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Kitchen Histories: The American Cookbook

Jan 15, 2013

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

Have you ever held something in your hands that was approaching 200 years old? This 1838 edition of The Virginia Housewife; or, Methodical Cook by Mary Randolph (first published in 1824) is a book that’s practically antediluvian by American standards. The dark, cracked cover of the volume opens to reveal page after page of stained, dripped upon, fingerprinted recipes. A cook held this volume in her hands nearly two centuries ago and the pages are marked with her daily labor.

Before the likes of Mrs. Randolph, American housewives were dependent on imported British cookbooks. Randolph’s book was the second major cookbook published in the States and helped shape American culinary identity. Its pages include recipes using native ingredients, like Pumpkin Pudding and Corn Meal Bread; it also has the first published American recipes for Macaroni and Cheese and Vanilla Ice Cream. But most interesting are the regional specialties like Gumbo; Dough Nuts – A Yankee Cake; and a Southern specialty called Apoquiniminc Cakes.

Apoquiniminc Cakes are better known as “beaten biscuits,” wherein you smack the biscuit dough with a pestle, rolling pin, mallet, or even the blunt end of an axe. One cookbook author called beaten biscuits “the most laborious of cakes” — so why would someone want to go to the trouble? Allegedly, all that whacking produced a dough that would rise in the oven, producing a light and fluffy cake without leavening like yeast or baking soda. I had to try it.

I mixed a bowl of flour, salt, butter, eggs, and enough milk to make a moist dough. I turned it out onto a cutting board and, lacking a pestle, began whapping it with a rolling pin. As the dough flattened under my attacks, I folded it in half and repeated the process. Five minutes in, I was already sick of it. “Will you come in here and put on The Colbert Report?” I whined to my roommate. “I have to keep beating this dough and I’m bored.”

She indulged me, and I beat away as Stephen amused me. Fifteen minutes in, the dough was no longer sticky. Ten more minutes, and it was elastic and resilient. By the time the half hour was up, the dough was practically hitting me back.

Sarah Lohman

Randolph specifies that the biscuits be baked on a gridiron, and warns “be careful not to burn them.” A gridiron in the 19th century was a cast iron grill, designed to be used in a hearth or open fireplace. A cook in Randolph’s day would have lit a large fire to cook, waited until the flames died down, and then scraped a pile of hot coals under her gridiron. Then, she would be ready to bake — grill, really — her cakes. These were the days before stoves were readily available.

Cooking over flames or hot coals would deliver very different results than the heat of an oven, but I did not have immediate access to a gridiron or an open fireplace, so I improvised: I used a wire cooling rack placed over a gas stovetop burner. I lit a low flame and cooked the biscuits until they began to puff up, their centers bulging, and began to brown.

Sarah Lohman

I pulled one off my “gridiron” and tried it, slathered in butter. The outside was crispy, and crackled away in my mouth with the sweet and smoky flavors of flame-toasted bread. The inside was dense but not heavy, and a little chewy — overall, the texture was very similar to a soft pretzel, and very, very pleasant.

It may seem odd, but according to culinary historian Laura Schenone of A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, these biscuits were considered a delicacy and a sign of wealth; the average housewife would not waste a half an hour of her busy day beating biscuits. Remember, this was Virginia in the first half of the 19th century; having those biscuits on the dinner table meant you could afford to have the labor done by someone other than yourself: slaves. A simple recipe can reveal more about a nation’s history than you would expect.

3 Featured Comments

  • kitschencabinet

    Laura and Jaime from KitschenCabinet said 6 years ago Featured

    I think cookbooks, almost above all other printed materials, speak volumes about the time period they come from. The kind of foods available, the health crazes that were popular, the kinds of gatherings they expected, how formal or informal their entertaining was, it's all in those pages. Want to know a culture? Read its recipes.

  • BrownIrisCreations

    Debby from BrownIrisCreations said 6 years ago Featured

    What a great article! Thanks for sharing your experience and giving us a little insight into our (American) history. While we appreciate our modern conveniences, and think we can't live without them, it's amazing to be reminded of how people used to live and make wonderful things without them.

