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:

Course Spotlights: Food & Art, Gender & Food

Read on for a sneak peek into some of the Gastronomy classes we will be offering this Spring. Registration information can be found here.

Food and Art

Laura Ziman will teach Food and Art during the Spring 2018 semester and has prepared this Course Spotlight.

Looking at the earliest images, tableware and sculpture of food from the Ancient World to the contemporary, we will see the historic changes in objects and artwork that refer to cuisine.  Discoveries will be made in the purposes and meaning of imagery and three-dimensional objects through time from a variety of cultures.

Artists’ lives will be explored through their work, the time they worked in and their country of origin leading to greater understanding of the art they created.

Posters, cookbooks, advertisements, films and models of food all contribute to the visual cornucopia we will explore.

This course includes trips to The Museum of Fine Arts, which contains food art from Mesopotamia to the 21st century. Ancient Greek oil pitchers, an American dining table from 19th Century Dorchester to 20th Century table settings will be visited.

We will visit a food market and view the artistry in food arrangement and packaging. Food artists will be visiting the class to share the inspiration and discussion of techniques used in making their art.

Gender and Food

Dr. Megan J. Elias will teach Gender and Food during the Spring 2018 semester and has prepared this Course Spotlight.

Can a woman eat a Manwich? Can Dad produce Mom’s home cooking? And how is the movement away from gender binaries reflected in foodways? In Food and Gender we will explore ways in which language and behaviors around food both reinforce and challenge gender hierarchies and restrictive norms.  Using frameworks developed in gender studies we will interrogate our contemporary foodscape through close readings of many media, including food blogs, magazines, TV shows and advertisements. We will also include our own cooking histories and habits in our research and discussion, taking note of when and how cultural assumptions about gender restrict our choices in the kitchen.

The course will include reading, research, field work, discussion, and cooking to help us understand why and how food has been gendered and how the process differs across place, time, and culture.

Students will be responsible for developing a group project together as well as working on individual investigations of gender and food.

Lessons Learned Writing “A Taste of Broadway”

Gastronomy student Jennifer Packard spent the last two years writing a book on food and musicals. Here is her reflection on the experience, as well as tips for those who may be interested in getting published.

Gastronomy student Jen Packard

Even when I say it aloud, I still can’t believe it. In January 2018, my first book, A Taste of Broadway: Food in Musical Theater, will be published. In the book, I explore how food is used in musicals as a plot device, a communication cue, or as a detail that reveals the food history or creative methods used by the show’s developers. Consider, for example, the importance of meat pies in Sweeney Todd, codfish chowder in Carousel, chow mein in Gypsy, and gruel in Oliver!.

In total, my book project took about two years. It required a huge time commitment, but it was a labor of love. Given that I’ve never published anything before, it was also a major learning experience. Because I know that many others in the Gastronomy program are interested in writing, I wanted to share some of these lessons.

Choose a Topic That Excites You

For any project that requires such a significant commitment, the most important thing is to choose a topic that excites you. Even with a topic that you feel passionate about, there will be times when the project feels overwhelming and tiresome. If you’re not excited about the topic, you will struggle to get through it. You must also be disciplined in committing your time to writing regularly. There were some days I just couldn’t get my mind in the right place to write, so I’d change up my tasks between writing, research, recipe testing, and tracking down permissions.

Understand How to Write a Proposal

A Taste of Broadway by Jen Packard

Before even beginning the writing, however, the first step was to submit a book proposal to the publisher. The proposal includes a summary of what the book is about and who it’s for, a list of similar or competing books, and logistical information such as expected word count and timing. Essentially, the proposal is meant to convince the publisher that there will be a market for the book, so it should be a little bit salesy.

In my zeal, I originally estimated the book would be 100,000 words, but 70,000 was more in line with what the publisher expected. I gave myself eighteen months to get my manuscript to the publisher. The publisher warned me that I needed to figure in time for the content editor to review my work, which happens before the manuscript is officially submitted. In truth, I could have worked on this book forever. Every time I looked at it, I found something I wanted to change. I still do. The due date was helpful as a goal to keep me moving as well as providing a final cut-off date when I had to stop editing.

Obtain Permissions

Throughout the process, I slowly learned about how to get permissions. Permissions are required when including images or photographs not taken by the author. They are also required for quoting someone else’s creative work. Given the topic of my book, there were many places where I wanted to quote song lyrics or librettos. This involved finding out who owned the rights, finding a way to get in touch with that person or organization, and then getting a written document describing how I could use the quote. Finding and contacting the rights holder took a huge amount of time and research. There are professionals that can be hired to do this, but they charge an hourly rate that I was unwilling to pay. Additionally, the rights holder usually requires a fee which can be quite steep. And sometimes the rights holder will not give permission at all. This meant that my use of lyrics and quotes were limited to those I was able to obtain and that I felt were particularly important. If I write another book, it will have a topic that does not require gathering a large number of permissions.

Believe In Yourself

Finally, if you want to write a book, believe that you can do it. My confidence wavered at every stage. Even with a signed contract in hand, I worried that the editors would hate the final manuscript and change their minds. It wasn’t until I saw the cover of the book that I let myself acknowledge that it was really happening. Though I’ve yet to hold an actual printed copy of my book in my hands, I’ve allowed myself to feel proud of my accomplishment. Regardless of anyone else’s response to it, I am content knowing that I’ve achieved an incredible effort in bringing my passion project to life.

You can preorder Jennifer’s book here. Check out her blog here.