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.

First Monday Library Chat: The Bowdoin College Library

Welcome to the January 2016 edition of the First Monday Library Chat. This month The Recipes Project journeys to Brunswick, Maine where the Bowdoin College Library recently acquired a collection of printed American cookery books. Special Collections & Archives Outreach Fellow, Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, kindly provided an overview of the collection along with information about upcoming events highlighting the collection and information about doing research at the library.

A view of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.
A view of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

For our readers who may not be familiar with the Bowdoin College Library, can you provide a brief overview of the library’s holdings and research strengths?

The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery is housed here at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, a department of the Bowdoin College Library. The Library supports the teaching and research of the Bowdoin community, a small liberal arts college in Maine. Our library also has branches that specialize in science, music, and art.

Special Collections & Archives is an active partner in the scholarly pursuits of the College; our rare books, manuscripts, archival records, and related resources such as photographs, sound recordings, and historic newspapers, serve in teaching, learning, research, and personal enrichment.

The department’s holdings are wide-ranging and include substantial collections of unique manuscript resources, over 50,000 rare books, journals, and broadsides, 25,000 photographs, as well as maps, sound recordings, and electronic records. Among the printed works (the earliest dated 1478) are collections of early American, Maine, and British imprints; books by New England writers; material by and about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (both Bowdoin graduates in 1825); finely printed and finely bound books; artists’ books and pop-ups; and works on travel, exploration, and natural history. Some of these books have been in the College’s possession since soon after its founding in 1794.

Manuscript holdings date from as early as the 13th century and are particularly rich for research into the early history of Massachusetts and Maine; antislavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; Arctic studies and exploration; Maine writers; politics and government; and Bowdoin College, its alumni, faculty, and presidents. Complementing these resources are thousands of photographs and audio recordings, hundreds of maps, and a growing array of digital surrogates.

A shelf view of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery at Bowdoin College Library.
A shelf view of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery at Bowdoin College Library.

The Bowdoin Library recently acquired the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery; can you give us a broad overview of the collection’s scope?

The Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery is a comprehensive gathering of printed American cookery books, dating from the eighteenth through early twentieth century and containing more than 700 books. The strength of the collection is from the Colonial era through 1900, though important works through 1960 are integrated. The collection was assembled by Clifford Apgar and is named after Esta Kramer, who made a generous gift to Bowdoin College to enable its acquisition.

As a resource for American food history, the collection represents every type and style of American cookbook to emerge between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, which includes: cookbooks for every social and economic level, regional cuisines, quantity cooking, single subject books, cooking with few ingredients, réchauffage or cooking with leftovers, economic cooking, appliance and gadget cookery, foreign cuisines, professional chef books, banqueting, diet books, market guides, seasonal cooking, product promotion cookbooks, military cooking, vegetarianism, children’s cookbooks, and community cookbooks.

Beyond cooking, the collection illuminates the development of American culture, encompassing social movements and historical events, including women’s suffrage, temperance, the African-American experience, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, technological applications in the household, immigration, and westward expansion. A significant number of community, church, and charitable cookbooks provide insight into local foodways, but also into women’s organizations and, through advertisements, the business communities of small and large towns across America.

Can you give us a few highlights from the collection? Or, can you highlight one or two of your favorite items?

It’s difficult to pick a personal favorite – but lately I’ve been utterly charmed by Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book: Containing Nearly a Thousand Recipes, Many of the New and all of them tried and known to be valuable; such as have been used by the best housekeepers of Kentucky and other states. (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co.,1876) a community cookbook assembled by “The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church” in Paris, Kentucky in 1875.

From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati:Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
This community cookbook, one of many in the collection, includes recipes attributed to over 150 women from the “Blue Grass” region of Kentucky. The preface states, “It was suggested six months ago, after mature consideration of ways and means, that we might not only greatly increase our funds, but also contribute to the convenience and pleasure of housekeepers generally, by publishing a good receipt book” (v-vi).

From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati:Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
From The Ladies of the Presbyterian Church, Paris, Ky., Housekeeping in the Blue Grass; A New and Practical Cook Book, Fifth Thousand, (Cincinnati: Geo. Stevens & Co., 1876), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3964].
I’m drawn to this book because it’s riddled with evidence of use. The book is a great example of a make-do kitchen (vernacular) binding, in this case a hand-stitched blue gingham. Throughout the interior are food stains indicating heavily used (or at least messy) recipes. On the interleaved blanks are manuscript recipes, all in one hand, but in many different inks indicating the growth of this recipe collection over time, further supplemented by printed recipe clippings pasted down and laid in throughout. The advertisements that appear at the back of the book represent businesses both in Kentucky and Ohio, illustrating the geographical interplay between the location of writing and publication.

From [Amelia Simmons, et al]. An American Orphan, American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers,1815), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3787].
From [Amelia Simmons, et al]. An American Orphan, American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers, 1815), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3787].
Other highlights from the collection include an early edition of Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making puff-pastes, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves. And all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to plain cake. Adapted to this country, and all grades of life (Poughkeepsie, NY: Paraclete Potter / P&S Potter, Printers, 1815). First published in 1796, Simmons’ American Cookery is widely considered the first cookbook authored by an American and published in the United States. Though many of the recipes are borrowed from British cookbooks, for example Susannah Carter’s The Frugal House-wife (whose Boston imprint is the earliest in our collection), the use of native produce clues us into the true American-ness of this text. For instance, Simmons’ calls for cornmeal in five recipes and offers instructions for johnnycake, hoecake, and Indian slapjacks which are some of the first printed examples of these early American food staples. Other recipes call for cranberries and turkey, both indigenous to America.

From Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman's Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3935].
From Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869), Bowdoin College Library [Kramer 3935].
Another highlight from the collection is a first edition of Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home: Or, principles of domestic science; being a guide to the formation and maintenance of economical healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes (New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1869). This book has particular resonance for the Bowdoin community since Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine Beecher lived in Brunswick, adjacent to campus, and the College now owns the home they lived in. While Stowe’s husband served as professor of theology at Bowdoin, she penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her sister assisted her with domestic duties and the care of the Stowe’s five children. Additionally the sisters ran a school from the home, which adds an interesting perspective to the principles and instruction enumerated in The American Woman’s Home (written over ten years after the Stowe’s and Beecher left Brunswick).

The collection is full of wonderful and rare cookery books, these are just three examples. There are further highlights listed on our website.

 Bowdoin has an upcoming exhibition featuring the new collection; can you provide our readers with more information and, perhaps, a sneak peak?

“What to Eat, and How to Cook It: A Celebration of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery” exhibition will open on January 25, 2016 on the second floor of the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library and will be on view through June 5.

To open the exhibition antiquarian bookseller and epicure Don Lindgren will explore what the physical attributes of cookbooks can tell us about our social, cultural, and environmental past in a talk entitled “The Anatomy of the Cookbook” on Wednesday, January 27th at 4:30pm. This talk is open to the public and will also be livestreamed. A reception immediately follows at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library where Bowdoin Dining Services will be serving hors d’oeuvres based on recipes from the collection.

As the first formal introduction of the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery the exhibition will offer a tantalizing glimpse into the collection while celebrating its acquisition. We will feature cookery books spanning two hundred years and which will be presented along with archival material about the history of food and dining at Bowdoin. For many years, Bowdoin has been at (or near) the top of the “Best Food” Princeton Review college rankings and we’re excited to showcase what the College has been eating historically, and how it was cooked!

Through illustrations, narratives, and recipes, the exhibition explores how Americans have thought about, prepared, and consumed food from the Colonial period to today.

“What to Eat, and How to Cook It” will explore new ways of experiencing cookbooks, looking at what they can tell us about advances in technology, social movements, historical events, issues of race and gender, and place/regionalism.

What tips can you offer to help users find recipes via your catalogue or finding aids?

The collection has yet to be formally processed – but we do have an inventory of the collection available online and further bibliographic content available by request.

We are also happy to offer reference services to connect specific research inquiries to relevant materials in our collections, either in person or by correspondence.

For those who are able to travel to Brunswick, Maine, we welcome all to our reading room that is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday-Friday, major holidays excepted. Maine has an especially rich food culture, from the incredible coastal resources to a thriving agricultural economy (both historically and now), and we are thrilled to add a new dimension to that culture through public access to the Esta Kramer Collection of American Cookery.

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.

New-Fashioned Recipe: Angel Food Cake and Nineteenth-Century Technological Innovation

By Rachel A. Snell

"The Best Angel Food Cake" from America's Test Kitchen. The ingredients and method for producing this cake from scratch are little changed from the nineteenth century original.
“The Best Angel Food Cake” from America’s Test Kitchen. The ingredients and method for producing this cake from scratch are little changed from the nineteenth century original.

When I was growing up, my mother would bake Angel Food Cake as a special summertime dessert. I remember the anticipation of seeing the freshly baked cake in its distinctive pan, precariously balanced upside down on an old bottle on the kitchen counter. Served with fresh raspberries and my great-grandmother’s lemon pudding frosting, there was something delightfully old-fashioned and elegant about Angel Food Cake. But in the late-nineteenth century, Angel Food Cake represented the latest in culinary innovation.

My previous two posts for the Recipes Project examined how changing technology and ingredients influenced women’s recipe collecting. Those transformations fostered the development of new recipes, like Angel Food Cake.

