent. Now, with the Internet; they are readily posted and you can make them yourselves. If Newburyport wants to distinguish itself as a unique cultural experience, someone needs to bring back Joe Froggers. It was an integral part of the port activities and a staple on many a clipper and packet ship.
Here below is the history behind the cookie:
Black Joe was the son of a black mother and native Gray Head Indian father. He was born in 1750 in Marblehead, when nearly every family of sufficient wealth owned several slaves. This was true in Newburyport as well as much as 50 slaves were recorded in the City’s survey in 1764.
Black Joe was thirty before the new Massachusetts constitution gave free black men the right to vote and forbade slave owners to treat the children of slaves as property. He must have been gainfully employed for his name does not appear as one of the black “drifters” forced out of Marblehead in 1788, when they were regarded as such a drain on the town’s charitable funds that Town Meeting ordered all former slaves to find work or leave. Joe had been freed earlier when many slaves were conscripted into the army in 1778. Unfortunately, the details of Black Joe’s military service and even the name of his regiment are lost to history. It was said though at that time, that Massachusetts boasted two Negro companies of which many came from Marblehead. He may have been part of Marblehead’s famed Glover Regiment.
After the war, his military service and standing as a free slave gave him the opportunity to purchase property so his wife, Lucretia, 22 years his junior, acquired the northeast end of a house on Gingerbread Hill from a William Peach, a relative of John Peach, Senior, one of Marblehead’s founders. It was called a mansion-house but as you can see from the picture, it was hardly thus. When the co-owner died, his widow Mary sold their portion to the Browns. It was at that time in 1791, they opened a tavern.
As is so often in history, things get a little twisted. The ownership of a tavern made Black Joe master of his own fate and able to devote his later years to heartily fiddling and spinning yarns. On the other hand, his wife was the powerhouse of the inn making delicious rum drinks and concocting hearty foods. But her invention, the Joe Frogger, guaranteed a cottage industry and legendary fame. Oh, not for her but for her singing and dancing husband! Aunt ‘Crese as she was called ended up mostly lost to history. She called the cookie Joe after Black Joe and Frogger after all the frogs that sang outside on the mill pond. She made the cookie out of rum so it would not spoil. Years later; as a celebration of her cookie, the pond was renamed Frogger’s pond. At that time, the cookies were made in the shape of a lily pad in a nod to the frogs.
Soon the famed Marblehead fishermen were taking barrels full because the cookies lasted so long. The ingredients of rum and seawater acted as preservatives. After the death of her husband, Lucretia concentrated on wedding cakes and perfumes and the recipe passed from port to port until it was the staple of every ship to have a barrel of Froggers. I invite you if you happen to visit Marblehead to visit the pond and tavern and sample the cookies.
Here below is the recipe if you want to make them yourself.
JOE FROGGER Cookie
7 cups of flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
1 teaspoon each: clove, fresh nutmeg, allspice
Combine ingredients in 3/4 cup of hot water with 1/4 cup of rum.
Combine 2 teaspoons baking soda with 2 cups of very dark molasses
Cream (mix together thoroughly) 1 cup of shortening and 2 cups of sugar
Add sifted ingredients, the water-rum mix, and the molasses mix to the creamed mixture.
Chill the dough.
Roll out 1/4″ thick on floured board, cut with a 4″ diameter cutter.
Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.
One may vary the rum to water ratio as the mood or season dictates.