Cookbooks & History: Corn Meal Bread

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the third essay in this series, written by Laura Kitchings.

Cornbread from “The Virginia Housewife” (1838)

I chose to work with the corn meal bread recipe from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (Randolph 1838, 141) because it was gluten-free, which suits my dietary needs, and easily transportable, so I could bring the finished project to our class. I had been working with the cookbook for another assignment, and was curious as to the usability of her recipes. I started by considering the material culture I thought I would need: a whisk, a bowl for mixing, a pint measurement, and a divided cast iron pan. I believed that the divided cast iron pan would replicate the technology available in 1838, and substitute for the little pans from the recipe.

In choosing the ingredients, I tried to find materials as close as possible to what would have been available at the time in Virginia, while completing a weeknight shop at a suburban Massachusetts grocery store. I chose whole milk, unsalted butter, organic eggs, and for the cornmeal, I chose a brand that did not list any additives.

For my first attempt, I decided to light one burner on a gas grill and then put the cornmeal mix on the furthest part of the grill from the lit burner. I then left it for approximately forty minutes. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to activate the yeast, and when I checked on the mixture it had not risen and had started to bake. It had also developed a gas taste, which may be attributed to the newness of the particular gas grill.

For the next attempt, I remembered to activate the yeast and decided to use the oven. I set the oven for 205 degrees Fahrenheit and put the cornmeal mixture in an enabled cast iron pot, similar to the technology of the time. Again, when I checked on the mixture after about forty minutes in the oven, it had started to bake. I tried to save the mixture by putting it into the divided cast iron pan, adding butter to hydrate the mixture. Putting the cast iron pan in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven and checking it after ten minutes, it had become a crumbly mess.

I then decided to make cornbread as I usually do. I used a mix with added sugar and baking soda, which served as a leavening agent. I used almond milk for the milk and olive oil for the oil. Following the instructions on the package, the end result looked fluffier and tasted sweeter than the mixture from Randolph’s recipe. This was mainly a result of the added sugar and leavening agents, not from changes in the cornmeal itself.  I also realized that while creating cornbread using the mix superficially appeared to use only a few ingredient, both the almond milk and the cornbread mix contain a multitude of ingredients, far more than Randolph’s recipe.

For my final attempt at Randolph’s recipe, I realized that my kitchen is a more controlled environment than the kitchen envisioned in the recipe. The thermostat in my kitchen read 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which I assumed to be accurate. Randolph could not assume a kitchen with a controlled environment, so she had the user put the cornbread mixture near the fire, as this would allow the yeast to work with the cornbread regardless of the temperature of the kitchen. I ended up putting the mixture in a shallow enameled cast iron pan and left it on my counter for twenty minutes. The mixture did rise a small amount. I then placed the pan into a pre-heated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven, the same temperature I had baked the cornbread from the mix. I kept the mixture in the shallow pan, as I decided that this would mimic the surface area of the little pans required in the recipe. The result was a solid, dense cornbread.

While waiting for the various rounds of cornbread to bake, I had been reading Diane Tye’s Baking as Biography. In this book she discusses the fall of the price of white sugar in the mid-nineteenth century and the corresponding rise in its consumption (Tye 2010). Randolph’s recipe was likely published before the change in sugar prices and to early 19th-century palates the cornbread was likely considered somewhat sweet. In comparison, my 21st-century palate found the bread to lack sufficient sweetness, while the cornbread from the mix tasted only somewhat sweet.  While I do not plan to re-create other recipes from Randolph’s book, the experience did make me examine other historical recipes with more care, and consider the motives behind the provided instructions.


Randolph, Mary. 1838. The Virginia House-Wife. Baltimore: Plaskitt & Cugle. PDF e-book.

Tye, Diane. 2010. Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes. Montreal (Québec): McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Cookbooks & History: Bread Pudding

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the second essay in this series, written by Frank Carrieri.

Cookbooks allow people to gain insight into the past. The recipes within such cookbooks paint a picture of a culture and its foodways during a specific period. In Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, Eliza Leslie (1828), also known under the pseudonym “a lady of Philadelphia,” records classic and original American dessert recipes. Leslie’s choice of rhetoric in the preface patronizes European receipts by mentioning they are “so complicated and laborious” (1828, iii). She credits herself with the originality of the receipts and also commenting that they were prepared by countless friends with great success. Leslie assures us that if the receipts are done precisely to the direction, there should not be any failure (1828, iv). She goes so far as to assert that these receipts are as good as if one purchased them from a confectioner.  are as good as if one purchased them from a confectioner.

I was attracted to the bread pudding recipe (1828, 29) for various reasons.

