History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


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.




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.