Cake History Month 3: Understanding Recipes

We all know that a recipe is a list of instructions for how to prepare something, usually food. But what “we all know” has changed over time, and the modern-day recipe is actually the result of an effort by Victorian women who wanted to codify and illuminate cookery for the average housewife.

For most of the time that humans have been cooking, knowing how to cook was a skill that at least one person in most households had, but the level of that skill varied widely. At the lowest level, people who could make just enough edible food to survive, they probably weren’t working from a formal recipe, but from home training. Someone else showed them how to start a fire, how to crack open a nut or cut up an animal, and from there, they could keep themselves alive a little while.

But there were also cooks with a high enough level of competency that we’d call them “chefs”, particularly in larger cities, in more advanced cultures. Written records from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt (about 3700 years ago) show that people were employed to cook for rich and royal families, for temples, and for large institutions. These chefs were trained in  vocational programs with one generation of chefs passing their knowledge along to the next. Head chefs had assistants, helpers, servants, and runners to bring ingredients in from the market or take food out of the kitchen to the servers.

A depiction of the royal bakery from an engraving in the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings. There are many types of loaves, including ones that are shaped like animals. (20th dynasty.)

It’s around this time that we start to see written recipes. There are hieroglyphs in Egypt depicting the way food is produced, prepared, and presented, and we’ve found an Akkadian tablet from 1700 BCE [1] showing that chefs wanted to get into writing a recent innovation in cooking: boiling and sauteing in water, instead of roasting and baking. Cooking wasn’t new but those staple foods–meat (including fish and fowl), vegetables, and grains–were being prepared in a new way, and that warranted writing the recipes down, so new chefs and kitchen assistants would have a reference.

This a perfect example of what recipes were used for. They’re not meant for people who already know what they’re doing so well it’s second-hand. Because recipes are supplemental knowledge, they’re often incomplete, which is the most important thing you need to know about recipes from before the mid-1800s. Recipes often only included the extra bits.

Think of any cake recipe you might find in a modern cookbook. There’s usually a little section at the bottom for “variations”. After you’ve already read about how to make a basic vanilla cake, you might be advised that you can add chocolate chips to the batter if you want, or how to adjust your recipe if you’re baking at a high altitude. Those variations used to be all a recipe was. If you knew how to roast a whole chicken, for example, a recipe might tell you, “Coat a whole chicken in honey and spices before roasting it in a medium oven.” The honey and spices part (and sometimes, the spices weren’t specified) is the part that’s different from your average everyday roasting a chicken part. Note how it doesn’t tell you how to prepare the chicken for roasting, how long to cook it it, or what a “medium oven” is. You’re supposed that already.

So it’s not a surprise that our earliest recorded recipes read as incomplete. You have to know what those chefs would already have known before starting the recipe. As we examine recipes going forward, keep in mind that sometimes we’re going to have to recreate it in steps: first, learning what the pastry chef of the day already knew, and then learning how that recipe built on that prior knowledge.

Until at least the 1700s, cookbooks–which grew out of recipes shared between upper-class chefs–weren’t regulated or organized in any particular way, and rarely contained basic cookery knowledge. There was just enough in there to explain what you were doing to someone else who had an idea of what they were doing. (Note to writers: do this with your magic texts, too. Novices should not be able to read them and instantly know everything.) It’s in the 1800s that a combination of literacy among women of all classess, and a strong desire to meet the “standards” of your neighbors, brought us cookbooks aimed at giving banquet-level culinary knowledge to home cooks. By the end of the 1800s, several competing food writers–Eliza Acton, Isabella Beeton, and our Lady of the American Kitchen, Fannie Farmer–had popular books out.

A typical Victorian kitchen

Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cookbook didn’t just contain almost 1900 recipes; the book also included instructions for how to make dough, warm an oven, find ingredients, and much of anything else a home cook with no school training would need to consistently recreate those foods.[2] It’s considered the first truly detailed culinary guide.