  • I love carbohydrates- as most should
  • Bread pudding is relatively inexpensive to make
  • I was intrigued by the ratio Leslie’s bread pudding used

I would like to think I have a good track record making bread pudding- either in industry or at home. In undergrad, I worked at a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, where the bread pudding was the staple dessert. Bread pudding, to simply put it, is bread drenched in a custard and then baked slowly, roughly at 325F degrees. Looking at the recipe, Leslie has four ounces of bread to 44 ounces of custard. I, in a sort of arrogance, instantly thought this was going to be awful. How could you call this bread pudding where there is so little bread? Leslie has some explaining to do. With my doubts, I decided to go ahead and increase the bread amount. The following were my adjustments:

Ingredients Quantity
Bread 12 ounces
Milk 1 quart
Cinnamon 2-3 each
Eggs (large) 8 each
Sugar 4 ounces
Lemon Zest “A little”
Nutmeg As needed

Looking at the recipe once more, I had a realization- “Did they use large eggs in 1828?” I decided to go ahead and make the recipe as I would typically do- large eggs and all. Something that is not mentioned in the recipe is oven temperature. For myself, I always bake custards low and slow, as mentioned earlier. How did others know what temperature to bake bread pudding at and if so, was there an embodied knowledge?

As Leslie precisely instructed, I waited until the bread pudding was cool before I started to cut from it. I was eager to snag a bite of her “American” bread pudding. With the cinnamon, it tasted like french toast- which is not a terrible thing. Overall, I thought the bread pudding lacked excitement and a depth of flavor, which could have been achieved by adding other spices, inclusions such as dried fruit, or substituting some of the milk with heavy cream. The addition of bread gave the recipe more body- essentially putting the bread back into bread pudding. Overall the modified recipe was a success, but I still wish I had tried the original recipe. It would be quite interesting to compare the two versions of the dish.

From making the bread pudding, one can learn that historical recipes can offer a notion of embodied knowledge or knowledge so well known that it wasn’t necessary to restate in written form. It can also be said that technology of the era has a role in the production of the recipe. Additionally, through the recipe one can gain an understanding of the kind of person Eliza Leslie was. First, she was a woman who had a passion and knowledge for desserts. Her method of preparation for each recipe was thorough and written with a professional voice. The context of the book is nationalistic, highlighting American cuisine. The cookbook is structured as a guide for women to provide the best American desserts for their families regardless of socio-economic status.

Worked Cited:

Leslie, Eliza. 1828. Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. Boston: Monroe

and Francis.


Cookbooks & History: Recreating Sour Milk Cake

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the first essay in this series, written by Caroline Pierce.

When recreating a historical recipe, it’s best to choose one that does not require you to fire up the hearth or stand stirring beans for twelve hours. It’s also best not to choose a recipe that requires a calf’s head or freshly slaughtered goose – those things are just tough to come by! Instead, find a recipe that allows for the greatest amount of interpretation so that you can set it in the oven, walk away, finish the rest of the homework you have looming, and come back when it has cooked to perfection. Specifically, I would recommend making the sour milk cake found in Housekeeping in Old Virginia, edited by Marion Cabell Tyree.

Housekeeping in Old Virginia was published in 1879, hot off the heels of the Civil War, and includes recipes for quince jam, pickled cabbage, and tomato wine. The recipes are drawn from the contributions of over two hundred and fifty people; many of whom Tyree contends are local and national celebrities (Mrs. Robert E. Lee even submitted a recipe, ya’ll!). Unfortunately, no author is credited for the sour milk cake recipe, so I cannot appropriately thank him or her for creating a recipe so easily replicable in modern kitchens and open to interpretations. This recipe calls for six ingredients and has only one instruction:

  • 1 pint of sour milk
  • 1 pint of flour
  • Butter size of a small egg
  • 1 tablespoonful of sugar
  • 1 saltspoonful of salt
  • Half teaspoon of soda

Bake in hot and well greased iron clads.

Despite the fact that this recipe does not call for any animal parts or for me to mill my own grains, questions do arise about the ingredients. Such as, is buttermilk an acceptable alternative to sour milk? What types of flour were used in 1879?  How small is a small egg? And what’s a saltspoon?

