Snowballs: Intermixing Gentility and Frugality in Nineteenth Century Baking

By Rachel A. Snell

Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg
Carolina Snow Ball, https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. Of course, there is also the Sno Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and pink coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947.[1] The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century, snowballs took a decidedly different form depending on the region where they were produced, revealing the intermixing of gentility and frugality that occurred in rural or peripheral areas.

My research suggests there were several versions of Snowballs circulating within the Anglo-American world during the first half of the nineteenth century. These versions of Snowballs were essentially apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One particularly sumptuous version consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[2] This description of Snowballs comes from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860 that were readily available throughout North America. The comparative extravagance of this recipe is unsurprisingly since Mackenzie’s recipes appear to be aimed at a middle-class or higher audience with many elaborate and costly recipes.

 

Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).
Snow Balls, Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts (p. 182).

The American variation on this dish, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, is a dish consisting of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[3] The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, printed in Toronto in 1840, presents a related, but decidedly unusual version of Snowballs. A.B., the anonymous author of the Manual, undoubtedly had access to Mackenzie’s Snowballs recipe. Five Thousand Receipts was a major source for the Manual, nearly the entire cake section and many of the pudding recipes were adapted or copied from Mackenzie. Unlike the American versions, A.B. omitted the apples entirely. An unusual choice since apples would have been readily available in the Lake Ontario region. This incredibly simple recipe consists of balls of boiled rice, sifted with loaf sugar and served with “wine sauce is best with them, but butter and sugar with them is very good if they are kept warm.”[4] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. It would be a very pretty dish and an economical one as well.

Snowballs FHM 1
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)
Snowballs, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual (p. 9-10)

A.B.’s Snowballs were likely adapted to make the recipe better suited to regional cooking and entertaining habits. Her recipe for Floating Island, a popular nineteenth-century dish of French origin consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard, has likewise been significantly altered to both simplify and economize the recipe. A.B. suggested serving her recipes for Floating Island and Snowballs together, which would produce a dramatic effect, Floating Island “is a very ornamental dish by candle-light, together with a dish of snowballs on the opposite part of the table; in exchange for a snowball you get a bit of floating island.”[5] Allowing the housewife to impress her guests with manageable effort. Thus, the recipe for Snowballs was tempered with frugality from the sumptuous and elaborate dish presented by Mackenzie, to the American variation that substituted cheap and plentiful rice, and finally A.B.’s version, which avoided expensive ingredients and time-consuming labor to produce a dish pleasing to both the eyes and the taste buds.

In this way, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual reveals a transition in regional foodways within the Ontario Lake region. At mid-century, recipe collecting was shifting from the practical and frugal recipes associated with subsistence farming in a frontier region to the recipes associated with status and gentility that signal established agriculture and the beginning of middle-class sensibilities about dining and entertaining. Recipe collections like The Frugal Housewife’s Manual allowed women to balance frugality and gentility in their cooking and entertaining. An example of the hybrid sociability identified by Catherine E. Kelly, A.B. and her community sought to imitate urban, middle-class social mores within the constraints of agricultural work rhythms and rural work-based sociability. For these women, gentility intermixed with frugality was the answer. While A.B. presents recipes that rely on imported luxuries (liquors, wine, citrus fruits, raisins, currants, and spices) and commercial products (saleratus, milled wheat flour, loaf sugar) that together suggest a comfortable family budget, economy is still the underlying theme. A.B. frequently notes recipes that are inexpensive to prepare or provides hints for preparing dishes less expensively, such as substituting or omitting rare and costly ingredients. She likely would have echoed Lydia Child’s advice to housekeepers to “prove, by the exertion of ingenuity and economy, that neatness, good taste, and gentility, are attainable without great expense.”[6]

Note: For those interested in attempting to make Snowballs in their own kitchens, Kevin Carter has an excellent post at Savoring the Past with instructions to make two versions and a discussion of rice’s connection to the American slave system.

[1] And we cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup, often topped with marshmallow cream. More information about this local treat is available here.

[2] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[3] Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, Ms. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215.

[4] A.B. of Grimsby, The Frugal Housewife’s Manual: Containing a Number of Useful Receipts Carefully Selected, and Well Adapted to the Use of Families in General (Toronto, Ont.: J.H. Lawrence, 1840), 10.

[5] A.B., The Frugal Housewife’s Manual, 9.

[6] Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838), 6; Catherine E. Kelly, “‘Well Bred Country People’: Sociability, Social Networks, and the Creation of a Provincial Middle Class, 1820-1860” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 3 (1999), 451-479.


3 thoughts on “Snowballs: Intermixing Gentility and Frugality in Nineteenth Century Baking”

  1. Loved your research and writing on Snowballs.
    I host a an internet radio show/podcast on culinary history and would be interested in interviewing you about your project/dissertation. Email if you are interested and we can discuss further.

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