All posts by Rachel A. Snell

Rachel Snell is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Maine. Her dissertation project focuses on discourses of domesticity through a comparative Atlantic perspective on the cultural construction of domesticity in Anglo-American print culture to better understand the everyday lives of middle-class, white women in the United States and British North America. The principal sources for this project, printed cookbooks authored by women for a female audience and manuscript cookbooks created by individual women for their personal use, reflect women’s agency in the definition of their roles. Rachel is also the editor of the University of Maine History Graduate Student Blog, khronikos.com.

A Sampling of Food-Related Panels at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

By Rachel A. Snell

Held at Hoftra University June 1-4, the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities contained a number of panels of interest to food studies scholars. As those who study food are well-acquainted, food and food writing offer a richly rewarding lens for studying the past. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the conference theme, “Difficult Conversations: Thinking and Talking About Women, Genders, and Sexualities Inside and Outside the Academy,” generated several papers and on entire panel devoted to exploring the connections between food and gender.

“Native New Yorker,” Pura Cruz 2006.

My own research interests naturally gravitated me toward a handful of food-related panels at this year’s Big Berks, but this is by no means an exhaustive review. The full conference program can be accessed here.

On Thursday afternoon, two papers exploring home economics lead me to a panel titled, “Bloomers, Domestic Violence, and Home Economics: Print Sources and the Politics of Gender” and chaired by Carol Ruth Berkin. While all four papers were excellent, food scholars, particularly those interested in the home economics movement, will want to note the following two papers:

Food, Empowerment, and Iowa: Exploring Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook

Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884).

Jaycie Vos, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill/Special Collections Coordinator and University Archivist, University of Northern Iowa @jaycie_v

Jaycie Vos’s paper provided a close-reading of Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook (Des Moines: 1884). Written by the head of the Domestic Economy Department at Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University), Mary B. Welch, the cookbook was a compilation of recipes used for instruction in the department. Vos argues the cookbook and Welch’s career presented food preparation as a source of empowerment for women.

The Porosity of Public and Private in Ellen Richards’s Home Economics

Serenity Sutherland, University of Rochester @serenitys37

In her examination of the career of Ellen Richards, the pioneering founder of the Home Economics movement and the first female student and instructor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sutherland contrasted the development of scientific housekeeping with earlier moral domesticity. Her concentration on Richards allowed Sutherland to explore ideas of individuality and the overlap of public and private in the Home Economics movement.

Friday morning’s “Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy” organized by the Recipe Project’s own Amanda Herbert not only explored food as an engagement tool in the study of the past, it was also the opening event for a virtual conference exploring the question, “What is a recipe?” A video of the panel is available on the Recipe Project’s Facebook page, therefore, I will provide brief notes on each speaker.

Public and Professional Dimensions of Creative Food History Programs

Amanda B. Moniz, Smithsonian Institution @AmandaMoniz1 

Moniz discussed her development of historical cooking classes and the accessibility of food history.

Cooking Class: Women, Domestic Science, and Higher Education since the Progressive Era

Tandra Taylor, St. Louis University

Through a focus on Progressive-era domestic science education opportunities for African-American women, Taylor argued that cooking class was actually cooking class (i.e.: status).

A Recipe for Teaching (and Learning) Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

Zara Anishanslin, University of Delaware @ZaraAnishanslin

Anishanslin shared her techniques for bringing food into the classroom, describing this effort as a more uplifting aspect of Atlantic history (creation rather than destruction). Those who teach the early American history survey or Atlantic history courses will be interested in her assignment to select and study a recipe that would not exist without the Columbian Exchange.

Food for the People: How Food History is Changing the Conversation at the National Museum of American History

Paula Johnson, National Museum of American History

Julia Child’s kitchen on display at the Museum of American History – http://americanhistory.si.edu/food/julia-childs-kitchen

Johnson discussed food-related initiatives at the National Museum of American History including exhibits and live cooking demonstrations that combine food and history. Mark your calendars for this year’s Smithsonian Food History Weekend, October 26-28.

Cooking on the Internet: Historical Recipes and Public Scholarships

Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University – Abington College @Nicosia_Marissa 

Nicosia’s joint-project with Alyssa Connell transcribes, contextualizes, and updates early modern recipes for modern kitchens while sharing them on a blog titled, Cooking in the Archives. Nicosia discussed the insights that stemmed from this work and the importance of actually preparing recipes as part of the research process.