One can imagine that this recipe was employed in order to use up milk that was a bit past its prime, as refrigeration wasn’t a reliable option for many cooks at the time. I didn’t have any milk in the fridge that was going bad, so buttermilk would have to do. King Arthur Flour was founded in 1790, but somehow I doubted that a housewife in Virginia was ordering specialty flours from Vermont. It’s likely that the flour of 1879 was much less processed than the flour we use today, but unfortunately I was fresh out of whole-wheat flour, so I made do with all-purpose flour instead. The only eggs that I had on hand were labeled “Large.” In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen small-sized eggs labeled at the grocery store. (Where do the small eggs that hens lay go? A question for another day.) In order to gauge how small a small egg is, I decided to measure my large-sized egg, subtract a quarter inch, and then use that measurement to decide how much butter to use. Easy.

I performed a similar technique for determining the size of the saltspoon. Historic saltspoons measure about a half to three quarters of an inch across. Luckily, a half-teaspoon seemed to fit these dimensions, so I just rolled with it.

I gathered the materials I thought I would need and got cracking. The recipe didn’t say how to mix things together, but I knew that most baked goods combine the dry materials in one bowl and the wet in another. I started off by mixing the flour, salt, sugar, and baking soda together. The instructions didn’t say what to do with the butter, but I felt melted butter would be easier to work with than hard, or evenly slightly softened butter, so I popped it in the microwave and enjoyed the convenience that electromagnetic radiation has to offer.

The instructions clearly state to bake hot. I had preheated my oven to 375°F because I figured that was a pretty hot temperature to bake a cake at. However, once I got measuring and mixing I realized that this was no ordinary cake. There weren’t any eggs, and the batter started to resemble biscuit or pancake batter.

I knew that drop biscuits loved high heat and that is what makes them rise quickly and develop a nice crust on the outside. I figured my sour milk cakes would like this treatment also, so I jacked up the temperature to 425°F.

While I waited for the oven to heat I greased up ye old iron clad, which I interpreted to be a cast iron pan. The author calls for iron clads, plural, but I only had one large cast iron to work with. Although I did have a block of lard on hand (don’t ask) it was frozen solid, so I used butter to grease the pan. Once the oven was hot, the cast iron went in the oven and the guessing games began. Is the oven hot enough? Should I have preheated the cast iron? How long could this cake bake? And how much homework could I get done while it was in there? While you’re contemplating all that, the ten-minute timer on your phone will go off before you have a chance to remember what chapters were assigned for that week. After ten minutes the top of the cake was still pretty pale and the sides were only starting to brown. I put the cake back in for 5 more minutes, waited, realized that still wasn’t enough time and baked for 5 minutes more. At 20 minutes the cake had golden brown sides, a firm texture on top, and a fragrant aroma. The sour milk cake was baked.

I let the cake cool in the pan for a little while, because I knew it needed to set up a bit and would probably just break apart if I tried to extract it immediately. After 5 minutes of impatient waiting I slid the cake out onto the baking rack to cool completely. I sliced the cake into 16 wedges, and packed them up for my inquisitive classmates, who undoubtedly slaved away all weekend cooking boiled tripe and pickled pigs feet.

The resulting cake was light and airy with a taste and texture not unlike a baked pancake, and would have been a pretty tasty option for someone trying to use up a gallon of half bad milk.

Recreating historical recipes is challenging not only in the interpretation of measurements and ingredients, but more broadly in the act of recreation itself.  Mark Smith writes in “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense” (2007) that trying to replicate historical events by reproducing a past stimulus is fruitless because the way that we sense things has changed even if the input is the same. While we may seek to understand a given culture’s history by cooking their recipes we can never truly replicate that sense because our context for the recipe is entirely different today than it was in the past. Regardless of whether or not I was able to accurately recreate the sour milk cake, it will always be different than the one made in 1879.

I didn’t make the sour milk cake because I have a constant daily supply of milk that must be used or risk having it go bad. I didn’t have to collect wood and light a fire or churn my own butter or worry about bugs in the flour or the price and scarcity of sugar. I went to Whole Foods and bought milk that someone soured for me, I turned the dial on my oven to 425°F, I collected ingredients from my electric refrigerator, and melted butter in a microwave. I made this cake because I was asked to, but I didn’t have to. I didn’t have ten other dishes that I needed to make that day or chores that needed to be completed. As a woman I am not tied to the hearth and home in the way that a housewife in 1879 was. I have the freedom and movement to pursue an education and pick up a bag of hamburgers for my family if I want to. The sour milk cake was delicious, but it still tasted different than it would have in 1879, and I am pretty sure I nailed the recipe.

Works Cited

Smith, Mark M. 2007. Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History. Journal of Social History 40(4): 841-858.

Tyree, Marion Cabell. 1879. Housekeeping in Old Virginia. Louisville: John P Morton and Company.

Reflections on Julie Guthman’s New Food Activism

On October 12th, USC Professor Julie Guthman visited Boston to present a lecture on Social Justice and New Food Activism at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. This is Gastronomy student Madison Trapkin’s take on the lecture.

