History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Ice Cream, The Original American Hanukkah Dessert

One thing I like about Hanukkah is that it lasts for eight days. It’s hard to miss. That’s nice if you want to explore the surprising dessert history of the holiday in the United States in a timely manner but don’t want to get caught up in the hoopla around this year’s Thanksgivukkah. (Future cultural historians, may I note, are going to have a field day dissecting the historic holiday hullabaloo.)

Now when you think about Hanukkah food, dessert probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. My bet, whether you’re Jewish or not, is that you would be most familiar with latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil and served with applesauce, sour cream, or, preferably, both. If, like the earliest American Jews, you or your friends have Sephardic ancestry – with forebears whose roots lay in Iberia or other parts of the Mediterranean world – you may think of other fried foods including the Italian Jewish dessert of sweet squash fritters dusted with powdered sugar. And doughnuts might also come to mind. You would not think of ice cream. Hanukkah celebrations feature fried foods and ice cream is not (usually) fried.

Why fried foods? The holiday marks the Jewish people’s re-dedication of their sacred temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. Enemies had taken and violated the temple and they had prohibited Jews from worshipping their God. After several years, a group of Jewish rebels, known as Maccabees, fought back and retook the temple. To purify and re-dedicate the temple, the Maccabees wanted to burn oil in a menorah – the temple candelabra – for eight days, but had only enough oil for one night. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted for the full eight days. Fried foods eaten during Hanukkah commemorate the miracle.

So where does ice cream come into the story? The answer has to do with how Hanukkah became a major American Jewish holiday. In religious terms, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, and in most Jewish communities around the world, it is not especially important. In the United States, however, it has become a big holiday, as historian Dianne Ashton explains in a new book, Hanukkah in America.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, a time when there were no rabbinical schools in the country, American Jews were concerned about the fate of Judaism in the United States. Some looked to the Maccabees as role models for Jewish leaders. Meanwhile, American Christians were increasingly celebrating Christmas (a holiday not widely observed in America before the mid-1800s – more on that in the next few weeks). Reform Jewish leaders in Cincinnati, a center of German Jewish life, pushed for American Jews to celebrate Hanukkah and to do so in a way that put children at the heart of the holiday. Like their Christian peers, Jewish children would have a special winter celebration and one, the rabbis hoped, that would help them feel good about their heritage in the face of the anti-Semitism they too often encountered.

And the ice cream? The Cincinnati rabbis proposed that Hanukkah festivals feature, not only songs and candles, but also oranges and ice cream. Now that is inspirational leadership in my book.

Folks, Hanukkah ends when evening falls later today. That means there’s still time, whatever your beliefs, to observe this Jewish, but also deeply American holiday of both cultural continuity and adaptation, with a scoop of cold creamy goodness.

Happy Hanukkah!


Maple, A Sweetener to Be Thankful For

The other day I had maple pudding for dessert (at Proof, well worth a visit if you’re in DC) and as I savored it, I thought, “Now this a dessert we can be thankful for.”

Was it the smooth, creamy texture?  The deep flavor?  The crunchy Graham cracker crumble and Calvados whipped cream on top?  Nope.  It was that my maple pudding put me in mind of the early antislavery movement.

My fellow early American historians are probably nodding sagely and thinking, “But of course.”  Loyal readers may have an inkling of where this is going.  My new friends, however, may be wondering what the connection between the sweet sap from a maple tree and antislavery could possibly be.

From the 1500s into the 1800s, cane sugar and its by-product, molasses, were produced in the West Indies by enslaved Africans.  A couple weeks ago, I asked whether Indian Pudding should be renamed Atlantic Pudding in recognition of the central role that sugar and molasses played in the creation of the Atlantic world.  Folks, sugar was big business.  The British, Danish, French, and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean all produced sugar – for export to Europe and North America – on plantations that built on earlier Portuguese experience running sugar plantations on Madeira, Sao Tome, and Principe.  To supply labor for the plantations, Europeans developed a sophisticated trade in slaves from Africa:  These poor souls were worked so brutally that they typically died within several years of arriving in the Caribbean.  Sugar cultivation was so profitable, however, that it was more economically rational for planters to import new slaves than to treat their human property better.

Antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic well understood that they sweetened their tea and their treats thanks to slave labor.  But prevailing on their compatriots to give up sugar altogether, well, how likely was that to succeed?  Maple sugar might be the answer.  If we could manufacture maple sugar, reasoned Philadelphia philanthropist Benjamin Rush in 1789, we might be able “thereby to lessen or destroy the consumption of West India sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy the negro slavery.”  His fellow humanitarian, John Coakley Lettsom of London, agreed.  “[T]his present pursuit of the Americans, to make sugar from the sugar maple,” Lettsom told a friend, “may promote some change in the Islands.”

Alas, a maple-sugar, consumer-based approach to ending Caribbean slavery failed.  It took government action to dismantle the miserable backbone of the Atlantic economy.  In 1808, the American and British governments banned the transatlantic slave trade and in the 1830s, Britain abolished slavery and emancipated slaves in the West Indies.  Maple sugar was not the answer, but maple desserts always remind me of those early activists who had the audacity to challenge an institution sanctioned by time and Scripture.