My review of food history at the Big Berks concludes with a panel exploring the politics of women’s businesses that included four fascinating and innovative presentations, but it was Maria McGrath’s history of Bloodroot Restaurant that connects with the subject of this post.

Living Feminist: The Liberation and Limits of Separatist Business and Radical Lesbian Ethics at the Bloodroot Restaurant

Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College

Dining Space, Bloodroot Restaurant – www.bloodroot.com

In this paper, McGrath examined the founding of Bloodroot Restaurant in Bridgeport, CT, a feminist and collective restaurant and bookstore, in 1977. She explored the role of food in the pursuit of feminist and counter-cultural ideologies.

As a first-time Big Berks attendee, I was blown away by the quality and variety of presentations and the uniquely supportive atmosphere. I’m looking forward to more food history at the 2020 meeting!

Note: In the interest of self-promotion, I would be remiss to not mention I also presented, during the Digital Humanities Spotlight, on mapping cookbooks to reveal women’s networks. An early version of that work is available here.

Recipes as Sources for Women’s Lives: Student Reflections on Food, Feminism, and Femininity

By Rachel A. Snell

In the summer of 2016, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine approached me with the opportunity to teach a course exploring women and food. I eagerly accepted, since opportunities to teach connected to your research don’t come around every day. My dream course, titled, “Food, Femininity, and Feminism in American Culture from Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart,” considered the ways in which the production and consumption of food fundamentally shaped concepts of femininity and feminism in American culture from the period of the American Revolution to the present.

Since the course was listed as both a History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, these majors were well-represented among the students taking the course. However, the topic of food attracted a number of social scientists, education majors, and even a Biology major who all confided they otherwise would not have considered signing up for a history or a women’s studies course.

An intriguing 1925 Maine publication that was the starting point for several student projects.

Throughout the course, students were asked to develop the skills to read a recipe not just as a set of instructions for a culinary process but as sources for women’s lives. Although they initially approached the assignments with some skepticism, in their end-of-semester reflections many divulged that “before this class, I had never looked at recipe further than how it would get me to a completely finished baked product;” through in-class exercises and weekly recipe analysis presentations students came to appreciate recipes as “stories and little snapshots of a woman’s life” and “a reflection of the time in which [they were] written.”

Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf, Maine food expert, author, and home economist.

Over the course of the semester, students developed independent research projects that used recipes to explore major course themes. The research project was purposefully open-ended, to allow students to draw on their personal and academic backgrounds to demonstrate the breadth of recipes as sources for historical research. The one limiting factor placed on students’ projects was a requirement to make substantive use of materials from the Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf Papers, a collection of recipes, newspaper columns, cookbooks, and personal correspondence collected by Maine culinary authority, Brownie Schrumpf. The final products demonstrated the students’ research creativity, as they used recipes to exploring topics ranging from:

  • An analysis of chocolate chip cookie recipes from six different time periods to explore changing ingredients and tastes.
  • Combining The State of Maine Cookbook produced by the Democratic Women of Maine in 1925 with genealogical and archival research to create a personal and culinary portrait of selected participants.
  • Analyzing 1940s cookbooks to better understand housework and cookery as patriotic service.
  • A nutritional analysis of several mid-twentieth century recipes compared to similar recipes published on social media within the past year to contextualize the Center for Disease Control’s data on rising obesity rates in Maine.
  • A historical survey of labor-saving devices in the kitchen, focusing on the development of refrigeration from ice boxes to modern appliances and the transformation of American diets and culture as a result.
  • A geographic analysis of community cookbooks published throughout Maine to explore the regional variance in the identification of “Maine” food (lobster, potatoes, blueberries, etc.).
Collage of cookbook covers from the Schrumf Collection.

