Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Last Cooking Day

Well the last cooking day is done and it was a success! Many, many thanks to my friend Megan, who I think saved the day. Before I started, I showed Megan the recipes and she commented on the “prepared biscuit flour” required by the cherry pudding. I told her I interpreted it as a type of flour—like bread flour, pastry flour—and I thought all-purpose flour would be fine. “No,” she said, “I’m pretty sure that means something like Bisquick, something for ready-made biscuits. But you have all the materials for biscuits here. Do you want me to whip a biscuit base up for you?” And she did. And the dish was saved. This is why cooking should be a communal activity. Thanks again Megan!

Thanks also to the friends who lent their good judgment for how long the pudding had to be boiled. More like modern dumplings, the word pudding historically refers to any boiled dish made with flour. Though I was at first skeptical of the little boiled clumps, they tasted surprisingly wonderful, especially served with the warm cherry sauce poured over the top. They tasted like little dumplings in sweet cherry sauce.

The Russian Mint Cookies probably required the least interpretation of any dish I made with this project. The cooking time and temperature were great to have. The recipe was simple, straightforward, and even edible for my vegan friends. There was only one ingredient that proved a challenge, baker’s ammonia, which should be available in specialty cooking stores, but as with the sago, I did not have the time to seek it out. I am once again grateful to the internet for letting me know that baker's ammonia is a leavener which makes cookies and crackers extra-crisp. Another website advised using equal parts baking powder and soda as a substitute for baker’s ammonia. I figured I might as well try it. I think this is part of the reason my cookies rose like biscuits, but they did have nice crisp shells. The finished product tasted great, the mint flavor was there, but not overwhelming: just right. I would say the mint flavor makes this a great festive cookie for the holiday season. All in all, the day was another delicious success.

This is technically my last blog entry for this project, but I may keep up with it more sporadically just for fun. This project has been amazing. It has been a bright spot in my day, teaching me not just about historic foodways but also a great deal about my friends (and at the risk of sounding corny) myself. I learned about being brave in the kitchen. I learned about how much easier cooking is nowadays with modern detailed cookbooks. Thanks to all who have helped, taste-tested, kept up with my blog, etc.! I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks also to the Watkinson Library for giving me the chance to try this wonderful project. I advise others to go forth and explore their own "art of imperfection in the kitchen"!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Modern Times

Hard to believe, but this is my last cooking session! And it promises to be an exciting one, with two fascinatingly themed books: 1937’s Meals on Wheels by Lou Wilson and Olive Hoover (fans of Little Miss Sunshine, do you think the screenwriter had a copy of this cookbook?) and 1961’s Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook edited by Beryl Barr and Barbara Turner Sachs. These two cookbooks are uniquely specific and undoubtedly modern. 

Meals on Wheels was written in the midst of the Depression. Therefore, one might assume it would include tips for families who have had to economize and start traveling the nation in trailers. On the contrary, the book completely ignores the tough economic times, and seems to be more of a guide to keeping luxury while traveling cross-country, advising readers that these tips will help make their “vacation enjoyable.” It is concerned not with economy, but with solving “the difficulties of cooking in a small space” and breaking up the apparent monotony of meals served in trailers. To give adequate variety to trailer meals, recipes are pre-arranged in menus. One thing I was not surprised by was the increased number of references to store-bought ingredients. Certain cake recipes suggest starting with a base of “bakery sponge cake.” The tomato sauce recipe suggests simply using concentrated canned tomato soup. I’ll be making cherry pudding from this cookbook. And the recipe, I can already tell, will not require halving- it makes four portions. We’re entering the era of modern family size. Perhaps the most modern thing about both cookbooks this week?  Oven temperatures and cooking times.

Despite the modernity of Meals on Wheels, it seems like one of the biggest leaps in time exists between the two books this week. Meals on Wheels, though oddly specific, is still a cookbook in the traditional sense. The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook reads more like a parody, a subversion of the traditional cookbook. By the time The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook came out, Betty Crocker had happened (character created in 1921), The Joy of Cooking had happened (1936), suburbia had happened. The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook responds to all these trends, with a beautifully decorated art book, for which the editors went and asked those of the creative elite to submit some of their favorite family recipes or a story related to cooking. My personal favorite is the “Menu for a Dadaist Day” by Man Ray. The menu is mostly composed of “children’s blocks” and “ball bearings.” To my taste-testers: be grateful I didn’t settle on one of these recipes!

The book includes recipes from figures as diverse as Harper Lee, Upton Sinclair, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, and Burl Ives. The forward, by Alice B. Toklas, explains, “It is an enchanting book. The writers write as they write. The painters write as they paint.” The introductory line of the book is “Dedicated to imperfection in the kitchen,” which those of you who have been keeping up with the blog know is something I hold dear, making this the perfect book for me to end my historic cooking experiences with. From this book, I’ll be making Russian Mint Cookies, from a recipe by Alexandra Tolstoy, “the authoritative biographer of her father,” Leo. Alexandra also published her own memoir, I Worked for the Soviets. At the time she submitted this recipe, she had moved to New York and was working as curator for the Tolstoy Museum. After having just seen Anna Karenina in theaters this past weekend, I’m excited to try these festive-sounding cookies from the Tolstoy family for myself.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chocolate Jumbles- Thanksgiving Edition

As previously mentioned, my mother asked me to bake one of my historic recipes for dessert this Thanksgiving. I chose one of my personal favorites, the Chocolate Jumbles from the 1886 Cocoa and Chocolate. This time, however, I had my mother as helper, and learned just how important it is to learn cooking from someone else. Of course my mom had never made Jumbles before, but as a more experienced cook than I, she had some tips and insight that made the experience different than the first.
My first attempt at Jumbles...

I told my mom about people’s responses to the first Jumbles- that many people found the cocoa flavor to be just too much. She suggested something obvious that I never would have thought of on my own- reducing the amount of chocolate. Thus the process of experimentation and revision, that makes a recipe something difficult to keep a permanent record of, began.

My mother’s next insight came as I was adding “flour sufficient” to turn the consistency of the dough into something like piecrust. The last time, after adding seemingly endless cups of flour, my friends and I gave up and just worked with sticky dough. My mother, of infinite patience, kept adding flour, trusting that, if the recipe said it should get to a piecrust point, it would get to a piecrust point. And she was right! After adding a whole heckuva lot of flour, the dough reached a point where it could be rolled out and cut into strips. As a result, the cookies looked and tasted a lot smoother than those from my previous attempt.
...compared with my Thanksgiving Jumbles.

I brought the Jumbles to Thanksgiving. They were a great talking point for our family friends, and were seemingly enjoyed by all. So what did I learn? Don’t be afraid to alter recipes to accommodate others' tastes. Have patience when cooking. Always listen to your mother. And most relevant to this project, that we can never really know what these recipes were like originally. Everyone has a different interpretation of how to follow a recipe. The chocolate jumbles people made in 1886 likely varied from house to house, just as my chocolate jumbles differed from those I made with my mom. Food history, like history overall, is incredibly complex. It comes to us in terms that require substantial individual interpretation, and we must be careful to remember that this is our interpretation only, not how things actually were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I started this cooking session with Cakes the Children Cry For, as they required the most ingredients and seemed the more complex. As I mentioned in my last post, Cooking for the Professor included surprisingly few directions, and this posed somewhat significant challenges with this recipe. I was unsure at which points to stir and mix. By the end, I was wary about adding the full four cups of flour for which the recipe called; the batter was getting to the point where I almost bent the spoon, but I persevered. And once again, I got the sense of changing definitions of culinary vocabulary, as I found that the single instruction included: “Drop with spoon on lightly buttered paper and bake,” created what we today might consider a number of large cookies.

As I prepared to make Maple Creams, I remembered the last time I had used the pot on the stove- Sago Jelly. I hoped this experience would be more favorable, although I still was not sure what consistency or form my final product would take. Following the instructions, I added maple and cream and turned on the heat. As it boiled up, the lovely aroma of a New England sugarhouse filled the room. I was waiting until the mixture in the pot, as the recipe instructed was “on the point of spinning a thread.” I stirred and waited to see if I could find this point, when the steam suddenly turned to smoke, spreading a pungent burning smell throughout the kitchen. I immediately removed it from heat, knowing I had missed the sweet spot. I suddenly had an appreciation for the era of candy thermometers, when you boil something to a particular temperature given to you rather than using guess work to find a point that is more or less subjective. Next, I poured the sticky mixture into a buttered pan. It did not fill the whole space, nor spread very thickly. I was again wondering what the final product would be like. As it cooled, it hardened, and I used a buttered knife to cut it into small pieces before it fully solidified. The end product was extremely brittle, pretty much a hard candy. In a moment of panic, I thought the cooled candy would never come out of the pan it was boiled in. But thankfully, warm soapy water did the trick.

