1855: Cornstarch cake

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Years before cornstarch was marketed for culinary use, housewives baked it into weirdly industrial cakes.

If any cake baked from scratch ever looked like the product of food industry marketing, it’s the cornstarch cake, a plain white cake in which a third or more of the flour is replaced by cornstarch. It seems so obviously a gimmick to get you to use up that ancient box of cornstarch in your pantry—it’s not just for pudding anymore! You might expect to find such a recipe sponsored by the Cornstarch Council, or perhaps in an ad for Argo brand. What’s more, I have never baked anything from scratch that so strongly resembled, in flavor, appearance, and texture, a packaged snack cake. But cornstarch cake was neither factory made nor even factory invented. It appeared in the 1850s, decades before cornstarch was branded and sold in boxes and before manufacturers marketed their products with recipes and cookbooks. Cornstarch cake was the product of ordinary women experimenting at home, looking for shortcuts—hacking their cakes, you might say — and that fact ought to make us rethink some of our assumptions about why Americans started eating “processed” food.


At mid-century cornstarch was new to American kitchens, and far from common. Though it had been manufactured for decades, only in the 1840s could it be manufactured on an industrial scale, after an Englishman named Orlando Jones discovered that using an alkali to recover the starch granules improved the yield. A New Jersey factory began using his method in 1844, other companies followed, and by the 1850s, according to Eliza Leslie, the great nineteenth-century food writer, cornstarch could “be had of most grocers.” Yet it wasn’t packaged for or marketed to consumers; most cornstarch was sold in bulk to other manufacturers or to grocers for use as laundry starch. Only in about 1880 did companies realize that there was a greater profit margin in selling branded boxed cornstarch for cooking purposes.1

Nevertheless, home cooks experimented. The number of meals eaten in hotel and restaurants was then vanishingly small, and the highest achievement of factory baking was the soda cracker: American cooking was home cooking, and there was no one else to do the experimenting. Within a few years of cornstarch’s becoming available Eliza Leslie found that it thickened puddings almost instantly—a tremendous improvement over flour, which must be cooked out for a good twenty minutes, stirring all the while to prevent the pudding being pasty. To be fair, Leslie, who made most of her living writing about food, was in essence a professional cook. But ordinary housewives experimented as well, and one of them thought of using cornstarch in cake. In 1855, Godey’s Lady’s Book, the original and most popular women’s magazine of the day, reported that the following recipe for “corn cake” had taken a special premium at an agricultural fair:

Take the whites of eight eggs; one-fourth pound each of corn starch, flour, and butter; half-pound of sugar; one teaspoonful of cream of tartar; half teaspoonful of soda. Flavor with almond, or suit to the taste.2

The idea, as we would say now, went viral, via the nation’s burgeoning print media. A few years later Peterson’s Magazine offered an all-cornstarch version calling for “one paper of corn starch,” butter, sugar, and six whole eggs. A correspondent to the Southern Cultivator asked, “Will your lady readers, in their next making of sponge cake, substitute ‘corn starch’ for flour, bake it quick, and send us a piece? It is something like ‘Syllabub’ endowed with ‘solidarity.’” By 1870 or so the craze had settled a bit, and cornstarch cake established itself as a white cake with a ratio of 1 part cornstarch to 2 or 3 parts flour—in which form it was submitted multiple times to nearly every charity cookbook published until the end of the century. By the time manufacturers got around to packaging cornstarch for household use in the 1880s, cornstarch cake was old news.3

Strange as it sounds, if you want a light, tender cake, adding cornstarch to the batter makes sense. Gluten, the protein in wheat flour, gives long-rising bread its chew, but it toughens a quick-risen cake. The modern answer to that challenge is cake flour, which has only two-thirds as much protein as all-purpose flour and is bleached with chlorine to partially break down what protein it has. But cake flour wan’t available until the 1890s. Since cornstarch is pure starch and has no protein at all, swapping it in for some flour will help keep a cake tender, and nineteenth-century cooks found it an ingenious solution to the problem of tough cakes.

Cornstarch cake, however, has one serious flaw: it tastes lousy. Modern cookbooks suggest concocting emergency cake flour by substituting just two tablespoons of cornstarch into every cup of all-purpose flour, not a third or more of the total—even though a third of the total is exactly what you’d need to replace to bring the protein content in line with cake flour. The reason is that cornstarch doesn’t only make a cake tender; it changes its texture entirely.

To find out just what cornstarch does, I had to bake a couple of these nineteenth-century cakes. The technique is quite standard: cream the butter and sugar, add any liquid flavorings, stir in the sifted dry ingredients, and fold in beaten egg whites. The result was light, certainly, but also spongy—by which I mean that when compressed it sprang back a bit more readily than the typical fresh home-baked cake, and rather firmly so, a little too much like a literal sponge. Its texture thus resembled, rather distressingly, something I would expect to find wrapped in cellophane. The most common flavoring was only a bit of lemon juice, this being thirty years before vanilla extract became generally available, and the flavor of the resulting cake was oddly clean, as if it had once been present but had been actively scrubbed away.

Clean and light, though, were exactly what nineteenth-century cooks were going for. Consider, first of all, the challenge of leavening breads and cakes before the introduction of chemical leavenings or commercial yeast. For bread the baker had to maintain a living culture of liquid yeast or sourdough; for cake she had to beat butter and eggs by hand—and I do mean by hand; in the absence of even so much as a wire whisk eighteenth-century recipes called for using the palm of the hand, a process that could take up to an hour for a large cake. The expense of not only butter and eggs but of white flour and white sugar added to the challenge. The highest mark of culinary craft was truly light bread or cake. No surprise, then, that when the forerunners of baking soda became available—though like cornstarch, they were originally intended for industrial use—housewives put them to use almost immediately, and by the turn of the twentieth century, they were so ubiquitous that practically anybody could manage a decent cake. In 1850, it was still a challenge. (Note that the original prizewinner had to make her own baking powder, from soda and cream of tartar, another industrial product adopted by home cooks.)

Clean was something equally hard to achieve in 1850, and not only in cooking. Ingredients weren’t always pure: butter and eggs were hard to keep fresh; flour might have mold or weevils; cones of white sugar had to be re-clarified at home to remove insects and debris. (Brown sugar wasn’t only coarser and more strongly flavored; it more easily hid what wasn’t sugar.) It was, moreover, a time before indoor plumbing, when most people lived on farms and had to work hard to keep their houses decently clean, while the residents of growing and increasingly crowded cities threw their kitchen scraps and the contents of their chamber pots into the streets. In such an environment, you can imagine that people might develop a minor obsession with cleanliness and purity—people of the means to do so, at least, and in particular the urban middle class, for whom it had the added virtue of separating them from immigrant workers and farmers.

But (you may protest) wouldn’t a cake that was merely clean and light be kind of boring? Perhaps, but that was fine, because Victorian standards of politeness put a premium on hiding one’s pleasure in eating. This, too, stemmed largely from the desire of people of means in crowded cities wishing to separate themselves from other bodies. In fact, to enjoy one’s own food too freely was increasingly thought immoral; it betrayed a lack of self-control that hinted at other sins, like financial mismanagement and sexual incontinence. To serve bland but visually pleasing food allowed a hostess to show off her culinary prowess while also showing concern for her guests’ wellbeing.

That’s a three-paragraph distillation of a shift in American tastes that took generations to complete. A book might do it justice. Suffice it to say for now that cornstarch cake was the right cake at the right time. The heavily spiced cakes of the eighteenth century had fallen out of fashion, replaced by simple, light cakes—white or yellow, but white was fancier—with just a hint of flavoring or none at all, and increasingly slathered in white or possibly pink frosting. Cornstarch cake leapt neatly into the vanguard of culinary taste, and it used a trio of industrial shortcuts—baking soda, cream of tartar, and cornstarch—which made it not only easier for the average housewife to bake, but also just a little bit cool. It was, in almost every meaningful way, an industrial, processed food, decades before industry began producing it. Little Debbie wishes she could have been so clever.

Cornstarch cake foreshadowed Little Debbie in another way, one that became clear when I ate my experimental cake. It was, you’ll recall, spongy and nearly flavorless—in fact it seemed artificially so—but it was also light and sweet. I found the overall effect not unpleasant, but also not satisfying. “Dessert,” I thought. “Cake. Yes.” And then I thought, “I would like a piece of cake.” Another one, or better yet a piece of something else. The cake left me less satisfied, actually, than I had been before I ate it. I don’t mean that it made me hungrier; this wasn’t a glycemic reaction, but something quicker and psychological. I’d been awakened to the possibility of dessert without really feeling that I’d gotten any. I was unsatisfied in exactly the way that I’m unsatisfied after eating a single glazed doughnut or just about anything out of a vending machine—and that I’m not when I eat, say, a home-baked chocolate chip cookie or a piece of spicy gingerbread.