In course reflections, students addressed how their perception of a recipe had changed through course instruction and their research process. When asked to define a recipe, students described their shifting attitudes toward recipes and the discovery of recipes as historical sources:

“What I have learned is that a recipe can provide an image of the identity of women during a certain time period. We often do not get to hear about the perspective of women in history, so cookbooks help fill in the gaps of what it meant to be a woman during certain eras.” (Mara Hintz, Secondary Education)

“From the earliest cookbooks we looked at to the more modern ones, it was evident to me that recipes are often more than just directions for how to prepare food. In fact, recipes seem to tell their own story. They hint at relationships, economic status, available resources, and the roles of domestic women and how those roles changed over the years.” (Naomi Holzhauer, Biology)

“What I also learned from this class is how the power of a recipe can empower a movement in spreading a message, raising funds for the cause, or show a way of life that doesn’t have to be solely about homemaking . . . It is more than just a way to share good meal ideas. A recipe is a way to share culture, promote independence, and when used in the right way, used to further the conversation and culture shift regarding women’s roles in society.” (Sarah Nichols, Secondary Education)

“The dictionary’s definition of a recipe is as follows: ‘a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of ingredients required.’ I find that what this definition fails to capture the essence of recipes. It fails to acknowledge that recipes are so much more than just mere instructions and ingredients. Collectively, recipes give us insight into different parts of history. How people lived, what they had available, what their homes and families were like, how society functioned, among many more things. Recipes often times have deeper meanings and connections within our lives than we realize. History is certainly reflected in the cookbooks, diaries, and other examples of culinary literature. By studying recipe books throughout time, we are able to better understand how we came to be where we are with food today.” (Sarah Noble, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

“I’ve learned that a recipe is more than just a list of ingredients with instructions on how to make it. A recipe has history, family connections to people. A recipe could be a reminder of the first time you’ve made it with someone you love; a recipe that has been passed down through the female generations with all the written side notes of modifications.” (Sierra Crosby, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

Finally, history major Abby Belisle Haley, provided the perfect postscript for the course as an in-depth exploration of transformations in American women’s lives through the lens of food:

“In terms of ‘recipes’ I think this course in itself was a recipe because it provided new and interesting ingredients for the student to combine together to produce a wholly new product that is different from another dry, overcooked research paper.”

More information about the course can be found here, including syllabi and sample student projects.

Transcending Seasonality: Preserving in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Recipes

By Rachel A. Snell

By the mid-twentieth century, the combined forces of science, technology, and industrialization freed the American consumer from the dictates of seasonally available ingredients. The tomatoes, peas, asparagus, spinach, and other vegetable delicacies once proudly featured in spring and summer menus in nineteenth-century cookbooks could be obtained virtually year-round. However, the desire to conquer the limits of seasonality existed long before the origins of the modern, industrial food system. The Fiske Family Cookbook, a manuscript recipe collection likely compiled by Joanna Ober Edwards Fiske and her daughter Joanna A. Foster of Beverly, Massachusetts, over the bulk of the nineteenth century, contains a rich and detailed record of the struggle with seasonality.[1] Instructions to keep meat fresh without ice, prepare cucumber pickles, dry apples, and create other preserves hint at the challenges of food preservation in an era before reliable refrigeration.

Table Diagram from Fiske Family Cookbook, ca. 1810-1890, Winterthur Museum and Library. The appearance of two detailed table diagrams in the cookbook hints the Fiske women had other concerns or aspirations.

Mid-nineteenth-century recipes like those collected by the Fiske women suggest the considerable effort women exerted to transcend seasonality in an era before reliable canning, refrigeration, and other methods of food preservation. Preserving, the process of preventing spoiling and extending the shelf life of foods using various techniques, was a fundamental development in human history. Preservation techniques like drying, salting, pickling in vinegar, smoking, fermenting, and many others evolved and were perfected over thousands of years. While the techniques to preserve food remained nearly constant, technological innovations during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries expanded the lifespan of preserved foods. Until the invention of home canning equipment, beginning with the patenting of the screw-on zinc lid in 1858, home preserving was limited by unreliable methods to seal preserved food from bacteria. Storage was especially fraught, since for all preserved foods “the more often they are exposed to the air by opening, the more damage there is of spoiling.”[2] Prior to 1858, sealing methods were imperfect with domestic advisors recommending queensware pots or glass jars or tumblers covered with tissue paper, writing paper dipped in brandy, or oiled paper. With these imperfect methods, the housewife had to be constantly vigilant for signs of decay amongst the family’s food stores. Lydia Maria Child advised her readers to regularly, “examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mould [sic]; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.”[3]

Assortment of mason jars and lids.

