History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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Acknowledging, and Slighting, “The Virginia Housewife”

I’ve had The Virginia Housewife on my mind recently.  The other day, in a tribute to Penelope Casas, I wrote a little about the Spanish recipes in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, one of the best-selling cookbooks of the 1800s.

Born in 1762 to a Virginia gentry family, Mary Randolph won fame as a hostess, in a society that prized hospitality, for the excellent food her kitchen produced.  When the family’s fortune turned, Mrs. Randolph’s experience as a hostess stood her in good stead and she ran a successful boarding house, known for its fine fare, in Richmond.  Later, she moved to Washington, DC, and in 1824 published The Virginia Housewife – a book that would later be celebrated as the first truly American cookbook.

Mrs. Randolph’s cookbook had cachet.  Going through nineteen editions before the Civil War, it influenced generations of American cooks.  Other cookbook writers recognized its importance too.  Sarah Rutledge, author of the 1847 The Carolina Housewife cited it.  So too did Malinda Russell.

A pastry chef, like I once was, Malinda Russell authored the first known African American cookbook, published in 1866.  In it, she tells us a little about herself.  At the end of her short autobiography and introduction, she tells us “I cook after the plan of the ‘Virginia Housewife.’”  Mary Randolph’s book – filled with such a variety of recipes and such detailed instructions – was useful to her, her comment says.  It says too that Mrs. Russell (like Eliza Goodfellow, a noted pastry chef perhaps a generation or so older than Malinda Russell) understood marketing.  The Virginia Housewife meant something to people.  Mrs. Russell, I suspect, acknowledged the famous cookbook in part to sell her own A Domestic Cookbook.

What really captured my attention, though, was what Mrs. Russell didn’t say.  She did not acknowledge Mary Randolph by name.  The two women had much in common.  They were cooks and authors.  They had faced setbacks.  And they both had disabled sons to care for.  Even if Malinda Russell had known how much she and Mary Randolph shared in common (and presumably she didn’t), Mrs. Randolph came from the world that used the force of law to circumscribe Mrs. Russell’s freedom and opportunities.

“I cook after the plan of the “Virginia Housewife,” Mrs. Russell wrote.  But before that, more prominently, she told us, “I learned my trade of FANNY STEWARD, a colored cook, of Virginia.”  We don’t know who Fanny Steward was.  But Mrs. Russell did.  Steward was another skilled African American woman and she gave her resolute pupil a chance to challenge her unequal status by teaching her a craft.  Thanks to Steward’s tutelage, Mrs. Russell was able to seek independence through her own business and to write a cookbook in which she could tell the world her story.  Fanny Steward merited being acknowledged in print and by name.


Spanish recipes in the 19th c. U.S. — A Tribute to Penelope Casas

Last week I wrote a little about Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school – the first in the United States – and about her generally well-to-do students.  Today I was going to write about what Malinda Russell — author of the first known African American cookbook, published in 1866 — tells us about how she learned to cook.  But I read yesterday (I’m on vacation, I’m behind, forgive me) that one of my favorite cookbook authors, Penelope Casas, died recently and instead I would like to offer a tribute to her instead.

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Casas wrote seven cookbooks about Spanish food after having fallen in love with Spanish food and a Spanish man when she studied abroad in college.  Starting with her 1982 book, The Foods and Wines of Spain, she did much to make Spanish cuisine familiar to Americans.  We now have other great authorities on Spanish food, like DC’s own Jose Andres, but it’s to Casas, I usually turn when I want to make a recipe from Spain.

Long before Casas, however, Anglo-Americans had a passing acquaintance with Spanish food.  Mary Randolph was one of the most influential cookbook authors in the 1800s.  (She influenced the cooking of, among others, Malinda Russell.)  Her Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook was first published in 1824, went through nineteen editions before the Civil War, and is still in print.  Mrs. Randolph’s cookbook has been called the first truly American cookbook because it showcases American, particularly Southern, ingredients such as local fruits and vegetables, oysters and catfish, Virginia’s distinctive ham, and, of course, corn meal.

But Mrs. Randolph includes more than quintessentially American foods.  Or perhaps a better way to put it is that she shows that American food is quintessentially cosmopolitan.   She offers recipes that trace their origins to France and Italy, the East Indies and the West, Scandinavia, and, yes, Spain.  Cooks could choose to make Ropa Vieja (a dish of tomatoes and leftover meats), an Olla (or meat stew), Spanish fritters (walnut-sized yeasted fried dough served with wine and sugar or molasses), and more thanks to Mrs. Randolph.

