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.

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