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 Continue reading “1855: Cornstarch cake”

  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.

Building an ethic behind the food movement

Sales of breakfast cereal are down, and I have trouble being sad. I eat boxed breakfast cereal for the same reason everybody else does — it’s convenient – but generally only as a midnight snack. For quick breakfast I’m more likely to eat homemade granola or oatmeal or a PBJ. I would not be terribly sad if boxed breakfast cereal went away entirely. Not only is it bizarrely processed, but it’s probably the worst remaining artifact of late nineteenth-century thinking about food: deliberately stripped of flavor and over-sweetened to make it palatable. And I don’t care a whit about the profits of giant corporations that manufacture it.

And yet this tidbit from the original New York Times story is more than a little disconcerting:

Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.

In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman comments:

Few things are as painless to prepare as cereal. Making it requires little more than pouring something (a cereal of your choice) into a bowl and then pouring something else (a milk of your choice) into the same bowl. Eating it requires little more than a spoon and your mouth. The food, which Americans still buy $10 billion of annually, has thrived over the decades, at least in part, because of this very quality: its convenience.

And yet, for today’s youth, cereal isn’t easy enough….

The industry, the [Times] piece explained, is struggling — sales have tumbled by almost 30 percent over the past 15 years, and the future remains uncertain. And the reasons are largely those one would expect: Many people are eating breakfast away from the home, choosing breakfast sandwiches and yogurt instead of more traditional morning staples. Many others, meanwhile, too busy to pay attention to their stomachs, are eating breakfast not at all.

But there is another thing happening, which should scare cereal makers — and, really, anyone who has a stake in this country’s future — more: A large contingent of millennials are uninterested in breakfast cereal because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don’t clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about, then: The problem isn’t that people are overworked, busy raising families in two-income households. Nobody doesn’t have time to wash out a cereal bowl. I ran a test this morning, scientific in precision of measurement if not in design: To get up from the table, carry a bowl to the sink, squirt detergent, wipe it out, rinse, then use the soapy rag to wash the spoon, set them both on the counter to air-dry, and return to the table to check the stopwatch took me exactly 36.97 seconds. That’s with no particular hurry. If you eat over the sink, you can eliminate the transit time and cut a good ten seconds off that time.

So we’re not talking about social and economic structures that make it hard for people to cook for themselves. We’re talking about laziness. Continue reading “Building an ethic behind the food movement”