As for taste, the Cakes the Children Cry For had an extreme molasses flavor. Not really the kind of thing a child would go crazy for in an era of Pixie Stix and Coco Puffs. But at the turn of the century, perhaps the cakes would have been a real treat for kids. Generally, adults liked them and I found a surprising amount of people who were excited about the molasses flavor. As with my other baked goods, the little cakes were extremely thick and hardy. Though I was unsure about the recipe at first, the Cakes came together decently. The maple candies, despite my misadventure with burning, still turned out to be quite tasty- the burning gave them a complex smoky flavor that could be enjoyed while it melted in one's mouth. In my experience you're either a total maple-lover or aloof. In the eyes of maple lovers, nothing with maple flavor can be less than excellent- that was the case with these candies, which won great acclaim from my maple-loving friends. If I were to do this recipe again, I would do some research into hard candy making, temperature, and cooking thermometers.

At the same time that I am getting used to cooking with few instructions, it still catches me off-guard sometimes. I expected recipes to get more and more detailed and user-friendly as I moved forward through time. The recipes this week were two of the most challenging I've produced this far, partly due to lack of directions and partly due to lack of modern cooking tools. One possible explanation for the increased difficulty is intended audience for the cookbooks. I worked with two specialty cookbooks this week- one geared towards Yale housewives and one towards women in Salem, Massachusetts interested in domestic history. Members of both those populations likely had a solid basis in domestic science. All I know for certain is that, though I've moved into the twentieth century, the recipes haven't gotten any easier.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Heritage of Heritage

I was excited to examine this week’s cookbooks, 1900’s Feeding the Professor by the Yale Faculty Wives Guild, and 1910’s What Salem Dames Cooked by the Esther C. Mack Industrial School. Both book topics seemed hyper-specialized and rather bizarre. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed at the lack of theme carried through in these books. I expected detailed descriptions of why this recipe was more suited for academics, and why witches favored that recipe. What I got was serious-minded collections, with content not all that different from your average Joy of Cooking.

Feeding the Professor- what a classic title! Showcasing the era when academia was limited to men, and their wives stayed home and cooked. It also calls out professors as an entirely different breed, one that must be “fed” differently than your average fellow. Unfortunately, the book itself offers little insight to its intent, the choice of title, or why these recipes are particularly appropriate for professors. The only explanation given is, “Some of the housekeepers of New Haven have given up secret recipes held for generations.” In looking through the recipes, I did notice a pattern of internationally focused foods- Dutch Pie Cake, Hungarian Horns, Coffee Bavarian Cream. Perhaps in marketing this as an academic’s cookbook, the wives were catering to a crowd that wanted to be elite and worldly. Interestingly enough, in contrast to the pattern I’ve seen of recipes becoming more and more detailed over time, these recipes have less specific instructions. Maybe these faculty wives were so accomplished and had so little to do that they had absolutely mastered the basics of proper cooking, and assumed others had too. I’ll be attempting the recipe with the intriguing, though somewhat disturbing title, Cakes the Children Cry For.

The title What Salem Dames Cooked left me looking for the kind of witch-focused kitsch associated with Salem today. I hoped the book would show me the origins of that tourist-trapping fictionalization of the most infamous events of Salem’s history. I was a little sad when I found that the cookbook was written as straight, serious history. Though I found no recipes calling for eye of newt, I did find a direct predecessor of this very project! The book includes recipes from three historic cookbooks, The Compleat Cook’s Guide from 1683, The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook from 1730, and Old Grandmother’s Cookbook from 1800. There is also a section of recipes from women in Salem at the time the book was published. People in turn-of-the-century Salem were evidently interested in seeing how people used to cook, making sure that was not lost. The people of Salem in 1910, were apparently intrigued by trying out historic recipes, just as I am. From this book, I’ll be attempting Maple Creams from the 1900 section of the book.

Both these books, though lacking prefaces that would explain the ideological basis of the themes, show a shifting view of the importance of heritage. The Yale Faculty Wives Guild is interested in creating something that preserves recipes that have been “held for generations,” and the Salem cookbook does the same. And here I am, adding another layer to the already complex history of the culinary landscape. It's exciting to see my predecessors in these books, those who were interested in culinary history and preservation of that heritage long before me.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This week was, to put it simply, delicious. Especially after last week. Civil War hospital jelly cannot hold a candle to chocolate jumbles and gingerbread. I began with the jumbles. Luckily, I spotted a fatal typo in the directions before it could ruin the recipe. It instructed me to add the eggs twice, when the first time, it really wanted the sugar. The hardest part of the recipe? Grating the chocolate. It took a substantial amount of time and effort to grate the four Baker's squares down to size. Thanks to the three friends who helped, and made it so each of us only had to grate one square. The efforts were certainly worth it though, as the batter (pictured on the left, in all its glory) smelled heavenly. It also proved a challenge to add the “flour sufficient” to the batter. The "flour sufficient" would theoretically turn the dough to a consistency that could be rolled out like piecrust. It never reached that point, but did get to a state where I could flatten and cut it into strips. This recipe, like many I've done for this project, required a good deal of interpretation and guess work.