  • BlueBrocade

    BlueBrocade from BlueBrocade said 6 years ago Featured

    I agree completely there is something truly fascinating about old cookbooks--whether they are old family recipes that bring up so many memories of our own past, or historic books that are records of culinary traditions long ago. It is amazing to experience, literally, the tastes and smells of the past, and that we can bring them to life once more in our kitchens today. A time capsule we can taste and recreate today. I love how food means so much--sentimental meaning to be sure, but also the social and political realities that shaped cultures and societies in the past. Food is nourishing for the body and soul, but it also embodies so much of its social and historical era.

60 comments

  • amysfunkyfibers

    Amy Gunderson from amysfunkyfibers said 6 years ago

    Hot crispy biscuits and butter...what a treat. Thanks for sharing!

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 6 years ago

    I am really enjoying these pieces by Sarah. They're always revealing and cozy and a little bit quirky and radical -- all at once.

  • TreadleLady

    Donna Kohler from TreadleLady said 6 years ago

    What a great article! I love the history of American food and all the influences that came together in this country. May have to try this on my flat iron grill, it might be easier for me to slap the dough down like bakers do. Thank you and good eating.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Love this! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  • hatwitch

    Wendi from mizdarlinhats said 6 years ago

    I love old cookbooks and recipes, and look for them whenever I'm junking or garage-sailing.. I have a (for me) old recipe book of my own, and between the handwritten recipes and the ones I cut out of magazines and newspapers, back in the day I have a small but evocative collection..the paper brown, crinkled and stained (of course) and the handwritten ones make me smile at my enthusiasm from another age... Regarding the recipe shown, we also have to remember that flour in those times was not the hybridized stuff it is today, and probably had a very different set of ingredients, vitamins, minerals, etc. I have a feeling that things were tastier then, considering all the work to make these biscuits happen. Congratulations on putting in the work to achieve good results.

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 6 years ago

    Flour, Butter, Salt, Eggs, Milk. For the many many changes the centuries have presented us with, it is comforting to know that some basic things remain the same.

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 6 years ago

    Awesome article and history of American food .

  • uswatsons

    Sylvie Liv from SylvieLiv said 6 years ago

    Yum they look delicious! I would sure love to try them. It is too bad that this busy way of life that we live hardly leaves any time for old fashioned, labor intensive, cooking and baking! It is so easy to get used to mass produced food and forget the wonderful flavors and textures of the past!

  • Plastidermy

    Chris Evans from Plastidermy said 6 years ago

    Yum, they look delicious. I'm not much of a cook and sometimes I forget what a critical role the culinary world played in our culture and history. Thanks for this tidbit, I really enjoyed it!

  • kitschencabinet

    Laura and Jaime from KitschenCabinet said 6 years ago Featured

    I think cookbooks, almost above all other printed materials, speak volumes about the time period they come from. The kind of foods available, the health crazes that were popular, the kinds of gatherings they expected, how formal or informal their entertaining was, it's all in those pages. Want to know a culture? Read its recipes.

  • MrsGingerandWasabi

    Marta DQ from tribomo said 6 years ago

    Fascinating! I love the feeling of trying a new recipe and enjoy its result as much as it process! Thanks for sharing!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    Interesting! Beaten bisuits sound like a work out program.

  • hasincla

    hasincla from travelwanderings said 6 years ago

    Wow, such a lot of hard work for biscuits!

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 6 years ago

    Awesome article and history ! Thanks !

  • DecadesOfVintage

    DecadesOfVintage from DecadesOfVintage said 6 years ago

    Sarah, I look forward to your pieces and savor them when I read them Thank you.

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 6 years ago

    The dough beating you back part made me smile, this was entertaining and informative!

  • AntoinettesWhims

    Antoinette from AntoinettesWhims said 6 years ago

    American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, was the first known cookbook written by an American, published in 1796. Love, love, love old cookbooks!

  • beadeddragons

    Brittany from beadeddragons said 6 years ago

    So happy that I don't have to put so much effort into cooking. Thank you modern conveniences. I loved this article, because history has always been my favorite subject (other than food haha). Thanks for sharing.

  • vinylclockwork

    Scott from vinylclockwork said 6 years ago

    I'm hungry now

  • RubyBeets

    Ruby from MissBeets said 6 years ago

    Cookbooks are an amazing history lesson

  • nativestrandsjewelry

    Rachel from PeppersJewelry said 6 years ago

    I love old cookbooks. Thanks for the great read!