Before the invention of Styrofoam trays filled with cuts of meat in refrigerated cases, preserving the meat was a considerable task requiring time and skill. In November 1852, Susan Pettibone recorded in her diary the multi-day task of butchering, processing, and preserving the families’ livestock. On November 17, Pettibone records killing a 330lb pig. On the nineteenth, she and her sister Julia “worked at the sausage meat,” but were waiting for colder weather to tackle the larger cuts. The next day, Pettibone records Julia spent the day “making brine” to complete the labor necessary to preserve the pig slaughtered four days before. Similarly, in December the sisters require several days to prepare “our beef” for brining. Pettibone does not record the brine favored in her household, but Sarah J. Hale’s The New House-Hold Receipt Book included a versatile recipe “for hams, tongues, or beef,” claimed to “keep for years” composed of spring water, coarse sugar, common salt, saltpeter, and various spices.[4] After brining for a set period, dependent on both the size and type of meat, Hale provides minute instructions for drying and smoking the cuts of meat. The following January, Pettibone records, “Mr. Pettibone brought home our hams from Mr. Shepards they are beautifully smoked,” suggesting the Pettibone family did not smoke their own meats but arranged for a neighbor to complete the preservation process. Perhaps as Hale recommends, the Pettibones’s reused their brine, adding “two pounds of common salt and two pints of water every time you boil the liquor.” Various versions of this brine circulate in both printed and manuscript recipe collections, such as “cure for beef or pork” found in Mary J. Hall’s contemporary recipe book.

To Cure Beef of Pork, Mary J. Hall, Receipt book, ca. 1851-1927, Winterthur Museum and Library.

If brining and smoking meat was the work of the cooler months, the summer months were equally filled with feverish preserving. In 1853, Susan Pettibone began making cheese on July 4th. Just over a month later on August 6, she noted, “I have made my eighth cheese which closes my dairying for this season.” Although Pettibone obscures the prodigious labor behind cheese making in her terse records, “I have made my sixth cheese today,” Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery provides a sense of the process. Cheese making required diligent cleanliness and patience. Although Leslie includes precisely heated milk and purchased rennet (she also provides instructions for preparing your own rennet), her notation, “the best time for making cheese is when the pasture is in perfection,” recalls an intuitive and experiential version of women’s domestic knowledge that was waning by the mid-nineteenth century as technology increasingly conquered seasonality and preserving took on new meaning.[5] Recipes and diaries from this era suggest both the practical purpose of preserving (extending the usable lifespan of seasonal produce) as well as the genteel desire to produce confections that evidenced classes and status. Ingenious methods for preserving eggs, instructions to salt large quantities of beef, and the trading of recipes for curing hams evidence the importance of women’s seasonal labor to preserve food well into the nineteenth century.

[1] Fiske Family, Cookbook [ca. 1810- ca. 1890], The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE ; 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, Beverley, Essex, Massachusetts, (Ancestry.com [database on-line]. Provo, UT), accessed March 1, 2016.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1851), 231.

[3] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel & William Wood, 1841), 8.

[4] Sarah J. Hale, The New Household Receipt-Book (London: T. Nelson and Son’s, 1854), 518.

[5] Leslie, Directions for Cookery, 384.

Research from the Kitchen: Emma Schreiber’s “Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish”

By Rachel A. Snell

Author's creation of Emma Schreiber's "Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish" served with custard.
Author’s creation of Emma Schreiber’s “Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish” served with custard.

“Boil 12 good juicy apples or more if not of a large size in a pint of spring water,” Emma Schreiber’s Apple Jelly for a Corner Dish, a recipe for a molded apple jelly served with custard, begins with a curious mix of specificity and ambiguity. This recipe, from a manuscript recipe collection compiled in the Toronto area during the mid-nineteenth century is, seemingly, among the most complex in the collection, requiring a great amount of instruction and filling most of the page. The dish’s name references the growing significance of gentility in previously rural and isolate areas. Labeling it as a “corner dish” signals its placement on the table, balanced by a similar dish at the opposite corner. In the 1830s and 1840s, instructions for creating a pleasing tableau for a dinner or tea table became commonplace in domestic guides, such as the diagram below. The types of dishes and their placement on the table indicated the gentility and status of the hostess.