So, Mrs. Casas, you may not have been the first to publish Spanish recipes in the United States, but you are the best.  Like Mrs. Randolph’s, your impact on our meals and our lives will endure.


Empty-Headed or Future Leaders? Cooking-School Pupils in the 1800s

I wrote the other day about the market savvy of Elizabeth Goodfellow, who ran the first cooking school in the United States.  Mrs. Goodfellow, Becky Libourel Diamond explains in her study of the enterprising woman, was a Philadelphia pastry chef in the early decades of the 1800s.  She had a thriving retail and catering business and also offered cooking lessons.

Diamond tells us that Mrs. Goodfellow’s students were typically well-off young ladies in the marriage market.  Knowing how to cook would help them catch and keep a husband and therefore their mothers, wise in the ways of the world, sent them to Mrs. Goodfellow’s school.  Moreover, Diamond adds, the mark of a good hostess was her ability to execute delicious and stunning desserts.  In high society, she says, people talked when a lady’s dessert course did not measure up.

The young ladies in Mrs. Goodfellow’s classes had good reason to be attentive pupils, as Diamond tells it, but nonetheless they didn’t always want to be there.  “Some of the girls tittered together,” she writes, “and didn’t seem overly eager to learn.”  The sensible teacher, however, took them in hand and focused them on the tasks at hand.

Diamond’s sources may well recount such a scene and, as she relates it, the girls come across as fairly empty-headed.  Whether or not they wanted to take cooking lessons, however, they may have been far from empty-headed.  In the decades after the American Revolution, women’s education had blossomed.  Just as scores of colleges and seminaries for men were founded in that era, so were academies for young women.  Well-to do parents (and a few who were less well-placed in society) sent their daughters to these institutions to pursue educations that rivaled their brothers’.  Historian Mary Kelley explains that in these schools, women learned “to stand and speak.”  They came to see themselves as full-fledged citizens.  After their formal schooling was over, these women kept up their intellectual and civic engagement through teaching, writing for publication, and leading, most notably in the women’s rights movement of the 1840s and ’50s.

Were Mrs. Goodfellow’s students not only well-off but also well-educated?  Did young women who had “learned to stand and speak” remain resentful of their schooling in the culinary arts?  Or in time did their views of Mrs. Goodfellow change?  Did they come to see her as they come to see her as the kind of accomplished and independent woman they might be?  Was she a teacher in more ways than one?


Marketing Genius in the Early United States

Until I decided to teach a family baking class based on recipes from Malinda Russell, author of the first known African American cookbook, published in 1866, I had never thought about the history of American cooking schools.  If I had thought about it, I would have guessed cooking schools were a recent invention, from a world that demanded formal educational qualifications and that had enough people with time and money to take recreational cooking classes.  In the 1800s, surely, girls learned to cook and bake at their mothers’ knees.

Many – probably most – did, but not all.  Well-off young ladies in Philadelphia in the early 1800s had another option.  They could attend Elizabeth Goodfellow’s cooking school, the first in the United States.  Mrs. Goodfellow (whose maiden name was, aptly, Baker) was an upmarket pastry chef.  In addition to selling fancy desserts from her shop, she had a successful catering business.  She also taught marriageable young ladies how to bake elegant desserts.

In Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, Becky Libourel Diamond uncovers the story of this enterprising woman.  For a time, she tells us, Mrs. Goodfellow shared premises, at 64 Dock Street, with an artist who taught drawing and painting to young ladies and gentlemen.  Perhaps, Diamond suggests, the pastry chef and the artist collaborated to offer their clients package deals.  At the very least, as she points out, students in one of the schools might get interested in the other and sign up.

I didn’t know anything about Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school until recently, but that sort of market savvy comes as no surprise to me after having studied American and British philanthropists of the late 1700s and early 1800s.  A consumer economy had burgeoned in the Atlantic world in the 1700s.  Over the century, merchants and manufacturers had developed new goods and paid new attention to advertising their wares.  Philanthropists – who had to part people from their money too – learned likewise about using the media of the day to attract support to their causes.  Certainly prominent Philadelphia reformer Dr. Benjamin Rush had, as he showed when a new president arrived to take the helm at Carlisle College (now Dickinson College) in 1785.  Dr. Rush was a trustee of the school and had played a role in the recruitment of the new president.  Have the church bell rung when the new president arrives in town, he suggested.  “The news of these things will make a clever paragraph in our Philadelphia papers,” he commented, “and help allure scholars to our College.”  Not the glitz of a media marketing campaign today, but if that’s not media know-how, I don’t know what is.

