Tag Archives: vintage recipes

Corn Mother to Working Mother: American Food History

Living in a 150-year-old house, Laura Schenone began to look for the ghosts of women who had lived there before her.

Where had her root cellar been? Where was the wood pile for her stove? Had she preserved pears form this very tree, or baked apples from those across the way?  Had she pulled vegetables from this same soil?

I supposed I looked for her through food because that was the only aspect of her work and her life to which I could relate.  Like most women of my era, I had no interest in sewing, quilting, cleaning, laundering clothes, or raising seven or eight children. But cooking–that was different.

I hope by now you have discovered the page of Ancestors in Aprons where I introduce food and cooking books that are of interest to anyone who wants to understand their ancestors lives and American food history.  The short blurbs that I give you on that page, called Food Books that Stir Family Memoriesare not long enough to tell you all about some of the very best books on that list.

Laura Schenone‘s A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances, is definitely one of the best books I have read to explain American food history.

American Food History-Corn Maiden

Bean Pot with Corn Maidens, from Smithsonian American Art Museum

She starts with Native Americans, who paid tribute to the corn mother when they ground and cooked their corn. She gets us thinking about how the earliest pioneers had to set aside their English ways and adapt some of those Natives’ techniques, and how those transplanted Englishwomen used native American plants to create new versions of their old favorites.

In 1630, a woman published a packing list of food and implements for those setting sail for America, and other lists detailed the medicines the housewife should take along because she was expected to understand the use of botanicals for medicine just as much as she understood food and cooking.

There are so many places in this book where I thought, “OH! So THAT is what her life was like!”  By 1629, my pilgrim ancestors had planted apple trees and a few years later, they were making “Pippin Pie”, perhaps using a 1615 popular cookbook, The English Housewife, if they had been able to stow it in their luggage.

They would have tried to live up to that book’s ideal housewife:

Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household.

Slightly later, when my ancestors had moved to towns like Sudbury Massachusetts and into Boston, they had to know how to bargain with the merchants.

In the 1800’s, food became fraught with moral value as various food gurus urged them to be frugal, or to keep a Christian kitchen.

There is no more prolific,–indeed, there is no such prolific cause of bad morals as abuses of diet,–not merely by excessive drinking of injurious beverages, but excessive eating, and by eating unhealthful food.  From Christianity in the Kitchen by Mrs. Horace Mann
American Food History-Godey's

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1873. Used with creative commons license.

The Civil War affected the way women cooked and what foods were available–particularly in the South. And Godey’s Lady’s Book became a prime influence in their lives. In her chapter on industrialization, Shenone also points out the many industrial innovations that affected our food supply, and thus the way my great-grand aunts might have cooked. Condensed milk and refrigerated railroad cars were just two of those.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove follows our ancestors on the Westward trail and talks about what it was like to travel on a covered wagon.  The book explores the changes in cooking techniques when open hearth cooking gave way to iron stoves after the Civil War, and then to electric stoves around the turn of the 18th to 19th century. And when ice boxes were invented and then became refrigerators.

Part of American Food History shows us backtracking. The scientific approach was born and home economics taught women to be efficient. An unintended consequence of the prevalence of home economics teaching was a reliance on prepared food and a memory loss concerning older methods of cooking.  My mother, Harriette Anderson Kaser was a home economics teacher, and this section of the book helped me understand the kind of food we had on our table at home.

The author covers various ethnic groups, the Depression, the effect of World Wars and just about every nuance of American history–as it relates to food. And it ALL relates to food.

It is almost impossible to read a page of this book without gaining insight into the past. And Shenone presents the recipes our foremothers used, along with helpful tips on adapting them to more modern methods and tastes. Every major trend in the country is covered, from the Native Americans with their Corn Maiden to the modern working mother who relies on restaurants and microwave.

My only regret is that this book is now ten years old, and it would be wonderful to see another chapter on the more recent return (by at least a large portion of families) to using fresh, local raised foods and more imaginative approaches.

Note: There are links here to Amazon, which can help you purchase this book, or anything else you intend to buy at Amazon. While you’re shopping you’re helping Ancestors in Aprons pay the rent. THANKS.

Sweet Taters Pudding

Erasmus closed his last letter saying, “The taters are ready.” He has requested that Suzi plant some sweet potatoes because he loves these sweet taters.

While the soldiers were simply peeling and boiling their sweet taters, when they got home, their wives would be more creative with sweet potatoes. For clues, I looked up some 19th century cook books.

From Gutenberg Project, you can obtain this historic cookbook: Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers, by Elizabeth E. Lea (1850’s) and learn how to be a proper mid-19th century housewife.

