History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


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WWI Food History Videos: A Collaborative Project

Folks, I’m excited to share the first fruits of a project I’ve been working on with you.  This project doesn’t involve a lot of actual fruit, but you will find a recipe for dates stuffed with cream cheese and dipped in mayonnaise.  Yup, you read right.  More surprising is that dates in mayo are really good.

Over the past months, fellow historians Julia Irwin, Helen Veit, and I have collaborated with American Food Roots to make videos demoing and discussing World War I recipes to accompany the National World War One Museum’s War Fare exhibit. The Hill Center in Washington, DC, provided space and several Harris Teeter grocery stores donated food.  The American Historical Association’s Food Will Win the War: A K-12 Educators’ Workshop on Teaching World War I will feature these videos.

The first two videos have been released.  You can watch them and learn more about the project here.


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Puddings, Pies, and Congressional Messes: A Piece in American Food Roots

Dear readers, I’m back.  Here to say I haven’t forgotten you and hope you haven’t forgotten me.  More important, I haven’t forgotten about food history.  This week I have a piece in American Food Roots on 19th-century Capitol HIll ‘s culinary history.  No, I’m not talking about forerunners of the trendy Hill restaurants that have been getting a lot of national attention lately.  I’m referring to the food served at the boardinghouses where members of Congress lodged. Read all about it here.


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A Christmas Cookie Clue?

Folks, you may have been wondering what happened to your favorite blogger.  Rather than making excuses about being busy with work, a research project, and more, I’ll just say I haven’t been completely idle blogging-wise.  The good folks at The Historical Cooking Project gave me a chance to write a guest post.  Since it’s summer time, what else would I write about but the Christmas cookie recipe in Amelia Simmons’s 1796 cookbook?  Is it a clue to who the elusive author was?

 


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Eliza Leslie, Women’s Work in the 1800s, and a Controversy

If you follow news about history, you may have read recently about the dustup over the proposed National Women’s History Museum.  Legislation is wending its way through Congress to authorize, though not fund, the museum, and it seems likely to win approval.  So what’s the problem?

The controversy is over this:  A few weeks ago, the museum dismissed its Scholarly Advisory Council.  The Council had been made up of leading women’s historians, who had been working to help craft the museum’s plans.  One member of the disbanded Council, Professor Sonya Michel of the University of Maryland, took to the pages of The New Republic to express her unhappiness about the lack of scholarly input into the museum.  The American Historical Association has registered its concerns on that score, and various historians have also weighed in.  Meanwhile, the museum has responded to historians’ criticism.  (Full disclosure: I know and admire Professor Michel and, as you may recall, I now work for the National History Center of the American Historical Association.)

If you’ve skimmed through the articles and blog posts on the subject, you’ll have noted that historians think historians should be involved in planning a history museum, because they care deeply about the approach the museum takes in its exhibits.  As Professor Michel explains in her article, women’s historians do not want to see the museum just telling “Great Woman” stories.  Instead, they want to see the museum exploring how women from many walks of life have shaped changes over time in politics, family life, the economy, religion, culture, and much more.

Now you may be wondering what’s wrong with a Great Woman approach.  Why would anyone want to dwell on people who haven’t amounted to much?  Well, when a tricky historical question arises, you know what I like to ask.  Can desserts help us address the matter at hand?  (No, I’m not suggesting the parties sit down over cakes and cookies.  Does anything suggest to you that would help at this point?)

I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been eager to delve into Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, first published in 1828.  I’ve started trying her recipes – they’re good! – and I’ve been reading up on her too.  Her story brought to mind an insight about the history of women’s work that I think helps make sense of why historians are uncomfortable with a museum that focuses mainly on female firsts and other great accomplishments.

Like a number of other early American cookbook writers, Eliza Leslie found her eventual way into print after a turn in fortune.  She had been born in Philadelphia in 1787 and spent a comfortable childhood there and in London, where the Leslies moved when she was five or six.  The family returned to the United States in 1799, and her father, a watchmaker and merchant, found that his partner had sunk the business.  A few years later, Leslie’s father died, and several years after his death, in straitened circumstances, his widow opened a boardinghouse.  Leslie helped her mother to run the establishment and even took classes at Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school, presumably for business reasons.  In time, she would draw on her experience to write bestselling cookbooks as well as works of fiction and advice manuals.

