History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


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It’s National Ice Cream Day! Be Careful!

Be careful with ice cream?  You’re thinking, she’s going to lecture us not to overdo it, that killjoy.  No, no, the peril I have in mind is not the quantity of ice cream.  It’s the coldness.  In the 1790s, some New York humanitarians worried that eating ice cream on hot days could prove fatal.  “Let . . . ice Creams, be completely dissolved in the mouth before it be swallowed. . .”  the Humane Society of the State of New York counseled in hopes that people would therefore not drop dead from their icy treat.  This Humane Society had nothing to do with animals.  Founded in 1794 based on models of similar charities in Europe and the United States, the New York Humane Society sought to prevent death from various causes including drowning, suffocation, poisonous fumes, lightning strikes, and the consumption of cold beverages and the like on hot days.  Americans had seen too many cases, Humane Society leaders in the United States explained, where people had drunk cold water after working in the heat and then died suddenly.  This idea isn’t as crazy as it may sound.  Drinking too much water when your sodium levels are unusually low after, say, running a marathon can indeed be hazardous.  Perhaps the people who perished after drinking water on hot days had hyponatremia.  A bowlful of the cold creamy treat we celebrate today, however, was presumably nothing to worry about.  Happy National Ice Cream Day!

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Family Baking Class at DC’s Historic Hill Center

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a fun family baking class at Washington, DC’s historic Hill Center in the Old Naval Hospital in September.  We’ll be making and sampling recipes from Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook.  Malinda Russell, you ask?  She’s the author of the first known cookbook by an African American.  Born free in Tennessee, she had struggled for equality and planned to immigrate to Liberia.  During the Civil War, she was harassed for supporting the Union and she fled north to Paw Paw, Michigan.  After the war, eager to return to her family, Mrs. Russell published A Domestic Cook Book to raise funds to get home.  You can read what Molly O’Neill wrote about Mrs. Russell and her cookbook here.  And you can discover some of her baked goodies and more about her life in my class at Washington’s DC Hill Center  on September 21 from 10 a.m. to noon.  The class is geared to kids aged approximately 5 to 10 accompanied by an adult and is limited to 15 participants.  Register for a fun family baking class here!


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Exploring American History through Desserts

Can desserts teach us something about history?  Can history sweeten our lives?  At History’s Just Desserts, I believe the answer is yes.  The stories of people like Amelia Simmons – the “American Orphan,” who in 1796 published the first American cookbook – and Malinda Russell – an African American who had fled the South during the Civil War and in 1866 published a cookbook to raise funds to get home – show us how people have used baking, cooking, and food writing to build their lives, their country, their world.  They help us understand our past more fully.  And trying their recipes is certainly the tastiest way I know of exploring history.

History’s Just Desserts builds on my two careers, in pastry and history.  In the 1990s, I worked for several years as a pastry cook at bakeries and restaurants in New York City, including at Mario Batali’s Babbo.  For a short time, I was the pastry chef at Mark Furstenberg’s popular café, the Breadline, in Washington, DC.  I then went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in American history.  I have taught and published and, through it all, kept baking.  With History’s Just Desserts, I am finally joining my two passions into one fascinating and delicious endeavor.

I hope you’ll explore history through desserts with me.