Bill of Fare: Dinner of 16 Persons, Book of Household Management (1861)
Bill of Fare: Dinner of 16 Persons, Book of Household Management (1861)

Schreiber’s recipe collections and related sources demonstrate the translation of the genteel lifestyle to a rural, agriculture-based transnational region focused on Lake Ontario. Much like the adapted recipe for Snowballs in the Frugal Housewife’s Manual, Schreiber’s recipe demonstrates shift in the types of recipes women collected and the focus of their domestic labor. This change is reflected in the growing emphasis on “fashionable dishes” that ornamented the tea or dinner table and had far reaching consequences for women’s household labor. Among these “fashionable dishes” were recipes like the apple jelly featured on the first page of Emma Schreiber’s recipe book.

Early in my research process, I frequently experimented with the recipes I found in archival sources. However, writing deadlines, teaching responsibilities, and life changes left little time for culinary experimentation. Although Schreiber’s recipe for apply jelly figures prominently in a chapter of my dissertation, I had never attempted to produce the recipe. Fortunately, contact with other researchers reminded me of the value of kitchen-oriented research. In Cooking in the Archives, Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia translate early modern recipes for twenty-first century cooks. They argue, “these historical recipes belong in the modern kitchen – that they can and should be read and enacted as instructions, as well as studied as archival texts from a specific historical period. After all, what are recipes if not primarily instructions for cooking?”[1] Inspired by Nicosia’s talk at the Manuscript Cookbook Conference at NYU, after three years of working with Schreiber’s recipe book, I determined to bring my work back into the kitchen. It proved to be transformative.

Recipes for Ratifia Cakes, Damson or Green Gage Jelly, and Apply Jelly for a Corner Dish, “Recipe book of Emma Blomfield Schreiber, 1856-7,” Una Abrahamson Collection, Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.]
Recipes for Ratifia Cakes, Damson or Green Gage Jelly, and Apply Jelly for a Corner Dish, “Recipe book of Emma Blomfield Schreiber, 1856-7,” Una Abrahamson Collection, Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.]

Reading a recipe and following a recipe are, of course, two completely different acts. At my desk, I read recipes to uncover insights into women’s daily lives. I compared recipes from different sources, mapped women’s recipe sources, and tabulated the types of recipes in a collection. In the kitchen, I confronted new questions. What exactly constituted a juicy apple? How could one determine if an apple was sufficiently large? Should the dozen apples be peeled? Cored? Cut into small pieces? While I consulted more detailed recipes for apple jelly, I frequently had to rely on my best judgement.

First attempt at Schreiber's Apple Jelly.
First attempt at Schreiber’s Apple Jelly.

The results of my first kitchen foray was a very sturdy, apple-cider colored jelly with a subtle apple flavoring. A second attempt with peeled, cored, and sliced the apples produced a more translucent jelly, but far from the translucency described by one cookbook author, “it should be so transparent as to let you see all the flowers of your china dish through it, and quite white.”[2] Even my unskilled efforts revealed the attractive display of the molded apple jelly alongside a creamy custard, the custard serving to offset the translucence and shape of the jelly. The flavor was much nicer than I anticipated and the pairing of the jelly with the vanilla custard was really quite lovely, even elegant. Like any proud chef, I sought an audience for my creation. The students in my third-year Honors tutorial were the lucky taste-testers.  The students overwhelmingly liked it or were very polite. One declared it “the best mid-nineteenth century jelly I’ve ever had!”

Second attempt at Schreiber's Apple Jelly.
Second attempt at Schreiber’s Apple Jelly.

Producing the jelly not only provided me with a new way to connect my students with my research, it also revealed new insights. Prior to my jelly-making efforts, I assumed molded jelly recipes like Schreiber’s were time-consuming and required great skill. In fact, I poured my first jelly into a plastic container rather than a mold because I firmly believed it was a flop. But I was amazed by how easy the jelly was the prepare. I could easily imagine allowing the apple to simmer and the juice, thickener, and sugar to boil while preparing other dishes and pouring the resulting liquid into a mold to sit in a cool place until the next day’s dinner or tea. Schreiber’s recipe made molded jelly, a symbol of gentrified refinement, approachable for women who did their own cooking.

[1] http://www.archivejournal.net/issue/4/notes-queries/cooking-in-the-archives-bringing-early-modern-manuscript-recipes-into-a-twenty-first-century-kitchen/

[2] The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, and New Dinner-Table Directory (London: Published for Henry Colburn, 1844), 221.