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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Civil War Cooking In Pictures

The early stages of jelly

"Pouring" the jelly
Jelly Reaction Shot #1

Jelly Reaction Shot #2

Transition to the mock apple pie

Making the potato crust

Adding the mock apple
Finished Product

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

War is Hell

Of all the work I’ve done on this project so far, this week’s cooking has been the most…interesting.

I began with the Sago jelly. Which became Tapioca Jelly due to my inability to find sago. The internet informs me that sago and tapioca, though from different sources, are both starches and are used for many of the same things. Going into it, I had no idea what to expect of the process, of the end product, of anything really. If the number one rule of cooking is “be flexible,” rule number two is “follow directions.” That’s exactly what I did as I added tapioca, sugar, port and lemon peel into water and turned up the heat. I stirred and watched as everything coagulated into a gummy mass. It was flubber. It was the blob. It was Civil War Jello. My taste-tasters and I took spoonfuls that proved very difficult to swallow. The taste wasn’t bad, a little bland maybe, but pleasant and fruity. However, the texture was almost unmanageable. It had to sit on the tongue and dissolve for a bit before it would go down. Very strange and very inedible in large doses. It is hospital food, and I can see how, if you were incapable of eating much else, this jelly, like modern Jello, might provide nourishment and be easier to manage than some solids. But honestly, it makes one grateful for modern hospital food.

Next, I moved on to “Apple Pie without Apples” in a “Potato Crust.” Making the cracker “apple” filling was fairly easy once I had tartaric acid (cream of tartar in modern terms). The potato crust on the other hand, was difficult to make the same consistency as actual crust. It was more like spreadable mashed-potatoes, but the finished product looked more or less like apple pie. The consensus on taste was, that though it was not very good, it was surprisingly like apples. The potato chunks in the crust even contributed to an apple-like texture. However, those who had tried mock apple pie before suggested that without the potato crust, it would taste more like traditional pie. As it stood, it was more like odd shepherd’s pie, described by one friend as “three different flavors of mush.”

This is the only cooking session where I ended up with leftovers that needed discarding. Taste-testers said that, if they were in the Civil War, the Apple Pie without Apples would likely be welcome and fortifying, but that they would have to be extremely desperate to make the Jelly worth it. This day of cooking proved to me that food quality is not a forward-progression; it very much depends on circumstance. The recipes of early 1800s peacetime America were much fancier, much more akin to what we would consider good food today. These recipes from the Civil War books were literally the best looking I could find. The desperation, need, and adaptability of people in wartime came across for me stronger in cooking these recipes than ever before. Rarely have I more poignantly felt an appreciation for the ease and comforts of life in modern peacetime America.

Many thanks to my brave taste-testers, assistants, and in this week’s case, photographer- later this week, I’ll post a photo diary from this cooking session.

Monday, October 15, 2012

"With God as My Witness..."

I’ve been anticipating this week’s theme for a while now- Civil War foods! Whether you find it surprising or not, the majority of Civil War-themed cookbooks in the Watkinson are from the Confederacy. My theory on this is that, because the southern lifestyle was more deeply affected and altered by the events of the Civil War, more literature had to be released on the ways to deal with this fact. And let me tell you, there will be no fancy biscuits this week. In fact, there will be nothing tasty as far as I can tell. It was a time of want for many, and the cookbooks reflect that.

The first of the two books, Directions for Cooking by Troops, in Camp and Hospital: With Essays on “Taking Food” and “What Food,is from 1861 and is allegedly by Florence Nightingale. The second book for this week is the Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the times. The book has no author but was compiled by the publishers in 1863. Both books were published in Richmond, VA. When I picked up the books, I expected lengthy introductions, telling readers to keep up the faith and to use the advice in these books to do their part to further the Confederate cause. To my surprise, neither had such an introduction. They were exceptionally practical, diving right into advice.

Cooking by Troops is contained within a larger collection of five separate pieces of Confederate literature, bound together. The other pieces bound with the cookbook included Regulations for the Subsistence Department of the Confederate States of America and “General Order No. 5 of Col. E Van Don.” As the title of the cookbook implies, it is intended for use in the field. The recipes given for field cooking are mostly soups and meats intended “for one hundred men.” This is not the scale of cooking I was planning on doing. The second section of the book is on cooking in hospitals. There are directions here for things like “plain boiled rice,” “rice water,” and the classic “toast and water” (it’s not what you think it is- see recipe on side). In this section, I was intrigued by a food I had never heard of, “sago jelly.” A quick search informed me sago is a type of starch found in palm leaves, and that it is what makes the bubbles in bubble tea. I think that, if I can find sago, this is what I will try to make from this cookbook.
 One Hundred Receipts is intended for families on the home front, and includes not just recipes for food, but also for soap, candles, beer, and medical remedies. All have been adjusted to accommodate for a time of want. A personal favorite was for coffee made from acorns. I could try it, but I think that’s a little beyond how far into historical authenticity I’m willing to delve. Instead, I’m planning on trying a mock apple pie made in a potato crust, which cuts down on the amount of flour and butter a family would have to use. I found this book fascinating. I guess I didn’t realize quite how meager things got in the Civil War until I saw the recipes that the literate, book-buying population was resorting to. As I looked through the makeshift recipes, an image of Scarlet O’Hara formed in my mind, rising from the dirt, proclaiming, “With God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

Monday, October 8, 2012


Amazingly, I’ve had another successful cooking day. Things did not start off particularly well. I bought my ingredients, then returned to find that the yeast, which came in those tiny flat packets, had disappeared somewhere between the grocery store scanner and my room. Therefore, the night before I started cooking, I decided my election cake would not include yeast. Yet again, I find that adapting nineteenth-century recipes requires flexibility.

