Friday, November 18, 2016

If I’d Known You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake

by Rachel Dworkin,  Archivist

Pork Cake – Half a pound of salt pork chopped fine, two cups of molasses, half-pound of raisins chopped well, two eggs, two teaspoons each of clove, allspice and mace, half a teaspoon of salertus or soda, and soda enough to make a stiff better.  Oven must not be too hot.  Our Own Book of Everyday Wants, 1888

Baking isn’t easy for me on a good day, but old-time recipes certainly don’t make it any easier. Our Own Book of Everyday Wants was published and distributed by the Elmira Weekly Gazette & Free Press in the autumn 1888. It contains recipes for deserts like cakes and cookies, as well as meat and side dishes. Some of them sound pretty good and some of them are creamed codfish. None of them include cook times or cooking directions any more specific than ‘not too hot.’
Top of the line stove in 1888.
 The modern convenience of an oven with precise temperature control is a relatively new thing.  Back when Our Own Book of Everyday Wants came out, most kitchens had a cast iron wood or coal burning oven range.   Temperature control was less than precise. On the stove top, cooks adjusted the temperature by moving the pots to warmer or cooler sections of the range.  This was known, for some reason, as the ‘piano method.’ The oven, on the other hand, could only be adjusted by adding more fuel or letting the fire die down.
The first electric range was patented in the 1890s. It produced heat by running electricity through a metal coil and allowed the user to adjust the temperature by controlling the strength of the current. Despite the usefulness of the invention, it took a while for electrical oven range to catch on. The biggest problem was infrastructure. In the 1890s, only the new mansions along Maple Avenue actually had power and it wasn’t until 1930 that the entire county was electrified. See Let There Be Light for details.

Of course, the electric oven wasn’t the only new and improved thing in the kitchen.   From the 1880s through the 1920s, there were hundreds of patents issued for time and labor-saving devices. These handy kitchen gadgets included everything from mechanical peelers to meat grinders to mixers to beaters. They made life so much easier and housewives quickly fell in love.
Sargent's Gem Food Chopper - Your kitchen isn't complete without it

Take, for example, Sargent’s Gem Food Chopper, first patented in 1901.  It came with four blades for shredding, chopping, and pulverizing, as well as a special sausage stuffing attachment. Instead of spending hours manually chopping up meats or vegetables, a housewife could do it all with a few cranks of a handle.  It even came with its own cookbook full tasty recipes and labor-saving ideas.  Compare the two pork cake recipes.  Which one sounds easier?

Pork Cake
1 pound fat salt pork
1 pound raisins
2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
2 eggs
5 cups flower
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon soda

Gem-Chop together one pound each of fat salt pork and raisins; pour over these one pint of boiling water, add two cups of sugar, one cup of molasses and two eggs, well beaten; mix thoroughly, then sift in nearly five cups of silted flour, two teaspoons of cinnamon, one teaspoon each, of cloves, mace, and soda. Beat thoroughly and bake in two tins, lined with buttered paper, about one hour.  A slow oven (300o) is needed.  Gem Chopper Cook Book, compliments of G.A. Gridley &  Son, grocer, 1901