What I found myself thinking about, though, was not Leslie’s success in an increasingly capitalist economy but this:  Eliza Leslie and her mother realized economic gain from women’s household work.  They supported their family by doing domestic work for paying customers, and Leslie got her start as an author by writing recipes, that is, compiling instructions about domestic work.

Nothing remarkable there, you may be thinking.  They were in business.  Their work had an economic value.  But consider this.  In the 1700s, the same domestic work performed by women in their own homes had been economically valued too.  By some point in the 1800s in the Northern United States, that was no longer true.  What changed?  Not women’s work, but men’s, as historian Jeanne Boydston explains in Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic, published in 1990.  In the 1700s, men and women typically worked at home.  Farmers, merchants, printers, you name it – people worked in the same places they lived, with employees or apprentices living with their masters.  In the 1800s, however, men increasingly went out of their homes to work.  Their living and working spaces became separated.  As that happened, the economic significance of women’s labor at home was forgotten.

That insight, I think, gets to the heart of women’s historians’ qualms about focusing on leading women or on an inspiring account of women’s gradual acquisition of formal political rights.  The story of women gaining formal political rights is an important one and deserves to be told in a women’s history museum.  But the remaking of the American economy in the 1800s – to take just one – is an important story too.  We don’t fully understand it, though, without examining how women participated in that transformation or probing how it affected their lives.  In other words, women’s (and men’s) everyday experiences are the stuff of history.

Eliza Leslie was one of the most successful female authors in the nineteenth-century United States.  She was historically important.  The women who, laboring in their own or in others’ kitchens, made her recipes were too.

 


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A Piece on Dolley Madison’s Food Politics in American Food Roots

Yes, I’ve been slacking a bit with the blogging.  Between conferences, cooking classes, an upcoming symposium, and, oh, that new job, I’m feeling a little swamped. But I did have a chance to explore how food figured in Dolley Madison’s politics thanks to the good folks at American Food Roots.

About that symposium, I’ll be speaking, along with others, at the Food History Symposium at The Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia, next Saturday, May 3.  If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there.

And do look for a piece on cookbook author Eliza Leslie and women’s labor in the nineteenth century soon.

 

 

 

 

 


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Surveying American History Through Cookbooks

Being a blogger has some perks.  I was recently offered cookbooks from the collection of American Antiquarian Cookbooks published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.  Reproduced in high-quality facsimile and in e-book format from originals held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, the cookbooks are beautiful.  The collection spans American history across time, space, race, religion, cultural movements, and more.

The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796 – a time when citizens of the United States were defining their new nation – is here, of course.  So is the Confederate Receipt Book, produced seven decades after Amelia Simmons’s work, at a time when the limits of the founding generation’s compromises were all too painfully obvious.  The 1881 Canoe and Camp Cookery brings us to the late 1800s when leaders like Theodore Roosevelt were insisting on a vision of the American nation that rested on vigorous white men.

Roosevelt and many other, though not all, Americans favored territorial expansion, and this collection tells the story of that development.  The first regional cookbook, The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (1824) reminds us that American history, from European settlement to cultural phenomenon like regional cookbooks, does not always begin in New England (sorry, family).  Published a few decades later, Mrs. Owen’s Illinois Cook Book highlights that Americans were moving across the continent and that the growing national economy’s reach had limits that shaped home cooking.  The story of territorial expansion reaches the Pacific with the 1875 California Recipe Book.

Race, ethnicity, and religion, so important to the American story, have their place in the collection too.  There’s Robert Roberts’s The House Servant’s Directory – the first book by an African American with recipes in it – and La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn, who embraces the “cosmopolitan” nature of New Orleans.  The city and its food, he explains, “[blend] the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican.”  The United States’s religious history shows up here with Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book (1871), and Mary Mann’s Christianity in the Kitchen (1858).  Levy’s work is what the name says: a book of recipes for cooking Jewish – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic – foods.  Mann’s book is something different.

