Joe Froggers - Gastro Obscura
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Joe Froggers

The legend of these rum-and-molasses cookies leads to a New England tavern owned by a freed slave.

In early 19th-century New England, molasses was relatively easy to come by. As a byproduct of the slave-powered sugar refining industry, molasses was essential to making rum, a valued trade commodity. And in most seaport towns, molasses-based booze and baked goods went hand in hand. Marblehead, Massachusetts, has been known for its rum-and-molasses cookies, nicknamed Joe Froggers, for centuries. But the exact origin of these treats is a bit of a mystery.

Popular lore connects Joe Froggers to a very real Marblehead tavern, Black Joe’s. The tavern was owned by a Revolutionary War veteran and freed slave, Joe Brown, and his wife, Lucretia. Brown opened the tavern inside the couple’s saltbox home on Gingerbread Hill. Black Joe’s was a rare place where both white and black laborers and sailors could eat and drink. Unfortunately, no menus survive from the tavern, making it impossible to confirm if the Froggers were truly on offer. But local legends cite Lucretia as the cookies’ creator, suggesting that their name is a reference to both her husband and how the wide, flat treats resembled the lily pads that covered the frog pond nearby.

There is a chance, however, that the cookies were not named for the pond at all. Because the gingerbread-like rounds were replete with ingredients that possess a long shelf life (such as spices, rum, lard, and sugar in the form of molasses), they would’ve made for an ideal preservable treat for journeys out at sea. This potential popularity among sailors could have led to the cookies’ association with “Joe Floggers.” A Joe Flogger was a pancake, often filled with preservable goodies such as raisins or prunes, that sailors brought on sea voyages.

Regardless of their role in cookie creation, the Browns are an integral part of Massachusetts history. Whether or not these sweet and spiced cookies were on the menu, the couple provided something even more important in 19th-century New England: a racially integrated community.

Need to Know

While the tavern still stands, it is a private residence. The home displays a sign commemorating "Black Joe's Tavern," and a conservation area and frog pond, also on Gingerbread Hill, are open to the public.

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