Cross marketing culinary and art classes?  Dr. Rush’s fellow Philadelphians did him proud.

We’ll explore more about Mrs. Goodfellow and her cooking school in coming days.



Malinda Russell, Meet Annie Etheridge Hooks

I was a pastry chef.  I became a historian.  The two fields, baking and history, seemed so separate, totally unrelated, until I recently had the idea of teaching a hands-on family baking class based on recipes from the first-known cookbook by an African American, Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook.

Mrs. Russell had been a pastry chef for several years in her native Tennessee.  During the Civil War, she was harassed for supporting the Union and forced to flee to Michigan.  Once the war was over, she wanted to return home and published her cookbook to raise the necessary funds.  I could, I thought, explore and honor the life of my fellow pastry chef by teaching baking skills based a few of her best cake and cookie recipes.

Teaching and learning go hand-in-hand, and I figured as I prepared for the class, I would learn new things about the life of Mrs. Russell and the experiences of free African Americans in the mid-1800s more generally.  I would also learn more about baking in the past.  Little did I imagine I would find myself reading up on Civil War heroine Anne Etheridge Hooks.

Where could I teach my historic baking class?  Washington, DC’s new Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital seemed like the obvious place.  The building dates to the Civil War when more hospital space was needed to care for “seamen serving on the Potomac River and its tributaries.”  Construction began in 1864 and was completed in 1866, and in June 1866, the hospital took its first patient, 24-year old African American seamen Benjamin Drummond.  Until 1911, the hospital cared for Civil War and Spanish American War veterans.  Then, for about a decade, it became the Hospital Corps Training School.  Between 1922 and 1963, it was the private Temporary Home for Old Soldiers and Sailors.  For the next few decades, the building housed social service organizations, but then fell into disrepair and disuse.  In recent years, Capitol Hill residents restored the building to use as a cultural center.  Baking 1866 recipes in a beautifully renovated 1866 building seemed perfect.

I made the arrangements and went to check out the Hill Center’s Demonstration Kitchen.   The kitchen is named for one Annie Etheridge Hooks.  Who was she, I wondered.

It turns out Annie Etheridge Hooks (pictured here) is one of two women awarded the prestigious Kearny Cross during the Civil War.  Born Anna Blair in Wayne County, Michigan, in 1839, the recently-married Annie joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry regiment as a vivandiere, or a woman who provisioned and aided the troops.  Her husband James Etheridge had joined too, but he soon deserted and Annie transferred to the 3rd Michigan.  Later, she served with the 5th Michigan regiment.  At times during her service, she cooked and performed other chores for soldiers, but her fame came from her courage and dedication as a battlefield nurse.  June 22, 1864, saw the “good-looking young woman” on a battlefield near Petersburg, Virginia, caring for wounded soldiers in the midst of fierce fighting.  About two years earlier, in August 1862, at the Second Battle of Bull Run, “Gentle Annie” faced enemy fire as she helped lead wounded soldiers to shelter.  Soldiers repeatedly mentioned her in their diaries and letters home.  “[A] braver soul cannot be found,” wrote one after Etheridge’s skirt was blown off by a bombshell at Chancellorsville in 1863.  In May of that year, she received the Kearny Cross, an award for “meritorious and distinguished non-commissioned officers and privates.”  After the war, she remarried and came to live on Capitol Hill.  When Annie Hooks died in 1913, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.

Malinda Russell, meet Annie Hooks.  Your lives differed in many ways, but you shared the fortitude to make your own ways in a time of crisis.  Your stories are inspirations.


Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake Recipe – This One’s a Keeper

I’ve been exploring the Washington Cake recipe in Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook, the first-known cookbook by an African American.  To learn more about the origins of Washington Cakes, I went to Mount Vernon and did a little historical sleuthing in the works of other historians and in newspapers from the 1800s.

There is still more digging to be done on the Washington Cake.  Why did cakes with this name emerge, as they evidently did, in the 1830s?  That is, why did commemorations of George Washington take a baked form at that time?  We don’t have a satisfactory answer yet and that research will take time.

