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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Sugar cookies can’t be too rich and buttery if you want to roll them, and the really good historical cakes and cookies aren’t cookie-like enough to pass for Santa fare. But we can mine those recipes for flavor ideas. Herewith, some historically plausible (1750-1850) flavorings for your Christmas sugar cookies that will kick them up a little without competing with the gingerbread. […]
Traditions have a way of growing sadly stale over the years, don’t they? The spirit that once animated them slowly dies, leaving only the dry outer husk of empty actions. Ah, but sometimes we can revive them by looking to the past, by finding the old spirit and sloughing off the dead forms. Sometimes we find that the original form of a tradition not only meant more at the time, but can mean more to us today. Sometimes the past is like a little hope chest, a little… er… hopeful thing. Or other.
This is not one of those times.
No, friends, today we’re going to talk about sugar cookies.
In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today.
For Christmas dinner I wanted to try something historical — besides the cookies, I mean, and other than a plum pudding, which nearly killed me the one time I tried to eat it after the full-on holiday feast. The centerpiece was roast beef (top sirloin, which is nearly as good as prime rib and about a third the price per pound of actual meat), and heaven knows people ate enough beef in the nineteenth century. What did they put on that beef? Well, how about Worcestershire sauce?
The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own.