We can’t ever know what people a century or more ago thought or felt as they ate a piece of cake, but I can’t be alone in feeling this way about white cake. Ironically, a cake designed to ward off gluttony had encouraged me to eat twice as much as if it had been rough, spicy gingersnaps. I might not go so far as to say that the seeds of our obesity epidemic were planted in nineteenth-century home kitchens, but the tastes of that age, and especially of its urban middle class, still haunt us.

  1. Arthur Stone Dewing, Corporate promotions and reorganizations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), pp.50– 51.
  2. Godey’s 50 (1855), p. 86.
  3. Peterson’s Magazine 33:6 (June, 1858), p. 467; Southern Cultivator 16 (1858), p. 337. On the earliest promotions of cornstarch for the kitchen, see Dewing, Corporate promotions and reorganizations, pp. 50– 51.

1904: Convenience becomes fashionable

Why do people buy industrial “convenience foods”? Because they’re convenient, of course. We’re busy, and we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Or, rather, we think we’re busy, and we think we don’t have time to cook from scratch. Sometimes that’s the case. More often, the needs we don’t have time to fill by our own labor weren’t really needs in the first place.

Take, for example, Campbell’s Condensed Soup. When that product was introduced in the 1890s, canned soup had been around for a couple of decades; what was new was the process by which the soup was condensed and the size of the can cut in half, which made the end product cheaper. The earliest ads, placed on streetcars, aimed at the working mothers who rode them, simply showed the can, gave basic instructions (“Just add hot water and serve”), and noted “6 plates for 10¢.” Some of the first magazine ads for condensed soup were placed in the American Federationist, a union magazine. A 1901 ad featured oxtail soup, which, like early soups, was intended as the backbone of a meal.1 For families with little time and little money, then, yes, canned soup seems to have been an obvious convenience.

ad for Campbell's Condensed Soup, 1901

But that’s only half the story. The other half is that home economists eagerly accepted the new convenience and sold it to middle-class women through the monthly magazines they edited. Not only did general-purpose women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping promote “progressive” cooking, but a few turn-of-the-century magazines devoted themselves entirely to cookery. These magazines offered not only recipes and in-depth discussions of culinary techniques and new products but also gave a month’s worth of daily menus in each issue. By 1904, Table Talk was specifically recommending Campbell’s soups in its menus as replacements for homemade—not every day, but once or twice a week. They didn’t suggest making a meal out of canned soup, even for lunch, but rather serving it as a first course. Here, for example, is Table Talk‘s dinner menu for Tuesday, February 23, 1904: Continue reading “1904: Convenience becomes fashionable”

Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”

Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading “Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating”

What homeschool science looks like

This year I’m teaching my daughter physics, and though you might think it would be easy for a guy with a degree in physics to teach eighth-grade physics, it is not. It is undoubtedly easier than it would be if I didn’t have a degree in physics, but that’s not a high bar, you know? Much of physics beyond the most elementary observation is deeply mathematical; you need at least first-year algebra to make any sense of it, and at least a year of calculus to make a lot of sense. And to the extent that there are simple, practical, hands-on ways of exploring deep concepts, I didn’t learn them in college. So, for example, I did lots of fancy calculations of torque but never built a trebuchet, and I learned to analyze the role of a capacitor in a circuit but never built a Leyden jar. Teaching middle-school physics, then, has been an opportunity for me to fill in some rather distressing gaps in my own education, and to think about what I did learn in new ways.

To wit: In planning our unit on electricity and magnetism I stumbled across a book called Safe and Simple Electrical Experiments, by Rudolf F. Graf. Since it was published in 1960, “safe” assumes something slightly less than the helicopter parent’s standard of child care, and “simple” assumes a child whose brain has not been squeezed completely to mush by electronic devices: all the better! You have to think to do this stuff, and fiddle with things when they don’t work the first time, and there are delightful instructions on how you can give your friend an unpleasant but allegedly harmless shock. On the negative side, some of what were considered household objects in 1960, such as vinyl records, may not be as easily accessible in 2017. But there are nearly always substitutes if you hunt for them.

As our culminating project, we built a working telegraph. I will let Dear Daughter explain it herself. (Video after the jump.) Continue reading “What homeschool science looks like”

Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading “Conserving our self-image”

Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading “Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina”