History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Leave a comment

A Pastry School in Colonial Boston

This year I’ll be teaching a series of historic cooking and baking classes at DC’s terrific Hill Center.

A while ago I mentioned that my plans to teach my first historic baking class got me curious about culinary education in early America.  A Philadelphia pastry chef, Elizabeth Goodfellow, I learned from Becky Diamond’s fascinating book, ran the first cooking school in the United States, in the first decades of the 1800s.  Working on my new classes got me thinking again about Mrs. Goodfellow and, especially, her predecessors.

I had read that before the 1800s, chefs in America had taught cooking lessons, but Mrs. Goodfellow’s was the first cooking school.  What, I wondered, could I learn about cooking lessons in the 1700s?

Where else to start digging but newspaper ads?  I searched the remarkable digital America’s Historical Newspapers, for the word “pastry” to see what I would find.  (I’ll just pause here to make a public service announcement for any students out there: Digital resources are but one tool in historical research.  Colleagues, no need to thank me.)

What I came upon surprised me.  “The Pastry School and Painting upon Glass, and plain work, Marking, Flowering, and Embroidering, may be learned in the House where Mr. Perkins kept his Dancing-School, right over against Mr. Astin’s the Apothecary, in the South-End,” advertised one Margaret Mackellwen of Boston in November and December of 1736.  In short, there was a school teaching pastry in Boston as early as the 1730s!

Who was Margaret Mackellwen?  Did her school last long?  And did many people plunk down money for classes?  I haven’t yet turned up any more information, but I’m eager to learn more.

Margaret Mackellwen’s ad surprised me, but it did not astonish me.  After all, Mackellwen’s venture belonged to a time when Americans were embracing a consumer culture.  In the 1700s, people throughout the British empire built a global commercial economy.  As a result, many Americans, like their British counterparts, had more money to spend, though others found themselves squeezed harder.  Those who could spend, did.  They increasingly graced their tables with tea sets, decorated their homes with carpets – Persian, Scottish, or Turkish? – and adorned themselves in satins of whatever color they liked.  Americans’ homes were getting more comfortable, and colonists, on the fringes, as many saw it, of civilization, were becoming more genteel.

Margaret Mackellwen’s pastry school – or, better, her cultural center – belonged to this world of consumer choice.  It was a world where she could outfit an operation that would help young ladies (surely they were intended clientele) secure or flaunt their gentility.  Or at least, she hoped she could.  After December 1736, her ads stop showing up.  She was, I suspect, too early, too optimistic about the consumer revolution that would in coming decades transform the colonies.

So, I wasn’t astonished, but I am intrigued.  I see a research trip – hello, Boston – in my future.


Historic Cooking and Baking Series at DC’s Hill Center

I am pleased to announce I will be teaching a series of historic cooking and baking classes at DC’s Hill Center in the Annie Etheridge Hooks Demonstration Kitchen over the coming year.  In these fun hands-on classes, we’ll make historic recipes adapted for modern kitchens while we explore notable people and events from the colonial period to the late 1800s.

The series kicks off in February with Food and Freedom, a class exploring African American cookbook authors, Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher, and their struggles for independence and equality before, during, and after the Civil War.

April features Presidential Parties.  We’ll make some of the sweets that Dolley Madison served at her famous White House shindigs — and discover how she used parties to political ends.

In June, Civil War Sanitary Fair Cookbooks marks the 150th anniversary of the first American charity cookbook, published to raise funds to aid Union troops during the Civil War.  There is no better place to make recipes from the 1864 Poetical Cook-book than the Hill Center’s Civil War-era building, the Old Naval Hospital.

July brings Patriotic Cakes.  In celebration of American Independence, we’ll bake cakes named for the men who won the American Revolutionary War – and probe why Americans in the 1800s were honoring their heroes by naming desserts for them.

September highlights Mediterranean Cooking in Early America.  The first American Jews had roots in Spain and Portugal, and they brought Mediterranean foods to the future United States.  We’ll make some of their classic dishes while we talk about the first Jewish life in early America.

The series ends in November with a look at Abraham Lincoln’s experiences living at a Capitol Hill boardinghouse during his term in Congress.  Meals at Congressional “Messes” explores the day-to-day life and the political importance of Lincoln’s home away from home as we make hearty boardinghouse fare.

For more information and to register, please click here.

I hope to see you in a class!






History Belongs to All of Us — A New Year’s Day Tribute

I was reading up on New Year’s customs in early America so I could write something at once insightful and witty for the holiday.  In the 1600s, I learned, Dutch colonists in New Netherland “opened the house” for family and friends on New Year’s Day.  Hosts offered their guests nieuwjaarskoeken – or New Year’s cakes.  Made with caraway, cardamom, coriander, or honey, the little cakes – or koekjes – were stamped with pictures of plants and animals.  After the colony became New York – the Dutch lost the territory to the English in 1664 – English settlers borrowed the tradition and Anglicized the word koekjes to “cookies.”  Well into the nineteenth century, New Yorkers marked New Year’s Day by giving and eating the stamped cookies.

Reading about the Dutch open houses made me want to bake cookies.  But it also put me in mind of my fellow historians.  We are a sociable bunch, happy to accept free food and unlikely to say no to a drink.  Since it’s the time of year for looking both forward and back, my mind wandered to some of the early Americanists who had died during the last twelvemonth.  We lost some of our greats.

In July, one of the best and most influential early American historians, Edmund Morgan – who ranged over topics from the Puritans, to slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia, to the life of Benjamin Franklin – died at 97.  A month later, Pauline Maier – student of popular uprisings and Revolutionary declarations – followed him.  And just a few weeks ago, William Pencak, less famous than Morgan or Maier but a keen scholar of expansive interests and generous spirit, died unexpectedly and too soon.

Oddly, none of these scholars wrote much about dessert.  (Whether they ate much dessert, I can’t say.)  Nonetheless, each shaped my interest in or approach to the history of desserts and food more generally.  Pencak’s Jews and Gentiles in Early America taught me much about early American Jewish communities and made me curious to know more.  It is because of him I plan to teach a cooking class later in the year on Sephardic food in colonial British North America.  For her part, Maier’s insistence that we look to the deeds and words of the less known to understand major events is reflected in my view that the stories people tell through cooking and cookbooks illuminate important chapters in our history.

It is Morgan who had the biggest impact on me.  History belongs to all of us, he said in a public conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed about his approach to writing.  History belongs to all of us and we should not make it obtuse.  That simple statement has guided me since I heard it.  It has shaped my writing.  And it inspired me, finally, to marry my love of history to my love of food – something else that is best, as those New Netherland New Year’s Day hosts knew, when shared.

No stamped cookies for me today, but I’ll raise a glass to the legacies of William Pencak, Pauline Maier, and Edmund Morgan.