In the meantime, what better way to learn about the cake than to make it?  I baked it this morning and can say without qualification, this is a great cake.  It’s simple and tender and has bright flavor.  It would be (will be, after dinner tonight) perfect with summer fruits and maybe some crème fraiche.  Frosting and layering the cake with a lemon buttercream would be terrific too.  It’s also delicious plain.

I’ll share Mrs. Russell’s recipe and then tell you what I did.

Here’s her original recipe:

 Washington Cake

Three cups sugar, six eggs, one cup butter, one cup sour milk, one teaspoon soda, three cups flour, one teaspoon cream tartar; flavor with lemon to your taste.

That’s it.  (Mrs. Russell has confidence in your baking skills.  If you don’t and are in DC, sign up for my family baking class based on her recipes.  It’ll be September 21 at the Hill Center.)

I slightly adapted her recipe.  The main thing I did was to halve it, since her recipe is quite large.  I also left out the cream of tartar since it didn’t seem necessary to the leavening.  And I chose to bake it to two 9 x 2” pans, but you could use other pans and adjust the baking time accordingly.

Malinda Russell’s Washington Cake, Adapted by Amanda Moniz

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour

½ tsp. baking soda

Pinch of salt

½ c. unsalted butter (4 oz. or 1 stick)

1 ½ c. sugar

3 eggs

½ c. buttermilk

Zest and juice of one lemon

Preheat the oven to 325 on a convection oven or 350 on a conventional oven.

Grease two 9 x 2” round cake pans.  Put a parchment paper circle in each pan and grease the pan again and flour it.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down after each addition.

Add the lemon juice and zest to the buttermilk.

Alternately, add the flour and buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour and mixing only until the ingredients are incorporated.  You should add the flour in three additions and the buttermilk in two additions.  Scrape down after each addition.

Scrape the batter into the cake pans.

Bake about 25 minutes.  About halfway through the baking time (after about 15 minutes), rotate the cake pans for even baking.  Bake until the cakes are golden and a wooden toothpick or metal cake tester comes out clean.  The cakes should spring back when pressed gently.

Cool in the pans for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto a metal rack to cool completely.  Enjoy.

Thank you, Mrs. Russell, for adding a Washington Cake to my repertoire.

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Washington Cake — the Cake of Entrepreneurs

I’m on a quest to uncover more about Malinda Russell, the little-known author of the first African America cookbook, published in 1866.  Diligent historian that I am, I’m slogging through archival sources like census records and newspapers, local histories and nineteenth-century organizational records, and more.  Former pastry chef, that I am (as was Mrs. Russell), I’m trying another approach too.  I’m working my way through her recipes in hopes that I’ll get a feel for her palate and her experience of our shared craft.

Some of her recipes are familiar.  Some sound peculiar (grated bread cake, anyone?)  And some, like Washington Cake, are intriguing.  Does the Washington Cake have any real connection to George Washington, I wondered?  Last week I went to Mount Vernon to see what I could find out.

I learned a lot about Washington’s sweet tooth.  Fruit desserts, cookies, gingerbread, and ice cream were eaten year-round, while at Christmastime, Martha Washington oversaw enslaved cooks Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, and hired workers in the making of a “Great Cake.”  Great it was with no fewer than 40 eggs.

But there was no word on Washington Cake.  And nothing called a Washington Cake turns up in the earliest American cookbooks, those published – starting with Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery in 1796 – in the United States’s first few decades.  The first cookbook reference to a Washington Cake, says culinary historian Gil Marks, isn’t until 1830.  Newspapers, I’ve found, start mentioning Washington Cakes in the late 1830s.

“This cake derives its name,” asserted a August 9, 1842, piece in the Schenectady (New York) Cabinet, picked up by other newspapers throughout the country, “from the fact that it was a great favorite at the table of General Washington; the last two years of his life, it always formed one of the delicacies of his breakfast table.”

Another story goes that a New York shopkeeper named Mary Simpson sold slices of cake each February 22 to honor Washington’s birthday.  She was, she claimed with no corroborating evidence, a devoted former slave of Washington’s.  An enterprising businesswoman seems more likely to me.

Malinda Russell was an enterprising businesswoman too.  As the many newspaper ads for them suggest, cakes named for the first president sold, and bakers termed a variety of baked goodies – some with fruit, some without, some made with yeast, some with other leaveners – Washington Cakes.  Mrs. Russell’s Washington Cake recipe is simple, made with butter and sour milk and flavored with lemon.  Check back in the next couple days for the recipe.