  • bedouin

    Nicole from Crackerjackarma said 6 years ago

    Cookbooks are fascinating ~ Good food never goes out of style. I have the white house cookbook from the same era and use it often.

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 6 years ago

    Women had a lot of patience with their cooking! Great article!

  • scrapz

    scrapz from scrapz said 6 years ago

    that is pretty awesome

  • Fiume

    Erin O'Rourke from Aruguletta said 6 years ago

    Sounds great! Did you make the butter yourself? ;)

  • circlesandsquares

    David B. Cuzick from circlesandsquares said 6 years ago

    Fantastic. I eat this stuff up:)

  • BrownIrisCreations

    Debby from BrownIrisCreations said 6 years ago Featured

    What a great article! Thanks for sharing your experience and giving us a little insight into our (American) history. While we appreciate our modern conveniences, and think we can't live without them, it's amazing to be reminded of how people used to live and make wonderful things without them.

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts said 6 years ago

    I love bread and make it fairly often. This recipe makes me extra thankful for modern appliances to help with the mixing and baking! Enjoyed reading this!

  • petitemignonette

    Lisa from TheCreativeHearth said 6 years ago

    Amazing! I love how much you can learn about a people from the small (seemingly insignificant) details of their daily lives. Thank you for this.

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 6 years ago

    YA! Interesting article! Cookbooks seem to have different cultures and times in them

  • lcarlsonjewelry

    Liesl Carlson from lcarlsonjewelry said 6 years ago

    This is a great lesson in cooking and American history . I have a huge thing for vintage kitchen anything. I am always excited to read post by Sarah. Thank you so much for sharing, and they sound delightful.

  • AlteredInTime

    Altered In Time from AlteredInTime said 6 years ago

    You made me laugh ! Just the thought of spending 30 minutes whacking a pile of dough wore me out ! Great article. I have an old cookbook from the late 1800's and not only does it have recipes, but hundreds of "helpful hints" which are now so funny. I often wonder how they managed to survive at all. I don't think I would have made it. I applaude you for giving it a try.

  • BlueBrocade

    BlueBrocade from BlueBrocade said 6 years ago Featured

    I agree completely there is something truly fascinating about old cookbooks--whether they are old family recipes that bring up so many memories of our own past, or historic books that are records of culinary traditions long ago. It is amazing to experience, literally, the tastes and smells of the past, and that we can bring them to life once more in our kitchens today. A time capsule we can taste and recreate today. I love how food means so much--sentimental meaning to be sure, but also the social and political realities that shaped cultures and societies in the past. Food is nourishing for the body and soul, but it also embodies so much of its social and historical era.

  • BlissfulLife1

    BlissfulLife1 from PopInkk said 6 years ago

    Wow, this is so neat! I absolutely love this idea. Being a dietitian, it is so interesting to see how food has evolved over time, and what specific influences one can see in everyday cooking from different time periods. Wonderful job!

  • olusholaj

    Shola from YarningKnots said 6 years ago

    We need to go back to the good old days of baking bread and cooking at home. I know it's not easy, but the processed foods of nowadays aren't too good for us.

  • QuiltCorner

    Sherrie from QuiltCorner said 6 years ago

    I love old cook books! I've come across a few interesting ones myself. Like The White House Cook Book with instructions on how to render Incombustible Dresses! I have a few shown here for those who are interested in a few curious ones. They are all so much fun! http://strawberryfest.com/recipes/books.html

  • HibouCards

    Anne-Claire R. from HibouDesigns said 6 years ago

    very interesting! Thanks for sharing :)

  • ThePattypanShop

    ThePattypanShop from ThePattypanShop said 6 years ago

    Interesting!! I love old cookbooks! I will stop by a thrift store just to check out their cookbooks!!!

  • ByDianaDivine

    Diana Gonzalez from DivineCrochetCouture said 6 years ago

    How would a slave have read a cookbook? They were very rarely literate.

  • misschristiana

    Christiana Odum from YarnDarlin said 6 years ago

    Cool story! I want to try those biscuits, but I doubt I'll ever want to spend half an hour beating them. haha

  • KormanandKings

    Katie Korman said 6 years ago

    I was thinking the same thing as Antoinette - the first published American cookbook was American Cookery by Ameilia Simmons (1798). You can find a digital copy (as well as other period cookbooks) on the Feeding America project website: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/books/book_01.cfm

  • freshpastrystand

    Deva America from freshpastrystand said 6 years ago

    Food + anthropology. Perfect!

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 6 years ago

    Great story!

  • artistaq8

    Artista from Artistakw said 6 years ago

    Thank you for sharing :)

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 6 years ago

    My better half collects antiquarian books, which I get to read. Reading something that was published 200 or 300 years ago is like holding a time capsule, you can tell the social attitudes & the outlook on life that was considered "normal". They're also surprisingly easy to read, the substitution of the letter "f" for "s" ended in the mid 1700's, so anything after that is exactly like modern print. I have to say though, beating biscuits sounds like an awful lot of trouble!

  • mjudithchavarria

    Martha Judith from MarthaJudith said 6 years ago

    You know...it's times like these when I wish an article like would be great in 3D. Where I can just reach into my laptop...through the screen and grab a muffin and call it a day! Thanks for sharing this and making me hungry. :-)

  • pancakeandlulu

    Aimee Knerr from pancakeandlulu said 6 years ago

    thank you for this! I have seen a reprint of a book like this in a bookstore but forgotten. Need to put it on my wishlist....

  • CharmedByWine

    Mary from CharmedByWine said 6 years ago

    what a wonderful article. coming from a traditional italian background, I love learning about recipes and food. It gives so much insight into culture! One of my bucket list to-dos is to gather all our original family recipes and make a family cook book -- before all the original scraps of paper get so tattered they're unreadable! =) there's something to be said for a recipe written in a great-great-grandmother's handwriting.

  • EnterpriseAmericana

    Enterprise Americana from EnterpriseAmericana said 6 years ago

    I LOVED THAT ARTICLE. ...but then again if you knew me you would have figured that.

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 6 years ago

    Just love anything bread.....Beaten or otherwise!! (lol)...

  • opendoorstudio

    Martha Layton Smith from opendoorstudio said 6 years ago

    so fun... sometimes you just cant replicate the old recipes.. but we, in our modern society can come close... the ingredients just are not the same now. my grandma was a wonderful cook and baker. She made everything from scratch, almost to her dying day. I am still trying to figure out her recipe for the devilsfood cake with the lemon frosting.( to taste like hers... not to sweet and not too tart) On Wednesdays, our Vestiesteam blog posts a wonderful old recipe from the past! It would be fun to try them out sometime, like you did! thanks for sharing.

  • elleestpetite

    Donna Thai from PetiteCuisine said 6 years ago

    I love a good old fashion cookbook. It's a little piece of culture and history in the form of recipes. What's not to love?

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    I have a Mrs Beeton cookbook and I've sometimes been tempted to try the more obscure recipes that are in it for a little culinary adventure. Interesting to read your experience of making something unfamiliar!

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 6 years ago

    Great story. Food is environment, culture and history. Thanks for this piece.

  • Motleycouture

    Motleycouture from Motleycouture said 6 years ago

    Love old cookbooks and the history they bring to the table. Thank you for an interesting story!

  • corrnucopia

    corrnucopia from corrnucopia said 6 years ago

    I have had the honor of having this fabulous volume cross my path. It was purchased by someone whom I hope is enjoying it to the fullest. Truly an amazing piece of history!!!

  • TheKraftRoom

    TheKraftRoom from TheKraftRoom said 6 years ago

    I love this article and I like old cookbooks.

  • JodysVintage

    Jody Ball from PansyRoadVintage said 6 years ago

    Very interesting! Loved reading this. I can't imagine what our foremothers went through to put enough food on the table to feed hungry physically hardworking bodies. From dawn to dusk, each and every day.

  • butikonline83

    Hendri . from butikonline83 said 6 years ago

    I like your article..thanks for sharing..

  • shopworndesigns

    shopworndesigns from ShopwornDesigns said 6 years ago

    I have been collecting cookbooks for years. I can read them over and over. I loved your article. Thank you. Shopworndesigns.

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