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.

The standard argument in American culinary history is that the craft of cooking peaked in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, as food became more abundant and diverse, as new technology made the work of cooking easier, as wealth and the availability of industrial goods freed up women’s time for fancier, fussier work in the kitchen, but before industrial conveniences made it far easier for them not to bother. Cake baking is a good example. After about 1830, cookstoves, lightweight tin cake pans, and birch rods for beating eggs all made it easier to bake big, light cakes, but by 1880, baking powder had turned cakes into what Karen Hess called “puffy debasements.”

To judge from the way people talked and wrote about baking, you’d certainly think they were baking and eating the most delectable cakes every day of their lives. But to judge from the way people talk and write about baking today, you’d think the same thing, and yet the state of home baking is such that people have to make brownies from a mix. That tells me that the usual sort of documentary evidence is not sufficient to explain what was going on in American kitchens a century and three-quarters ago. Just because somebody buys a cookbook doesn’t mean they cook from it, certainly not all the time, nor that they cook everything in it; just because somebody jots down a recipe in a manuscript cookbook (the historical equivalent of the recipe card box) doesn’t mean they ever cook that recipe again (Exhibit A is my mother’s overstuffed recipe box); and you can’t go by what they wrote in letters or diaries, because people didn’t blog every stinking thing they ate, but only noted the interesting stuff—the meals that were not eaten every day.

If you want to know what people likely cooked and ate every day, you have to apply some common sense. Common sense is not a standard historical methodology, even among amateurs, who have the good sense (unlike academics) to actually get in the kitchen and try things for themselves to learn how and whether they work but suffer from really loving to cook and therefore are not, perhaps, the most appropriate test subjects. In any case, one problem that arises when you try to bake something from a cookbook written in, say, 1840, is that you don’t understand the technique. We assume that people in 1840 understood the technique. But what if they didn’t?

What’s missing is the problem of education. Traditionally, cooking skills were transmitted from mother to daughter or from (professional or servant) cook to apprentice. But what if the skill was new? If housewives of 1800 rarely if ever baked big, light, fancy cakes, but their successors of 1840 did bake such cakes, where did they learn the skills to do it? There were cooking schools, but not enough to make high cuisine mainstream. For most women, there were books. But I’m not convinced that books were enough.

At the time, many women thought the state of American housewifery in decline, although of course at any given moment in history it’s possible to find large numbers of people who think just about anything is in decline. Clarissa Packard, writing from the safe distance of the 1830s, recalled her own domestic education in the last quarter of the eighteenth century: “When pudding or cake was to be made, [I] rolled up my sleeves and went to beating eggs, with strokes I should half like to see given to lazy modern girls, lolling over new-fangled cookery-books.”1 Even the most popular and prolific author of those new-fangled cookbooks, Eliza Leslie, lamented that “home-made cakes… are too frequently (even when not absolutely heavy or streaked) hard, solid and tough,” hence her instructions “How to Beat Eggs” in her 1854 New Receipts for Cooking:

Persons who do not know the right way, complain much of the fatigue of beating eggs, and therefore leave off too soon. There will be no fatigue, if they are beaten with the proper stroke, and with wooden rods, and in a shallow, flat-bottomed earthen pan. The coldness of a tin pan retards the lightness of the eggs. For the same reason do not use a metal egg-beater. In beating them do not move your elbow, but keep it close to your side. Move only your hand at the wrist, and let the stroke be quick, short, and horizontal; putting the egg-beater always down to the bottom of the pan, which should therefore be shallow. Do not leave off as soon as you have got the eggs into a foam; they are then only beginning to be light. But persist till after the foaming has ceased, and the bubbles have all disappeared. Continue till the surface is smooth as a mirror, and the beaten egg as thick as a rich boiled custard; for till then it will not be really light. It is seldom necessary to beat the whites and yolks separately, if they are afterwards to be put together. The article will be quite as light, when cooked, if the whites and yolks are beaten together, and there will then be no danger of their going in streaks when baked.2s

This is as helpful as a printed description of technique can be, and yet I’d ask how many novice cooks could translate this passage directly to successful practice. Eliza Leslie herself had learned not from a book but in cooking school—the celebrated and intensive cooking school of Philadelphia’s Mrs. Goodfellow—just as Clarissa Packard had learned from her mother. If American women had learned their cooking technique from such excellent examples, they wouldn’t need new-fangled cookery-books, but they hadn’t, and they did—and yet I wonder whether cookbooks could be enough to develop such skills. Leslie’s explanation of beating eggs makes sense to me, because I typically beat eggs by hand, with a wire whip (which warms quickly; her metal beaters were heavier, I think), to a lightness that would at least not make Leslie throw up her hands and reach for the gin; and I do it for the likes of cornbread and pancakes—but it makes a lot more sense to me now that I already know how to do it.

There’s a fundamental problem, I think, a missing link, with trying to learn physical skills from printed directions—especially in a craft like baking. Improvement of physical skills requires immediate feedback, such as the sound of a wrong or beautiful note on the violin, and equally immediate adjustment. Our brains don’t store movement in long-term memory to be recalled and analyzed at will; in fact even skills so long practiced as to be automatic are notoriously difficult to describe, and crumble on too much direct analysis, like the batter’s swing once he starts thinking at the plate. What the eggs feel like, and what one’s hand feels like whipping them efficiently, is a sensation lost by the time the cake comes out of the oven, possibly by the time it goes in. Visual memory is a bit better, but not enough so to make eggs “smooth as a mirror” immediately recognizable. When the cake comes out streaky, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what went wrong. Did I beat the eggs long enough? Were they, perhaps, too small, and should I have added an extra one? Or was it something else entirely—the butter not sufficiently light, or maybe I opened the oven door too long to check on the cake, and it collapsed slightly? Without a teacher standing by to diagnose the problem, the only thing to do is to try again and bake another cake straight away. Even with a teacher at one’s side, in a cooking class or a confectioner’s shop, that’s exactly what one would do. But that kind of repeated practice isn’t practical for the housewife, who will have to serve her mistakes and try again when she has time and resources. Learning a craft requires just that sort of failure: Without failure, we don’t really understand our successes, and will find them hard to replicate. The pressure of getting dinner on the table makes creative failure unacceptable.

One may learn to cook by reading cookbooks and experimenting daily, but it’s mightily hard to learn to bake that way. It takes a serious personal devotion to the process. And if the typical foodie of 2017 doesn’t have that devotion, in today’s food-engorged culture, there’s absolutely no reason to assume that the typical housewife of 1850 did, either.

There’s a great deal more to be said about culinary education, cookbooks, physical skills and intellectual instruction, but that’s enough for today, I think.

Postscript: “Wooden rods”

This isn’t meant to be a discussion about kitchen technology, but you may be wondering about the “wooden rods” Leslie used for beating eggs. You’re not likely to find a surviving nineteenth-century birch whisk, but you can see photos of reproductions here and here. You can also use chopsticks to beat eggs, as Chinese cooks would for an omelet, but that’s not cake-ready lightness.

  1. Clarissa Packard, Recollections of a Housekeeper (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1834), p. 11.
  2. Eliza Leslie, Miss Leslie’s New Receipts for Cooking (Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson, 1854), pp. 193–194.
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