Tales from the Archives: SNOWBALLS: INTERMIXING GENTILITY AND FRUGALITY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY BAKING

I recently spotted these “schneeballen”  at the bakery counter of my local supermarket. From Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, these delicious cookies are actually made from strips of shortcrust pastry, draped over a wooden stick or spoon to shape into a ball. They are then covered in powdered sugar. The chocolate version on the right has sprinkled almonds on top. They’re quite large – the size of a tennis ball – and made for a great after school snack for the kid. Seeing these Schneeballen reminded me of Rachel Snell’s excellent post from 2015 on the American dessert “snowballs”. Enjoy!

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.

HEAT! A Recipes Project Thematic Series

Astronomy- the Earth and the sun during summer in the Northern hemisphere. Wellcome Collection.

As humans, we want to control heat. We want to create heat, temper or even extinguish it, depending on context and purpose. We have a very limited temperature range at which we are comfortable (some microbes and bacteria can survive temperatures as low as -20C and as high as 130C), so we spend an incredible amount of time managing heat, whether it is our body temperature or that of our homes, offices, laboratories, cars, or food.

When we started planning this series of blog posts in early May, we could not have suspected how appropriate the theme would feel by now. While much of northwestern Europe has not seen rain in weeks and is sighing under a heatwave with temperatures rising to 37C/98F, we have fled to airconditioned spaces to edit the posts. Climate-wise, heat is seasonal in these regions, but it has always played an important role in recipes year-round, all around the world, from antiquity to the present day, in fields as diverse as alchemy, chemistry, art, cooking, medicine, and personal grooming.

The common denominators of heat in all these realms are that it is either internal – emanating from the human body – or external, naturally occurring from the sun, thunder, or lava, or man-made through friction or fire. In the posts in this series, we will see a wide variety of attempts to control these different kinds of heat through recipes and instructions.

Managing natural heat: Venice turpentine is a thick paste (aka sticky mess) at room temperature, but becomes fluid around 25C, and nicely mixes into the rest of the varnish ingredients when left out in the sun. Photo: Marieke Hendriksen

Some of our authors recreate such attempts by reconstructing experiments outlined in historical art technical and chemical sources. Indra Kneepkens recounts how she discovered through reconstruction research that sometimes for a recipe to make sense, it should not only be followed to the letter, but also be read between the lines. Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen use their experiments with two reconstructions of small chemical ovens to reflect on the role of experimental heat in the development of theories on the nature of life in the eighteenth century. Working in a similar vein but with culinary recipes, Marissa Nicosia, from Cooking the Archive, examines the problem of heat control in her recipe recreation adventures, outlining the challenges of translating cooking instructions meant for the early modern hearth to the modern gas stove.

The four elements, four qualities, four humours, four seasons, and four ages of man. Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991. Wellcome Collection.

Other authors in the series took our invitation as an opportunity to investigate heat in medical theories across time and place. Aileen Das kicks off this series by arguing that heat occupied a central place in ancient Greek, Roman and medieval Islamicate theories about the human body and its care. Taking on the smelly problem of perspiration and body odor, Cari Casteel reminds us that this issue is as old as mankind and offers several remedies from Roman authors.  Catherine Rider, on the other hand, examines notions of heat in fertility remedies in medieval England, noting that, whilst popular, heat-based treatments (to either increase or reduce heat in the body) were not the only kind of fertility aid available to English couples. The series concludes with two posts focused on fever and disease. Fittingly in this current heatwave, Laurence Totelin offers a post on fever and dog days of summer in antiquity. Finally, writing on in Late Imperial China, Marta Hanson introduces us to ideas of fever in Chinese medicine.

We’ve had a great time editing this series – hope you enjoy reading the posts wherever you are. Happy summer and stay cool!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

P.s. We were so inspired by our contributors’ posts that we’ve decided to dedicate the December issue to (you guessed it) COLD!. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, send a short pitch to recipes@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de.

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

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Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.