Christianity in the Kitchen is not a book of Christian foods, but a book about how to avoid “unchristian” foods.  Mann sought to discourage “excessive drinking of injurious beverages,” “excessive eating” in general, and, moreover, the eating – whether excessive or not – of “unhealthful foods.”  “Compounds,” she explained, “like wedding cakes, suet plum-puddings, and rich turtle soups are masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table.”  (I feel I’m on safe ground saying that my non-Christian friends generally do not want suet plum-pudding or turtle soup, rich or light, on their tables either.)  Mary Mann – wife of Horace, the educational reformer – wanted to promote the good health that she believed was “one of the indispensable conditions of morality and beneficence.”  Her cookbook, that is, belonged to the Manns’ and many other Americans’ fervent efforts to better people and better the world.  Along with everything else, eating came in for nineteenth-century reformers’ attention, and reform cookbooks are a real strength of the collection.

So, would I like any of these cookbooks to review?  Would I indeed!  I did not choose one of the various reformer cookbooks, though as someone whose first scholarly work is on philanthropy and reform maybe I should have.  I chose more as a cook.  I opted for two greats, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, and Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats.  You know my first love in the kitchen is baking so I’ll next be exploring what we can learn about our history from Eliza Leslie. And, yeah, what we can bake from her Seventy-Five Receipts.

 

 


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The Right Dessert for a New Job

Some months ago, I offered some helpful history about the right dessert for the birth of a royal baby.  This week I’ve been mulling the right dessert for a new job.  Whose new job, you ask?  Why, mine.  I just became the assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association.

I’m very excited about the position.  The National History Center works “to make history an essential part of public conversations about current events and the shared futures of the United States and the wider world,” and I believe strongly in its mission.  Naturally, I’m also a bit nervous – what if I botch things? – and am eager to make a good impression on my new colleagues.  It occurred to me that I should bring a dessert to the office.

But what dessert?  For obvious reasons, it has to have some historic resonance.  As you (and now my father-in-law) know, even Rice Krispy Treats have historic significance, but, good as they are, they don’t relate to the history of the American Historical Association.  The AHA got its start in 1884.  Maybe I should look to a cookbook from that era for the right sweet to share.

As it happens, a notable cookbook, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, was published the same year that the AHA launched, and the two developments have much in common.  The American Historical Association was founded during the period that saw the creation of research universities and the emergence of distinct disciplines from earlier, patrician-dominated traditions of leisurely study.  The AHA, like other similar societies formed in the era, was established to set norms and standards for the pursuit of scholarship within the discipline.  (The AHA continues to promote history and historical thinking, today with a broader view of the many places and ways historians work.)

Now what, you’re wondering, does the AHA’s early history have to do with a cookbook?  As it happens, Mary Lincoln was no mere cookbook author, but the president of the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 to bring a more professional and scientific approach to cookery and domestic work.  Popular with home cooks, Mrs. Lincoln’s various cookbooks also helped to shape the new field of home economics.  Yes, you’ve got it, home economics as a field of study taught by professionally-trained teachers developed in the same era as the academic discipline of history and its professional society, the AHA.

So Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book is the right cookbook to bake from for my new office-mates.  What’s the right recipe?  I considered some of Mrs. Lincoln’s more elaborate desserts, but decided that calling in sick so I could make cake, jelly, and cream for a Gateau de Princess Louise might be the wrong move.  I opted instead for something that’s simple, yet (I hope) a crowd pleaser – molasses spice cookies.  Mrs. Lincoln’s are made with no granulated sugar, just molasses for the sweetener, and they are very good.  Dear colleagues, I’ll see you in the kitchen tomorrow morning.

Anyone else want to make friends at work?  Here’s the recipe.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Soft Molasses Cookies

With some additional helpful directions from yours truly.

1 cup molasses

1 tablespoonful ginger

1 teaspoonful baking soda

2 tablespoonfuls warm water or milk

½ c. (1 stick) butter, softened

Flour to mix soft (I used 1¾ cups.  You might try 2 cups.)

 

Mix in the order given, dissolving the soda in the milk.  (Those are Mrs. Lincoln’s directions on making the dough and, really, it’s that simple.)

Flatten the dough into two disks and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350° on a convection oven or 375° on a conventional oven.

Grease two cookie sheets.

Roll the dough into balls and roll the balls in sugar if you like.  Place on the cookie sheets and press gently on each ball to flatten slightly.

Bake, rotating the trays about midway through baking, about 8-10 minutes, until the cookies aren’t puffed up any more and spring back when touched gently.  Let cool on the trays for a couple minutes and then remove to a rack to cool fully.

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