The gingerbread was probably the most straightforward and modern recipe I’ve worked with thus far. I had no problems following the instructions and there were no challenges with ambiguous steps or processes simply not done in modern kitchens. But unfortunately, no problems also means no real stories to put in the blog. I feel like the Boston cooking textbook really represents a leap into modern cooking in a way that will make my experimentation a little less exciting.

As for end products, I was surprised by people’s reactions to the chocolate jumbles. To me, the cookies were chock full of fudgey goodness. They looked like little donuts, as the powdered sugar topping them had melted into a glaze in the oven. But only about half the people who tried them really loved them. The other half said they were just okay, often noting that the chocolate flavor was different than they were used to. I think the consensus was that the chocolate was a little bitter. No offense to those folks, but I think one has to be a chocolate connoisseur to appreciate the recipe. You have to enjoy a rich cocoa flavor for its own sake, and not for the sugar added. As for me, these jumbles are certainly going into my repertoire for the future.

The gingerbread, on the other hand, was a universal success. Again, I think it relates to familiarity and modernity of the recipe. It reminded many people of grandparents and holidays and all such wonderful things. Some people did comment that it was some of the densest gingerbread they had ever tasted, but didn’t seem to mind. This is consistent with my experiences of 19th century recipes being extremely dense. Though I may be moving into more modern recipes, they still produce foods that are extremely hardy and filling, able to prepare people for a day of physical labor.

Overall, I think both recipes had great results and both will stay in my personal cookbook for future occasions. I’ve already had a request from home to make a historic dessert for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Culinary Changes

Now that my project and I have survived the Civil War, its time to turn to happier days. This week, I’ll conclude the nineteenth century with two fantastic cookbooks, 1886’s Cocoa and Chocolate: A Short History of their Production and Use with a Full and Practical Account of the Properties, and of the Various Methods of Preparing Them For Food by Walter Baker and Company and 1887’s Boston School Kitchen Text-Book: Lessons in cooking for the use of classes in public and industrial schools. Both are entirely different from the cookbooks thus far, which have genuinely been intended as helping hands, supplements for families already capable in the kitchen. These books represent a transition to the modern, when commercial interests and attempts to teach otherwise incompetent cooks take over.

Cocoa and Chocolate had me at the title. This specialty dessert cookbook, bound in luxurious chocolate brown, represents leaps and bounds from Civil War era cuisine. The first half discusses the history and science of chocolate production, with a surprising amount of detail. The introduction to the book explains:

"During the last half-century, the consumption of chocolate has increased to an extraordinary extent, both in this country and Great Britain; This is due to several causes, among the most prominent of which are, (1) a reduction in the retail price, which brings it within the means of the poorer classes, (2) a more general recognition of the value of cocoa as an article of diet, and (3) improvements in methods of preparation, by which it is adapted to the wants of different classes of consumers."

It took me a long time to realize that the Baker’s that released this book was actually Baker’s Chocolate Company, the Baker’s that still sells popular baking chocolate today. The whole book is an advertisement for Bakers. I felt a little betrayed, fooled into believing this was a non-commercial publication, but not enough to change my chocolate course- I’ll be making chocolate jumbles this week. An interesting side note is that the Library of the German Society of Philadelphia was the original holder of this copy.

The second book, the Boston School Kitchen Textbook, caught my attention for the view of cooking it advocated, which differed widely from what I had been dealing with. For the first time, I’ll be using exact modern measurements, ingredients separated from directions, and detailed instructions. The book includes an introduction by Superintendent of Boston Public Schools and one by the author, Mrs. D. A. Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln explains, “Much of the dislike which many girls have for cooking arises from their want of success…Cooking cannot be done by guess work. There is a right and a wrong way.” This is followed by thorough scientific discussions of various cooking methods, separated into lessons, complete with questions for students at the end of each chapter. I’ll be making the gingerbread from Lesson XIII of this cookbook.

Mrs. Lincoln’s quote on “right and wrong” methods of cooking bothers me. Cooking takes confidence and adaptability. With most foods, it is difficult to screw up to the point of inedibility. By telling Americans that there is only one way of doing things, cookbooks have scared generations away from doing things themselves. Cooking hasn’t always been this way, my experiences so far show that. My advice to American home chefs is: embody the cooking ideals of the early nineteenth-century; go forth with confidence! One last side note: the illustrations accompanying these two cookbooks are eerily similar. Each illustration focuses on a girl, shown from the side, carrying a tray of baked goods, wearing a white apron and cap. I’m not sure what these similarities mean, but they certainly seem significant.