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”

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”

Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading “Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work”

Technological change and the hard work of parenting

Alison Gopnik reports in the Wall Street Journal: “Two large-scale surveys done in 2007 and 2013 in the Netherlands and Bermuda, involving thousands of adolescents, found that teenagers who engaged in more online communication also reported more and better friendships.”

That’s a heartening correlation to anyone who doesn’t want to have to worry about the consequences their kids’ technology use, but it isn’t causality. It should not be surprising that people who have more and closer friendships would communicate with those friends by whatever means their society and economy provides, and that “more online communication” would thus correlate with “more and better friendships.” I do wonder what, exactly, “more and better friendships means”; in particular I wonder if the researchers’ construction of that idea ultimately collapses into a definition of extraversion, but I’m not interested enough to dig up the original article. I’m more interested in Gopnik’s use of the study, which is to dismiss the worries of parents (or of anyone else) as mere nostalgia. Continue reading “Technological change and the hard work of parenting”

Obsolete constellations

Bode's star chart of 1801

The “Apparatus Sculptoris” constellation in Bode’s Uranographia (via University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections)

Allison Meier shares a look at Johann Elert Bode’s 1801 “Uranographia,” which shows constellations representing, among other things, a printing press and a sculptor’s stand with a partially sculpted head. Until the twentieth century, she notes, “space was a celestial free-for-fall,” with constellations imagined and named and charted willy-nilly. Then the International Astronomical Union, the same body that declared Pluto no longer a planet, designated 88 official constellations, and all the rest are now obsolete.

“It’s fascinating,” Meier concludes, “to gaze back at how our visual culture has long shaped how we perceive those distant luminosities.” Not many of us today, I think, would be likely to see a printing press in the sky, though I’m tempted to look for that sea monster. But the idea that a constellation can be obsolete seems at first blush a bit silly to me; none of them was ever real in the first place, and you either see it or you don’t. But then not many of us in the West see anything in the sky any longer. Now that astrological theories of human health have been thoroughly discredited we have less reason to care. In an era of red shifts and black holes we may lack the imagination. More important, for most of us the sky is too bright. Tonight I should be able to spot Orion, the Pleiades, and… that’s about it. The rest are too dim. Maybe all the constellations are obsolete.

With so few stars to work with, we can’t very easily invent our own constellations any longer, either, even if we were so inclined. I’ve always thought of the constellations as the sum of darkness and idleness. Imagining a bear or a crab, let alone a printing press, in the chaotic infinitude of stars takes time. You have to look at those random points of light, really look, not scanning or searching, without prejudice or purpose, until — delightfully — an image appears. But how many of us are willing to spend an hour or two just looking at anything, let alone a random smattering of light? Or even fifteen minutes? We live too fast, now, to see what isn’t there. That takes time we don’t think we have. Instead we have an international body to tell us what is there, and we Google it and move on. Even the idea of constellations may be obsolete, a relic of a past age — just like that printing press. We have other, faster things now.

A lifetime’s work


A lifetime’s work reduced by lifetimes since
To a pile of stones in a ferny wood, grown o’er
With moss and vines, and gently hid to all
But those who wish to see. A gift from him
Who dwelt here once, to be now so effaced
From a hillside once his own — for now it may
Be mine, or anyone’s. Would that we
Were half so generous.

Ouija boards and what we want to believe

It’s too late for Hallowe’en, but Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian Magazine article on “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” is worth a read if you’re at all interested in nineteenth-century history, or in the occult, or if you’ve ever played with one. Or if, like me, you’re at all interested in the limitations of science and of scientific thinking and in the ways Americans today think about religion. (My thoughts follow the jump.) Continue reading “Ouija boards and what we want to believe”

Mapping industrialization: Railroads and factories

I created these maps for LEARN NC as part of a unit on industrialization in North Carolina to show why factories were built where they were. The map showing the location of textile mills was used in an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History in 2011. Continue reading “Mapping industrialization: Railroads and factories”

John Lawson’s explorations, 1700–1701

map of Lawson's route, 1700-01

I created this map for LEARN NC in 2009 to show the approximate route of John Lawson, who explored the Carolinas in 1700–1701 and documented his travels in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709). I had intended the map to accompany a web-based critical edition of Lawson’s book, but I wasn’t able to finish the project.

I drew a new version of this map for The Curious Mister Catesby: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2015. Continue reading “John Lawson’s explorations, 1700–1701”