My dessert at Proof has given me more history to plumb and a recipe to try to recreate.  One of these days, we’ll get to Sylvester Graham, the nineteenth-century health reformer behind those Graham cracker crumbs.  For now, if you’d like a maple dessert, I can do no better than to point you to my old boss, the supremely talented Gina DePalma’s maple and mascarpone cheesecake.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Twists on Classic Pies from the Mother of Thanksgiving

I hear that folks in Maryland, Michigan, and New York – anywhere else? – will be eating my grandmother’s delicious Indian Pudding at their Thanksgiving dinners.  (Some of them will be calling it Atlantic Pudding – you can still vote on this classic dessert’s name!)  What else, I asked myself, can I add to my loyal readers’ holiday dessert buffet?

Well, it’s pie time of year and I’ll be teaching a historic baking class, Civil War Thanksgiving, at DC’s Hill Center so perhaps I can suggest a couple twists on the holiday’s most popular pies – you got it, apple and pumpkin.

The class I’ll be teaching (twice, in one day! sorry, feet) covers baking basics – most of all, working with pie dough – and commemorates the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s proclamation of a Thanksgiving holiday.  The recipes we’ll be making come from Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1857 New Cook Book.  Why her cookbook?  It was Hale, an influential writer and editor of the day, who pushed Lincoln to proclaim the Thanksgiving holiday.

So, it’s to Hale’s cookbook I’ve looked for some ideas for you and she does not disappoint.  She dedicates a whole chapter to pies, first explaining how to make various versions of puff pastry, tart dough, and pie dough, and then offering all manner of pie fillings.  Hale gives us recipes for pies filled with beef steak (serve it, she suggests, with mushroom catsup), steak and oyster, veal, mutton, chicken, and partridge (either a la francaise or “the ordinary way”), and more.  There are several recipes for mince meat pies – family, plain, rich, or lemon.  Then we get to fruit pies and tarts and here we find true inspiration.  “Gooseberries, currants, cherries, raspberries, plums of many kinds, cranberries, and damsons, are used for making large pies,” she begins, and follows with guidelines so we can indeed make them.

There are more fruit (and vegetable) pies.  Peach, coconut, squash, rhubarb, potato, carrot, and, of course, apple and pumpkin.  American and English versions of apple and of pumpkin.

It’s the English versions I’d like to offer you in case you are looking for something a little different.  (The American recipes could just about have been written today, except that she doesn’t use canned pumpkin.)

Here are Hale’s recipes, with some helpful comments from yours truly.

Apple Pie (English)

Pare, core, and cut into quarters, 8 or 10 russet or other good baking apples; and lay them as close together as you can, in a pie-dish, sprinkling among the apples, 4 cloves, 4 oz. of moist sugar, half the peel of a fresh lemon grated, with a squeeze of the lemon juice, and a little nutmeg.  Add a tablespoon of ale, or water; cover it with puff paste, and put it in the oven.  It will take about an hour and a quarter to bake it; but you must see to it, that it does not burn, and keep your oven of a moderate heat.

My tips: 4 ounces of sugar is approximately half a cup.  I’d set the oven to 350° — and do keep an eye on how it’s baking.  One very nice thing about this pie, is that there is no bottom crust to get soggy.

Pumpkin Pie (English)

Take out the seeds, and grate the pumpkin till you come to the outside skin.  Sweeten the pulp; add a little ground allspice, lemon peel and lemon juice; in short, flavor it to the taste.  Bake without an upper crust.

My tips:  I think you could just as well use butternut squash or any squash that you can cut into a few big chunks to grate.  Use a box grater.  As for sweetening the pulp, white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, or honey would be great.  Here, there’s no top crust, just a bottom crust.  I’d blind bake it (that is, partially bake the crust before filling it).  Bake the pie at 350°.

So, what should we make of the fact that Hale includes English versions of Americans’ favorite pies?  Is it a sign of the cultural insecurity of a still-young nation?

Well into the 1800s, Americans were in Britain’s cultural orbit.  They were anxious about their cultural accomplishments and they were exceedingly sensitive to foreign criticism.  But, deference to a superior culture was not what drove Hale to include the English versions.  Instead, she tells us that, “As our Republic is made up from the people of all lands, so I have gathered the best receipts from the Domestic Economy of the different nations of the Old World.  Emigrants from each country will, in this “New Cook Book,” find the method of preparing their favorite dishes.”  Mrs. Hale wanted, in short, to sell cookbooks.  “The prominent features are, however,” she adds, “American.”  Her cookbook, she assures us, has something for everyone, and based on her pie recipes, I’d say she’s right.

Friends, I should be clear, I haven’t made the English apple or pumpkin pies yet.  I’ve been making pies day in and day out for the last couple weeks.  My family has eaten their fill and my neighbors have done their part too.  We need a pie break until next Thursday.  But making pie is like making a sandwich.  Really.  You can put anything in a crust, bake it, and you will have a pie.  (Okay, true, you will need to have some idea that wetter, custardy fillings – such as the familiar pumpkin pie filling – will need eggs for structure.)

Speaking of crust, if I included instructions on how to make piecrust here, this post would get far too long.  My friends at American Food Roots can help.  They will be holding a Twitter chat about pie Friday, November 22, at 10 a.m. EST.  Or, if you’re in DC, I’d love to see you in my class on Sunday.

Happy baking!


Indian Pudding, or What’s in a Name?

On World Food Day, I wrote about Count Rumford, a forerunner of today’s food philanthropists, and one of the dishes he advocated to alleviate hunger in the 1790s, Indian pudding.

What’s Indian pudding?, a devoted follower asked.

Early New Englanders would have been astonished by the question.  Indian pudding is a custard made with cornmeal, molasses, and milk and was a staple of their diet.  Abigail and John Adams ate it daily, typically before their meat and vegetable course.  Today it is more often served as a dessert, but it’s not an overly sweet dish and, as Saveur magazine suggests, it would make a nice Thanksgiving side dish.  (Certainly, Indian pudding is less sweet than that mainstay of our harvest holiday meal, sweet potatoes with marshmallow.)

Indian pudding is a delicious dish, with a deep molasses flavor.  It’s a perfect warming treat when there’s a nip in the air.  Another plus is that it bakes for about three hours.  That’s great if you are feeling both chilly and guilty for considering turning up the thermostat.  Make Indian pudding and, I assure you, your home will get nice and toasty.

I’m betting you’d like to try this comfort food yourself, so I’ll give you my grandmother’s recipe.  In exchange, I’d like you to vote below on the name.

Bessie Webb Moniz’s Indian Pudding

5 c. milk

2/3 c. dark molasses

1/3 c. sugar

1/2 c. yellow cornmeal

1 tsp. salt

3/4 tsp. cinnamon

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 c. butter, cut in small pieces

Preheat oven to 300°.

Bring a pot partially filled with water to a simmer.

In a separate small pot, scald 4 c. milk.

Pour scalded milk into a bowl that can be set over the simmering water.  Add remaining ingredients, except the remaining cold milk.

Cook over hot water 20 minutes or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly.

Turn into baking dish.

Add 1 c. cold milk, but do not stir.

Bake at 300 for 3 hours without stirring until the pudding is set.

Serve warm with heavy cream, hard sauce or ice cream.

My grandmother also noted at the bottom of the recipe card she gave my mother, “Better cut recipe in half and also cut cooking time a little.  The top of my double boiler is a bowl, so I get by with only one dish to wash.  You can reheat this over hot water.”  (She’s right, it’s a big recipe.  But it keeps well for a few days and, in spite of what she says about reheating, it’s very good at room temperature too.  Oh, and I served it with apple cider caramel sauce.)

Now about the name.  English colonists in North America called maize – the staple grain of the native diet – “Indian corn,” and the name “Indian pudding” followed.

Is the name insensitive?  Should it be renamed?  I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the traditional name and a few alternatives.  You vote.  (Remember, we made a bargain.)

Indian Pudding

The name doesn’t strike me as offensive in the way that the name of Washington’s professional football does, but the term “Indian” evokes stereotyped images of diverse native peoples.  (Paradoxically, the early European settlers well appreciated the political differences among their native neighbors and used them in forming military alliances.)  On the other hand, the traditional name captures important history.  Europeans did learn about maize and other foods from the first Americans and did develop new dishes based on that cultural exchange.

Native Pudding

Sometimes this name is used in place of the original.  On the plus side, it avoid the term “Indian.”  But it suggests, I think, that native peoples created the pudding, which is not the case.  English colonists, culinary historians believe, adapted their familiar “hasty puddings” – made with flour, oats, or other grains and milk or water  – based on ingredients they encountered in the New World.  Calling it native pudding leaves an inaccurate impression, in my view.

Atlantic Pudding

This name (which I came up with!) has much to recommend it.  Molasses, as central an ingredient to the pudding as the cornmeal, is a product of the Atlantic world.  Indeed, sugar and molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) are the quintessential Atlantic world products.  What’s the Atlantic world, you wonder?  It’s a way that historians understand and explore the interconnected development of the societies around the Atlantic basin in the centuries after Columbus’s voyage.  Sugar was of paramount importance in creating the Atlantic world.  Produced in the French, Spanish, and British West Indies by African slaves, sugar was shipped mainly to European consumers.  North Americans belonged to this Atlantic world too.  New Englanders supplied the West Indian islands with equipment and foodstuffs for the sugar plantations, and they imported molasses – to distill into rum and to sweeten food – in return.  “Atlantic pudding” captures that history.  On the con side, it evokes the brutal slave trade and slavery that made the Atlantic sugar complex possible.  We should remember that history, but perhaps the dessert course isn’t the most palatable time to consider it?

Maize, Molasses, and Milk Pudding

Straightforward, informative, and alliterative.  But this name lacks, oh, I don’t know, any sort of charm.

Your votes, please.  Comments and other suggestions are more than welcome too.


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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.