History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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Indian Pudding, or How to Fight Hunger 200 Years Ago

Today is World Food Day.  It’s a day of advocacy for the many organizations around the globe working to end hunger and to better nutrition among vulnerable populations.  This year’s theme is Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.

Among many today, improving food security and nutrition go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on local food systems.  DC’s FRESHFARM Markets school program, FoodPrints builds school gardens and then incorporates gardening and cooking into the school curriculum.  DC Chef Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen is, among other projects, building a school garden and a school kitchen, featuring clean stoves, in Palmiste Tampe, Haiti.  Eating food raised locally, we now believe, helps to combat hunger and malnutrition by increasing access to healthy food and exciting people (especially kids) about eating vegetables and fruit.  It also reduces the environmental impact of transporting food, among other things.  Local, many in food circles today think, is where it’s at.

Not a couple hundreds years ago.  Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, was one of the leading food philanthropists of the 1790s and early 1800s.  Born in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1753, Thompson had remained loyal to the British Crown when the American Revolution came.  His loyalism was not popular with his neighbors, and Thompson, like many thousands of other Loyalists, left his natal land.  Thompson served in the British Army and, in time, got a gig with the Elector of Bavaria, who ennobled him as Count Rumford.  First charged with reforming the Bavarian army, Rumford’s duties grew to include reforming poor relief in Munich.  He succeeded – though the poor folks eating his famous, very thin soup might have had different views on what constitutes success – and Rumford wrote a book describing his program and offering his thoughts on fighting hunger more generally.

No local approach for him.  Global was the way to go.  “Those whose avocations” or “fortune” led them to travel “have many opportunities of acquiring useful information from abroad,” he thought.  And the well-to-do too were lucky in having access to new foodstuffs from around the world.  The rich, he believed, had an obligation to introduce the cheap and nutritious foods they discovered to their poorer compatriots and to share knowledge of how to prepare them.

One food, in particular, Rumford thought, deserved to be better known.  Indian corn – maize – was “beyond comparison the most nourishing, cheapest, and most wholesome” food “that can be procured for feeding the Poor,” he gushed.  He helpfully included several Indian pudding recipes in an entire chapter of his book devoted to the topic.  Now typically a dessert, Indian pudding – a cornmeal mush generally sweetened with molasses and sometimes maple syrup – was in Rumford’s day a staple of New Englander’s meals.  It was a staple he missed dearly in his European exile.  The local dimensions of his global approach to addressing hunger may have something in common with today’s movement after all.

Hats off to all of Rumford’s latter-day colleagues.  There is no cause more worthy than ending hunger on our bounteous planet.


Upcoming Baking Class: Civil War Thanksgiving

Upcoming Class:  Civil War Thanksgiving

This year’s Thanksgiving marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of a national Thanksgiving holiday.  In 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving holiday.  In addition to meals with family and friends, Americans in the Union observed the day by putting on special Thanksgiving dinners for wounded troops in hospitals similar to the Old Naval Hospital, the building that now houses DC’s terrific new cultural center, the Hill Center.

The idea of having a national Thanksgiving holiday, however, went back to before the Civil War.  The influential writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale (perhaps best remembered as the author of Mary Had a Little Lamb), had long pushed for a national Thanksgiving holiday as a way to unify the nation increasingly being torn apart over the slavery question.  It was not until the country was at war that her campaign succeeded.

I’m exploring this history in a baking class at the Hill Center on Sunday, November 24, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.  Adults and children of all ages are welcome.  Children must be accompanied by adults.  You can register here.

Using recipes adapted from Sarah Hale’s 1857 New Cook Book, we will make – and sample! – squash pie, mini fruit preserve pies, and apple cider cake.  We will cover making and rolling pie dough, making pie filling, preparing and using egg washes, proper measuring, proper mixing and creaming, and preparing cake pans.  Whether you’re a beginner or already a baker, you’ll learn something new as we explore the history of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I hope to see you there!





What Makes a Dessert Historic?

From time to time, I have an argument with my father-in-law.  “This is really historic,” he’ll say, referring to a notable election or the development of a new technology.  “I’ve never been involved in something historic before,” he’ll add.  “You’re involved in something historic every day,” I’ll reply.  “History isn’t just about great events or made by great people,” I’ll continue, marshalling the most relevant examples and citing the best authorities to prove my point.

I never get anywhere. 

Perhaps the desserts shared by historians at a recent networking lunch can help me make my case.  A few days ago, I attended a get-together, held at the National Museum of American History, of women historians in the DC area.  There were a number of people from academe plus historians from the American History museum, the Library of Congress, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the National Park Service, the White House Historical Association, the National Mall and Monuments, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  (To all of you unemployed historians whose hearts are suddenly beating a little faster: Before heady visions of a job with the federal government befog your thinking, may I remind you of sequester and the shutdown?)

 The get-together was terrific.  We talked about what we are working on and what we could use help with.  We heard from the curators of FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 about their work on this fascinating exhibit.  We chit-chatted.  And we ate dessert.

 We had each been invited to bring a historic dessert to the lunch and a number of people (hello, my friends) did. 

 So what desserts did my esteemed colleagues bring?  What desserts do historians think are historic? 

 I took jumbles.  Someone brought apple pie (inspired, and delicious) and someone else contributed zucchini bread (a classic, and also very tasty).  Another offering was (some very good) rugelach – an Eastern European Jewish pastry filled with nuts, dried fruit, or other goodies – that presumably arrived in the United States with the great wave of Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Virginia Funny Cake – a cake baked in a pie shell – was a treat new to most of us that came from the 1958 National Council of Negro Women Historical Cookbook of the American Negro.  And then there were Rice Krispies Treats.  Not one, but two historians brought them. 

 Rice Krispies Treats? 

 Yes, you read right.  My accomplished colleagues, serious and dedicated in their study of the past, deem Rice Krispies Treats to be historic.

 So what, dear father-in-law, does that mean?

 The Kellogg’s company – maker of the breakfast that goes Snap, Crackle, Pop – owes its cereal business to a nineteenth-century health reform movement, one of the many and varied reform movements of the day.  Healthy-living advocate John Harvey Kellogg developed breakfast cereals for patients at his Battle Creek, Michigan, sanitarium, and his brother Will Keith Kellogg developed a business to market them more widely.

 But, as historically notable as the founding of the Kellogg’s company is, I don’t think that’s why my colleagues chose to bring Rice Krispies Treats.

 They are historic not because (or not only because) of a connection to an influential person, but because they have a particular place in a particular culture at a particular moment in time. 

 Millions of Americans have shaped history, not in a big way, but in a meaningful way, by embracing Rice Krispies Treats.  Their decisions to make them or not affects the profits of cereal and marshmallow companies and influences the companies’ product development:  Ordinary people’s everyday decisions shape American business history.  They reflect and shape cultural history too.  It’s hard to imagine a school bake sale without Rice Krispies Treats on offer.  I bet that’s why my fellow historians brought them to our lunch.  Sweet, gooey, and crunchy, these tasty goodies have a persistent place in our community lives.  We make them to eat at home, of course, but we also have made them a staple of communal gatherings – potlucks, bake sales, and, yup, networking lunches.