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”

Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food. Continue reading “Further perils of authenticity”

Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost. Continue reading “Life and death (and soup) in the city”

Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.

Bullshit. Continue reading “Meat and mystery”

Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness

19th-century cartoon of a glutton

A hundred-odd years ago, gluttony was a sin, but fat men could be seen merely as successful. We seem to have reversed the calculus.

Some of the new research on possible causes of obesity is fascinating. New theories emerge continually, many of them at best inconsistent and at worst contradictory. But what interests me more is the debate that research sparks, which seems, at least in the popular arena, to be less about what actually causes obesity than about whose fault it is. It’s a subtle but important difference: the former is (largely, at least) a scientific question; the latter makes it a political or a philosophical one — and is, it seems to me, a thoroughly unhelpful approach. Continue reading “Fat(e), free will, and forgiveness”

Hospitality at a fractured table

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

“It sure is hard to have people over to dinner these days,” the food writer lamented, at a talk I attended the other week. She told a sorry tale of a dinner party involving two vegetarians, their father who expected to be served meat because he couldn’t get any at home (“poor man”), and a guest who was lactose intolerant. Everyone chuckled. It’s becoming the stylish refrain of the decade, that people’s food choices and fad diets and principles and medical ailments have so splintered us that we can’t break bread together any more; the pot luck is devolving into a brown bag lunch. The New York Times reports on the troubles facing hosts and asks whose responsibility it is that everyone be served something they’re willing to eat; a blogger for an environmental website offers tips on avoiding processed foods at dinner parties. It’s a sad state of affairs for anyone who enjoys cooking, who enjoys cooking for friends, who would rather show love and appreciation through food than get all mushy about it, who is frankly looking for an excuse to spend half the day on a dish, that sort of effort being embarrassing unless offered up to others. It is also more than a little annoying to anyone raised to keep one’s own picky tastes to oneself when a guest in someone’s home — a leftover morsel of Victorian manners long grown cold and now, it seems, thrown away with last month’s meatloaf. But here we seem to be, and although a wise man hesitates to make a couple of news items into A Symbol Of Our Fallen Age, such is, after all, the point of the internet. So bear with me, because we’re not really just talking about food. Continue reading “Hospitality at a fractured table”

Standards and Stewards

I wrote this essay in 2003 and for various reasons am only now (January 2009) publishing it. Much has changed in six years: The market for organic food has grown tremendously, and alongside it the idea of “eating local.” Much also has been written, and some of the ideas here are more commonly discussed now than then. I would frame the essay differently today, and may one day reframe it in another context. But much else has not changed, and I believe the argument still sound.

You may find this too long to read online, and I’ve made a PDF available. Whichever version you read, I’d appreciate your comments.


Last spring my wife and I began raising ducks. We bought seven Khaki Campbell ducklings, set up a brooder in a spare room, raised them to adulthood, watch them take their first wobbly flight across the yard, and now each day collect their eggs for our table. When we have extra eggs — which is most of the time, for our ducks lay prodigiously — we give, sell, or barter them to friends. On one occasion, accepting a dozen eggs from me, a friend asked, “Are they organic?”

Well, I thought, it depends on what you mean. By a commonsense, dictionary definition, the eggs are organic; they are laid by ducks who are raised outdoors, who eat a diet that includes the bugs and tender greens that ducks naturally eat, and who are integrated into the life of our household. They are, I could have answered, part of an organic whole that includes my family, my local ecosystem, and now my friends and community.

But that isn’t what my friend meant, and so I answered as he expected. The eggs were not produced in accordance with the USDA’s organic standards, I explained, because the commercial feed that is the basis of their diet in winter and supplements it in summer was not mixed from organically grown grain. Organic duck feed is not widely available — as far as I can tell, it is not available at all. So no, they are not “organic” after all.

But, I told him, I can tell you anything you want to know about the ducks and how they were raised. You can come visit, if you want, and see how they are raised. Continue reading “Standards and Stewards”

On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up. Continue reading “On growing potatoes”

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again. Continue reading “Beet greens”