“The new food activism.”

I stared at this phrase on the projector screen, accompanied by a picture of a basket of ripe strawberries. I felt out of place as a BU student sitting in a Harvard lecture hall, but those little berries put me at ease. Julie Guthman is a food person, I reminded myself. You’ll feel better once she starts talking. And I did feel better. But I also felt worse.   

Julie Guthman, courtesy of UCSC News

I’d arrived early to get the perfect seat and now I watched as students, professors, and members of the community filled the empty spaces surrounding me. As the lights dimmed, the usual hush fell over the audience, and Guthman took the stage. I was struck by her stature. A petite woman with short grey hair wearing black glasses and a basic black top stared at me from behind the lectern.

I forgot about her height as soon as she started speaking. Guthman began her lecture with Mark Bittman and the issues surrounding foodie culture, the group of epicures who enjoy watching cooking shows and participate in the sort of voting-with-your-fork activism that both Bittman and Guthman reject. The problem with this kind of activism, according to Guthman, is that it doesn’t do enough. Foodies focus on the pleasures of food, but Guthman urges us to consider what happens when we go beyond pleasure as she moves into the next part of her lecture.

We need to consider food producers. Bottom line. The often-undocumented laborers working tirelessly to give us tomatoes year-round, these are the people we need to look at. The farm crew working daily in an environment laden with harmful pesticides, we have to consider them too. What about the companies these people are working for? What has been done to underline the systems of oppression within the food systems that give us, a privileged group of scholars, our daily bread?

Guthman told us to question it all. And to get active.

After a brief history of the alternative food movement, Guthman moved into three cases studies that illustrated potential successes and failures of food activism. However, what struck me the most was her closing segment: what to do in the age of Trump.

The New Food Activism, edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julie Guthman

Guthman’s lecture was a call to arms and an acknowledgement of what we’re up against. Food systems in America are about to be hit hard under Trump’s reign. From school lunch programs to genetically modified crops, things are going to change. And as activists, we need to be ready. We need to look at the underlying policies that threaten our foodways; immigration policy, income and health inequality, insufficient health and safety regulation. We need to educate ourselves and empower each other. Guthman cited movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy as she pointed out the following: it IS possible for people of color to lead, to vote with more than your fork, and to affect the public conversation.

Her closing comment gave me chills. “We have to continue on in the vein of increasing awareness and activism,” Guthman stated, matter-of-factly. She meant business. And now, so do I.

I’m sure you could ask someone else who attended that lecture for his or her take and you’d get a different response, but that’s the beauty of the way Guthman speaks. She covered so much ground that it was almost impossible to narrow it down for the purposes of this blog post. The world of food activism is huge and filled with countless issues, platforms, and policies to get behind (or fight against), so we need to fight where we can.

Julie Guthman’s talk gave me hope for our country and for our foodways.

You can read more about Guthman’s lecture here.

Giselle Kennedy Lord Named James Beard Foundation National Scholar

Gastronomy at BU is proud to announce that student Giselle Kennedy Lord was recently selected as the James Beard Foundation National Scholar Northwest.

The JBF National Scholars Program “provides ten high-impact scholarships of $20,000 each to food-focused candidates of exceptional talent.” Winners are chosen based on academic standing, personal recommendations, and professional recommendations.

A recent dinner hosted by Giselle Kennedy Lord.

“My application for the scholarship was centered around my focus in the BU gastronomy program, which is how people express home and identity through food and cooking. My thesis research, which I will do in the Spring of 2018, will be a deep dive into that theme as it relates to the Lebanese diaspora in Argentina and the Americas,” says Lord.

Giselle lives in the Columbia Gorge area of Oregon, where she launched her small business, Quincho, in 2015. In the years before launching Quincho and becoming a Gastronomy student at BU, she worked as a freelance video producer specializing in food and agriculture in the Pacific Northwest.

Giselle now hosts pop-up, food-culture-focused events with Quincho and she is currently working on launching an online shop of cookware and kitchenware connected to distinct food cultures and artistic traditions. According to Lord, “Quincho is about culture, community, and cookery. It’s a celebration of foodways and culinary tradition the world round. It’s a call to gather with like-minded people to learn something new, be inspired to explore, and empowered to create.”

Giselle will travel to Argentina in January to conduct ethnographic research for her thesis. In between interviews and kitchen sessions, she will be on the lookout for unique cookware and working to forge connections with local artisans. She also plans to eat a lot of empanadas, peruse every street fair, and hunt for vintage cookbooks.

You can follow her journey on the Quincho blog: