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.
Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.
Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about?
Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters.
In 1903, Washburn-Crosby, the makers of Gold Medal Flour (they would later become General Mills), tried a new sort of magazine ad. Instead of a photo or illustration captioned by a short homily about how wonderful the flour was, this new ad, which ran in Ladies’ Home Journal, was simply a recipe for baking bread, written as a poem, with each verse accompanied by a photograph or an illustration. It’s terribly entertaining, if you enjoy that sort of thing — the rhymes are forced, the tone is cheesy, and it is, of course, by twenty-first century standards, cheerfully sexist. But it’s also a window into bread and baking at the turn of the last century, and into the ways industry was changing them — even inside the home.
One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore.
When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)
These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good.
Most of you probably have at least one charity cookbook on your shelves — those cookbooks compiled by women’s organizations and sold to raise money for a good cause. Thousands of charity cookbooks have been published in the United States since the 1860s, and most never passed beyond the borders of the towns that wrote them. A few, though, went on to far bigger things, and this story concerns the first small-town cookbook made good.
Ivy and I baked snickerdoodles yesterday. This would not be blogworthy, except for what I learned about how even home-baked cookies have changed over the past sixty years.
One finds the strangest flotsam in the backwash of the early nineteenth century. I found this gem while sifting through the private papers of Sarah Hale, to whom it appears to have been submitted while she was editor of The Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette in the 1830s. Unsurprisingly she never published the poem, and I couldn’t find a copy of any accompanying correspondence, either from the author or from Mrs. Hale rejecting the work. The poem thus remains untitled and anonymous.
The poem, in (mostly, if occasionally somewhat addled) heroic couplets, tells the tragic story of a “humble maid” who gives life and limb to save an apple tart. It’s at once charming and simply dreadful. Its palpably oozing sincerity evinces a giggle from the modern reader. It goes on, as we would say now. The verses strain under the weight of its overwrought verbiage (“gossamer gauze of alabaster skin”? Seriously?) And it’s hard to know how to read it — as a cautionary tale, about the dangers of women’s work? As a love letter to a departed domestic? Or as a simple paean to a damn fine apple tart? The poem’s meaning sleeps with its author, or did, at least, until I dredged the thing up last week.
In any case, until I can manage to write something of my own for this space, enjoy. And don’t be too hard on our departed would-be Byron. No doubt he meant well.