For Mending Coppers

A recipe for curd cement.

A little brown book from Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House is full of handwritten recipes for cures. Various entries indicate it is from St. Martin in the 1800s, although we don’t yet know exactly when it is from, or who wrote it. Entries in different handwritings, using both English and French, show that it may have been used for quite a while.

Many of the pages contain recipes for medicines. Between those, the book also has other useful information. There are instructions about how to make essential oil from flowers, and how to test soil. Each page is a reminder of a time when this knowledge was precious. It was a time when people needed a huge variety of skills were needed to survive.

Boiling coppers from sugarcane days are still seen on St. Martin.

One recipe is titled: “For mending coppers or any other broken vessel.” In the Caribbean, a copper or boiling copper is the giant round vat where sugarcane juice is boiled down. They were also heavy and surely very expensive. They were a key part of sugar processing. After the decline of sugarcane, they were often still used to hold water. On Tintamarre they were placed around a well as troughs for livestock to drink from.

Boiling coppers around a well on Tintamarre, reused as animal troughs.

The recipe for mending giant metal cauldrons seems a bit odd at first. It requires boiling half a pint of milk, adding a bit of vinegar to make the milk curdle and then adding a well beaten egg-white. Next, one must sprinkle in a little “very fine boiling lime” and “take care not to let it be too dry when employed to mend anything and it will last very long.”

Though it may seem strange, this basic recipe appears in books as curd cement. It is claimed to be waterproof and long-lasting, but does not seem to be something that would stand up to high heat. Perhaps by the time this recipe was recorded, the coppers were already being reused for things other than boiling cane juice.

It’s hard to say what seems more strange today: a recipe for superglue made mostly from food items, or the idea of mending a vessel at all. But back when this was written, the recipe for a glue was as valuable as the recipe for a medicine. In fact, the very next item in the book is a recipe for “another cement” based on isinglass, a kind of gelatin made from fish swim bladders!

Can you remember a bit of local wisdom passed down from elder generations? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or [email protected].

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