I arrived at the Interfaith House and whipped up the dough for the American Fancy Biscuits. Despite the name, these biscuits are anything but fancy. With flour, butter and milk, my biscuits were essentially little pats of piecrust. Part of the reason for the confusion over what makes a biscuit comes from the etymology of biscuit versus the etymology of cookie. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that, in early America, the English term “biscuit” and the Dutch word koekje (from which we get “cookie”) were used interchangeably. In nineteenth-century America, these terms were still in flux, sometimes meaning the sweet dessert treats and sometimes the flakey dinner rolls. This American Fancy Biscuit, true to its name, is closer to the modern American biscuit than the modern British sweet biscuit. However, some of the other recipes for biscuits in the same section of Complete Confectioner vary in type.

The Election Cake was more complex, but leaving out the yeast helped ease the process. I also left out the wine, deciding it would simplify the shopping process. As for the generic fruit called for in the recipe, I chose dried currants and cranberries. Currants certainly would have grown in Connecticut in this era and cranberries fairly nearby in bogs. I am unsure whether the average Hartford family would have easy access to cranberries in 1856, but The Cape Cod Cranberry Grower’s Association notes that cranberries were first sent to Europe for sale in the 1820s. Based on the huge quantities of ingredients required by the recipe, I decided to cut it by a quarter. A theme I’m noticing emerge is that nineteenth-century cooking seems to have been done on a much larger scale than cooking today. Perhaps this is due to the effort required of baking in the era; might as well make a lasting amount if you’re putting the work into firing up the bake oven.

As for the finished products, the biscuits, though a little bland on their own, would go great with tea, butter, or jam. One of my tasters also mentioned that the biscuits would be good for someone with an upset stomach. Not the highest compliment, but at least they’re useful. The Election Cake got favorable reviews as something intriguing and different, with a complex flavor. People seemed to especially appreciate the inclusion of fruits not often found in modern cakes. The cake was, however, very dense and heavy, qualities I think the yeast would have helped negate. Next time a recipe calls for yeast, I’ll try to be sure it gets home with me. But, overall, flexibility and experimentation again led to finished products that were edible and interesting.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fancy Biscuits

In the summer, when I was first searching the Watkinson catalogue for cookbooks to use, I came across one that gave my roommate and I quite a few laughs. Especially when read aloud. The title of the book, in verbose 19th-century style, was The Complete confectioner, pastry-cook, and baker : plain and practical directions for making confectionary [sic] and pastry, and for baking : with upwards of five hundred receipts consisting of directions for making all sorts of preserves, sugar-boiling, comfits, lozenges, ornamental cakes, ices, liqueurs, waters, gum-paste ornaments, syrups, jellies, marmalades, compotes : bread-baking, artificial yeasts, fancy biscuits, cakes, rolls, muffins, tarts, pies, &c. &c. / with additions and alterations by Parkinson, practical confectioner, Chestnut Street. For whatever reason, what we found the most humorous about the title was the term “fancy biscuits.” That night, I made a promise to my friend that fancy biscuits were one thing I would definitely make. Thus, one recipe for week two is decided.

The Complete Confectioner was published in Philadelphia in 1844, but is on the border when it comes to my rule of sticking to cookbooks written and published in America. The introduction explains, “The basis for our little work is to be found in Read’s Confectioner, a late London publication.” However, the American adapters continue, “We have been able to make from our own experience many important modifications and to introduce many additional receipts, particularly in relation to the various articles of luxury which the bounty of our soil and climate.” Despite the debt it owes to British writers, this is another fiercely proud American cookbook. As such, I’ll be trying out the recipe for American fancy biscuits.

Sticking to cookbooks from the 19th century, leading up to the Civil War, the other book I’ll be using this week is Catherine Beecher’s 1856 Domestic Receipt Book. Beecher’s Receipt Book was, “Designed as a Supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy.” Catherine Beecher, though never married, was famous for her domestic advice and belief in separate spheres. She argued that, though men and women should stick to unique types of work, these areas should be equally respected. She therefore strove to make housework more scientific and more able to gain respect in a traditional sense. This is reflected in the cookbook, which includes many diagrams of kitchen tools and wordy chapters on kitchen theory.
Looking through the table of contents in the Domestic Receipt Book, I lighted on Beecher’s Old Hartford Election Cake, which she describes as being 100 years old. Beecher was a Hartford resident, so it is no wonder she would include a recipe from our fair city. According to Washington Post Blogger Kim O’Donnell, in early America, “Election Day was an important holiday. Voters would take the day off from work and travel to Hartford, cast votes and then party into the night.” Election Day cake, with its basis in European fruitcakes, was an important part of the Election Day tradition. Given the location and time of year, this seemed like a recipe I had to try.

I’ll be baking this Friday morning from nine to around noon in the Interfaith House. Feel free to stop by!