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.
In 1900, Pillsbury held an amateur recipe contest, with $680 in cash prizes going to the twelve best uses of Pillsbury’s Vitos. Introduced in 1897, Pillsbury’s Vitos were the flour-miller’s answer to the boom in breakfast cereals begun by Shredded What and Corn Flakes, a packaged, ready-made, processed cereal product. Advertising proclaimed it “the ideal wheat food, [which] needs to be boiled only and is then ready to serve as a breakfast food.” Ah, but not only as a breakfast food! “It can be served in thirty other ways—breads, cakes, puddings, desserts, etc.” A free cook book, available by mail, showed you how.
Also, according to the packaging, they were sterilized. Yes! “Pillbury’s VITOS, the ideal wheat food, is sterilized. Unlike other cereals, it does not have to be critically examined before using and none need ever be thrown away.”
Fourth prize in the recipe contest went to Pillsbury’s Vitos Cheese Ramekins — individual serving-sized cheese soufflés made with breakfast cereal. What, I ask you, could be more indescribably scrumptious than that?
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.
So what are y’all having for Thanksgiving dinner? I’m taking my cue from “Aunt Babette’s” Cook Book: Foreign and domestic receipts for the household, a Gilded Age Jewish-American cookbook. The key to Thanksgiving is, you want to enjoy yourself — it’s a feast, after all — but you don’t want to overdo it and have guests stuck in the doorway like Winnie-the-Pooh until St. Lucia’s Day, and besides, you still have Christmas to go into debt over.
One more apple recipe before we move on to winter. My grandmother used to make these, but I’d forgotten them until recently when my mother and sister mentioned they were looking for the recipe. They’re simply apples baked in pastry with a brown sugar syrup, a sort of single-serving pie, and I have no idea why they’re called “dumplings,” because every other dumpling I’ve ever heard of was boiled, and these are of course baked. In any case, I was compelled to try to reconstruct the recipe from a memory that is, by now, a quarter-century old and pretty foggy.
I ran across this line today in an article I was reading: “A great deal is being written now… about provisioning our households with an eye to the nutritive value of what we buy.” Ain’t that the truth? Hang on, though: This was 1915, and “nutritive” didn’t mean what you think it means.
Sometimes the things that are ostensibly the simplest turn out to pose the most interesting problems. Molasses, for example, which I’ve been using by the gallon to bake all this gingerbread. In an age when practically everything Americans use in the kitchen is constructed to industrial specifications — unless, like farmers market produce, it’s specifically branded and marketed in opposition to that sort of standardization — it’s surprising to find that a packaged, branded product has enough variation to fundamentally changed the character of baked goods, but that’s exactly what I’ve found with molasses.
A lot of people claim to have invented turducken, or to know who did. Everybody puts its origin in Louisiana. Those crazy Cajuns! A boneless chicken inside a boneless duck inside a boneless turkey! Who else would do something like that?
Prince Albert, apparently.
There are countless recipes for gingerbread in 19th-century cookbooks, most simply called “gingerbread” (or, to distinguish them, Gingerbread No. 1, Gingerbread No. 2, and so on), but most of the recipes fall into a few types. There’s soft gingerbread, which is what we’d call a cake. There’s “common gingerbread,” which is typically a soft cookie and always contains molasses — which is what made it “common,” molasses being cheaper than even brown sugar. “Sugar gingerbread,” by contrast, used sugar. And then there’s hard gingerbread, which was designed to keep well.
I assumed that hard gingerbread would give me something like a gingersnap (or, I hoped, like Sweetzels Spiced Wafers). But this recipe, at least, turned out completely different from what I expected — somewhere between a cookie and a cracker, rather like an English biscuit. Which is, as they say, why you play the game.
In researching 19th-century American cooking I started with gingerbread — why, exactly, is a long story — and in researching gingerbread I started with Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery. This was the first cookbook written by an American author and published in America, and although nearly all of the culinary influence is (unsurprisingly) English, there are American touches, such as recipes for cornbread and cranberries.
One American influence on Simmons’ cooking is the use of a chemical leavener, pearlash, for baking.