Angel Food Cake or Angel Cake is a sponge cake developed in the United States, likely in the 1860s and 1870s. The recipe first appeared in print in the 1880s and was included in both Lincoln and Farmer’s editions of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Angel Food Cake was an elegant means of using up surplus egg whites.Beaten egg whites gave the cake “a texture so airy that the confection supposedly has the sublimity of angels.”[1] With its name, Angel Food Cake joined a long tradition of bestowing celestial or religious names on baked goods and sweetmeats. Angel Food Cake remained a classic and popular dessert throughout the twentieth century–Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, served it at the White House–but its popularity was truly cemented by the introduction of a reliable prepackaged baking mix in the 1940s.

“Angel Cake” The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), 418.
“Angel Cake” The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), 418.

The introduction of Angel Food Cake and its opposite, Devil’s Food Cake, followed earlier trends of highlighting the contrasting appearance of cakes for dramatic effect on the dessert table. At mid-century, Lady Cake (a delicate white cake made with egg whites and flavored with bitter almonds or peach kernels) and Gold Cake (a deep yellow cake made with egg yolks and flavored with citrus) were popular pairings for dessert tables where the contrast in their coloring was on display. Caroline B. King in her cake-based memoirs remembered her sister’s Angel Food Cake as “snowy white and airy” and her sister’s explanation that her new recipe for Devil’s Food Cake would look “lovely in a cake basket with Angel Cake; first a slice of the chocolate, then one of the white.”[2]

This advertisement for household items from The Boston Cooking School Cookbook hints at the remarkable variety of mass produced goods available in the late nineteenth century.
This advertisement for household items from The Boston Cooking School Cookbook hints at the remarkable variety of mass produced goods available in the late nineteenth century.

These new-fashioned recipes also revealed the technological advancements of the last century. While Angel Food Cake relied mainly on whipped egg whites as a leavening agent, like early sponge cakes, this cake owed its existence to technological advancements of the nineteenth century.

Women eagerly embraced laborsaving devices in the kitchen, the popularity of the eggbeater is no surprise considering that early nineteenth century cake recipes require hours of beating. Many would have agreed with Marion Harland’s assertion in Common Sense in the Household (1872) that “a good egg-beater [was] a treasure.”[3] For Angel Food Cake, eggbeaters eased the labor of whipping egg whites to stiff peaks and the addition of cream of tartar stabilized the whipped whites and prevented darkening.

The cake’s airy texture is achieved not only through the whipped egg whites, but also through the availability of commercially ground flour. The softer, refined wheat flour available at the end of the nineteenth century contributed to the cake’s light texture and cloudlike appearance; flour manufacturing techniques could produce a lighter colored flour. The cake’s white appearance was also dependent upon the availability of pure white granulated sugar, which was available thanks to advancements in the refining process and saved women the labor of grinding loaf sugar.

Angel Food Cake Pan (Wikipedia)
Angel Food Cake Pan (Wikipedia)

The mass production of cooking implements after the Civil War provided the Angel Food Cake Pan, necessary for producing such a tall cake. The batter could slowly climb up the cake pan during the cooking process. It’s no coincidence that recipes for Angel Food Cake became popular once the pan necessary for its shape and texture was being mass produced.

And so by the end of the nineteenth century, the combined forces of technological innovation and improved ingredients resulted in a remarkable variety of cakes that were easier to produce at home, including Angel Food Cake. While the ease of prepackaged cake mixes was still several decades away, cake baking remained a difficult and time-consuming task–but significantly less so than even twenty-five years previously.

The increased accessibility of cake baking, both in terms of affordability and labor, resulted in the creation of elaborate new recipes. During this period, baker ingenuity resulted in an explosion of new confections such as White Mountain Cake, Devil’s Food,  Moonshine Cake, Chocolate Marshmallow Cake, Boston Cream Pie, Mocha Cake, and, of course, Angel Food Cake. Thus, women not only collected cake recipes for the practical reason that technology and ingredients had changed, but also because they were so many new and exciting options for cake baking.

 

[1] John F. Mariani, Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 35.

[2] Caroline B. King, Victorian Cakes: A Reminiscence with Recipes (Berkeley, CA: Aris Books, 1986), 34.

[3] Marion Harland, Common Sense in the Household (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1873), 20.

Having Their Cake: Ingredients and Recipe Collecting in the Nineteenth Century

By Rachel A. Snell

Between 1835 and 1870, Sarah L. Weld of Cambridge, Massachusetts collected twenty-three recipes for gingerbread. This repetition of recipes, particularly recipes for baked goods, was not uncommon in nineteenth-century recipe collections. In fact, it was the norm. In my last post, I offered three explanations for the prevalence of cake recipes in the manuscript cookbooks I study: evolving technology, new ingredients, and shifting social expectations that are indicative of changes in women’s work and roles over the course of the nineteenth century. The repetition of recipes for popular types of cake, like gingerbread, illuminates my third point: that changes in the availability and quality of ingredients influenced women’s recipe collecting. Sarah Weld’s collection of gingerbread recipes reveals how the availability of flour, sugar, and chemical leaveners transformed baking during her lifetime.[1]

Wheat flour, the basic ingredient for most baked items, was seldom used in early America. The prevalence of mildew rust on wheat crops lead early settlers to abandon growing wheat in favor of local and hardier grains and most daily baking relied on proprietary blends of rye flour, Indian (corn) meal, and small amounts of wheat flour. Most cooks saved costly wheat flour for fine cakes and pastry made for special occasions. In the mid-nineteenth century improved milling techniques, a growing transportation infrastructure, and the development of fertile agricultural land in the Canadian and American west along with the adoption of the hardier Turkey red wheat made wheat flour more available and accessible. Rather than growing their own wheat, consumers could purchase refined wheat flour by the barrel. Consequently, American wheat consumption soared.

Sugar, like flour, was an expensive commodity that became more accessible during the nineteenth century. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, recipes relied on less expensive byproducts of sugar production like molasses and brown sugar to sweeten baked goods. The invention of a vacuum system of evaporation and the centrifuge made the production of refined white sugar more efficient and, consequently, lowered the price. As refined white sugar became more accessible, it was praised by domestic advisors like Sarah J. Hale as sweeter and of a finer texture than brown sugar and, therefore, best used in baking. By 1871, loaf sugar was replaced by granulated sugar preserving women from the labor of grinding their own sugar.

Engraving: American Baking Powder, c. 1855. McCord Museum. http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M930.50.7.36
Engraving: American Baking Powder, c. 1855. McCord Museum. http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M930.50.7.36

Chemical leaveners brought about the most visible transformation in American baked goods. These additives allowed women to make cakes more easily (less strenuous beating of ingredients) and more inexpensively by using smaller quantities of eggs and butter. Most significantly, chemical leaveners brought cakes to new heights and transformed their texture from dense, sweet breads to light and airy ones. The first of these, pearlash, stemmed from the Native American technique of combining potash, produced by leaching wood ashes, with the meal. This process, called nixtamalization, created an alkaline solution that released amino acids and niacin in the grain making the resulting product more nutritious. Further, since corn will not react with yeast, the potash provided a small amount of leavening. Innovative American cooks developed a concentrated form of potash called pearlash that when combined with an acidic substance like sour milk, citrus, or molasses would create a quick and reliable leavening agent.

Beginning in the 1840s, pearlash would be slowly supplanted by chemical leaveners that improved the leavening properties of pearlash: saleratus, cream of tartar, and baking powder. Saleratus or baking soda sped up the chemical reaction that produced carbon dioxide in baked goods and yielded more consistent results. Cream of tartar helped activate the baking soda and neutralize the unpleasant alkaline aftertaste left by the soda. In the 1850s, the process of baking was further streamlined by the introduction of baking powder, which combined baking soda and cream of tartar into one product.

"Lafayette Gingerbread" from Eliza Leslie, Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828).
“Lafayette Gingerbread” Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828).
"New York Gingerbread" The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1912)
“New York Gingerbread” The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1912)

Together, changing technology and ingredients revolutionized cooking during the nineteenth century. The yeast-raised cakes of the past never entirely vanished from American cookbooks (Election Cake remained a perennial favorite), but chemically leavened butter and sponge cakes largely supplanted their popularity. Recipes for gingerbread from Eliza Leslie’s classic Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828) and The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer reflect these changes in the process of baking. Technology that made baking easier along with improved ingredients transformed the appearance of baked goods, particularly cakes. As refined sugar and wheat flour became more affordable and chemical leaveners became more reliable, dessert became increasingly more elaborate. In the 1870s and 1880s, layer cakes dominated American baking filled first with jelly and later with caramel, chocolate, fruit, or nut fillings. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the variety of cakes increased exponentially with confections named White Mountain Cake, Devil’s Food, Angel Cake, Moonshine Cake, Chocolate Marshmallow Cake, Boston Cream Pie, and Mocha Cake. Thus, women not only collected cake recipes for the practical reason that technology and ingredients had changed, but also because they were so many new and exciting options for cake baking.

 

Further reading:

Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbit Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).

Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Alice L. McLean, Cooking in America, 1840-1945 Daily Life through History, Edited by Ken Alba. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005).

Susan Williams, Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).

 


[1] Sarah L. Weld, Cookbook, 1835-1870. Schlesinger Library. 010117969.