“To boil sweet potatoes, put them in a pot with plenty of water; let them boil fast till you can run a fork through the largest; then pour off the water, and leave them in the pot a quarter of an hour; you can then peel the skin off or leave it on. Some prefer them baked in a dutch-oven; they should have a quick heat; large potatoes will take an hour to bake. It has been found a good way to boil them, till nearly done; then peel and bake them; they are drier and nicer. ” This excerpt comes from Vintage Recipes.com

Recipes from another early cookbook, The Virginia Housewife:

Stewed Sweet Potatoes

Wash and wipe them, and if they be large, cut them in two lengths; put them at the bottom of a stew pan, lay over some slices of boiled ham; and on that, one or two chickens cut up with pepper, salt, and a bundle of herbs; pour in some water, and stew them till done, then take out the herbs, serve the stew in a deep dish. Thicken the gravy, and pour over it. This excerpt from Vintage Recipes.com, which no longer is alive.

A Novel Use for Sweet Taters

In the South, the Union’s blockades kept them from getting a supply of coffee, so they conjured a drink out of many different foods.

“To prepare sweet potato coffee we pared the potatoes, cut into small bits, dried and parched, adding a little butter before taking from the oven and grinding. Tubers, like carrots or yams were cut into small pieces, dried, toasted and ground up.”
From the Cape Fear Civil War RoundUp.

Sweet Potato Pone

Add to the mashed potatoes instead of flour sifted corn meal. Melt the lard and wet up with boiling water. Leave the dough very stiff then break into it one at a time two fresh eggs. Work them well through the mass. Take it up by small handfuls, toss them from one hand to the other and flatten them lightly around the sides of a hot baking pan very well greased. Bake quickly until a crisp brown crust forms on top and bottom.

I tried one below, Sweet Potato Pudding.  My comments follow the recipe.

Potato Pudding

Shredded sweet taters

Shredded sweet potatoes ready to mix in to the batter.

Peel and grate your sweet potatoes upon a very coarse grater. To a quart grated, take six eggs, a large cup of butter three heaping cups of sugar, a cup of cream, a cup of milk and the juice and rind of a lemon. Beat the eggs very light with the sugar and butter, then add the potatoes then the milk and cream a little at a time. Put in the lemon rind — grated — and the juice last of all. Pour the mixture in a deep dish and set in a hot oven. When it has crusted over the top, stir the crust down so another may form. Do this twice. Serve very hot with plenty of wine sauce.

My Experiment

I tried the recipe, substituting half and half for the milk and cream, reducing the milk, and using orange rind and juice rather than lemon. I didn’t happen to have a lemon, but besides, I like the combination of orange and sweet potato flavor.  The ladies of Salt Lake at this period would probably not have had oranges, though.

I said a little ‘thank you’ frequently as I prepared this recipe. For my vegetable peeler instead of a paring knife to peel the potatoes; for my food processor to grate them; for my electric mixer to mix the eggs, butter and sugar instead of having to use a wooden spoon; and for my electric oven which I can (almost) count on for a steady temperature and never have to add a stick of wood to.

Tater Pudding for the Oven

Sweet Potato Pudding ready for the oven in Corning Ware baking dish.

This recipe makes a very big bowl of tater pudding, as you can see.  However, you don’t need to allow for headroom.  It does not rise like a souffle.

sweet tater pudding crust

Stirring down the crust of the sweet potato pudding

Since the original recipe does not give a baking time, I had to guess when to stir the crust down. I translated “hot oven” as 425 F. The crust did not brown, just began to get thick while the pudding below was still liquid.  I stirred it down at twenty minutes, forty minutes. And took it out at 60 minutes.

baked sweet tater pudding

Baked sweet potato pudding

The tater pudding tasted good except that it was waaaay too sweet.  And when the pudding stood for 20 minutes or so (at room temperature), the liquid separated out.

After making the recipe, I compared this 1898 version to the 1960s edition of Joy of Cooking’s sweet potato pudding and found the proportions to be very similar. The biggest difference in ingredients was that “Joy” would use 12 egg yolks and 4 egg whites for this amount of pudding. AND instead of baking in a  “hot” oven, they use a low-moderate oven–325 degrees.  That difference in heat could explain the separation. By the way, “Joy” used orange juice, just like I did.

Although my experiment with the 1898 sweet taters puddin’ did not work out, I think it is worth trying again. Next time I’ll definitely reduce the sugar and lower the temperature. Let me know what adjustments you make if you decide to try this sweet tater pudding.