Later, our Lady of the TV Kitchen, Julia Child, brought French cuisine to American cooks with the help of Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, ushering in another sort of French Revolution. By the 1970s, when Julia became queen of public broadcasting, “everyone” knew what a recipe was. Everyone knew how to read a recipe, and what you’d expect to find in it.

I was born the last year of The French Chef, Julia’s first television show, so I was born into this world where “everyone knows about recipes”. But the age of codified cooking is really not very old at all, and for most of the cakes we’re going to explore, it isn’t a limited access to money or ingredients which kept the average home cooking from baking them.

Cake baking was a secret kind of knowledge, too.

[1] Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004).

[2] Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston cooking-school cook book (1911). Read it online here.

Also: Check out Fannie’s Last Supper, a documentary (now on Netflix) which shows Christopher Kimball and his team recreating dishes from Farmer’s cookbook, and the massive effort that required.

Cake History Month 2: Flours

The most obvious ingredient in cake, one of the few that must be present for a thing to be a cake, is flour. You can make cakes without eggs, without sugar or honey, and with different different types of leavening, but the flour is the binder and the base of a cake.

A flour is a powder ground from a plant; the major baking flours across the world are cereal grains. The five most common types of culinary flours are also among the oldest:

  • Wheat: Used worldwide, and is the most common baking flour in North America and Western Europe. Wheat contains gluten, a protein that helps bread (and cake) dough bind together, trapping the expanding gas created by yeast and other leavening agents, so the dough rises.
  • Rice: Ground from rice kernels, this gluten-free rice has been popular in Asia for thousands of years, and is growing popular around the world as an ingredient in gluten-free foods. (“Glutenous” rice is stickier, but doesn’t actually contain gluten.)
  • Rye: A low gluten (but not gluten-free) flour common in breads, particularly in Eastern Europe, and in places where wheat doesn’t grow well because the soil is too sandy or peaty. Rye is also hardier than most wheats, able to survive even under a layer of snow. It’s not used for cake as often as wheat because of its strong flavor.
  • Barley: As a flour for baking, barley has been used around the world; it was cultivated around the same time as wheat in the Middle East, and in China and India a short time later. However, barley is most useful to baking as a malt–it’s been an ingredient of beer since ancient times, and its yeast is used as a leavening for breads and cakes.
  • Corn: Cultivated for at least 10,000 years, maize is a popular staple food in Mesoamerica, and gluten-free corn flour is one of its earliest uses. After the colonization of these lands by Spanish invaders, corn was introduced to Europe as well–though Spaniards worried it wasn’t nutritious because it wasn’t native to Europe, and wouldn’t use it as a substitute flour for communion wafers even after forcing the indigenous populations to convert to Catholicism, because Catholic doctrine stated only wheat could be transubstantiated into the body of Christ. [1] Corn flour is rarely used for cakes, though there are some interesting exceptions.

The way to a baker’s heart is through her flours…

Flour developed almost immediately after the beginning of agriculture, but how it was processed has evolved over the millennia [2]. Early bakers ground the grains by hand between stones, and this is true all over the world, for thousands of years. Romans experimented with water-driven mills, and they were popular for a while, but mechanical flour mills became mainstream in Europe in the middle ages with the introduction of the windmill, which probably originated in Persia a few centuries before.

By then, in Europe at least, the home cook could get wheat flour pre-ground, though the quality depended on the mill, the harvest, even the weather. Having access to mill-ground wheat didn’t necessarily mean that the average family had better food. They just had it without the extra work of grinding it themselves, and that savings in time made a huge difference in the (mostly female) cooks’ lives.

London’s first steam mill was erected in 1786, which moved flour production into the industrial age, which now produce hundreds of types of flour, billions of pounds a year. Now, getting flour is as easy as picking it up from the store, or ordering it off the internet. Now, we have a choice in what type of flour we want to use in our baking, and there are recipes to go with every choice. But think back to those earliest bakers, who had to bring wheat or corn or rice in from the field… who had to dry it, and grind it–by hand, pushing the kernels into a powder with a rock–for hours, just to get enough flour to make a loaf of bread.

When a serving of bread is the product of hours of work, how much more special then is cake?

[1] Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. New York: Cambridge University Press 2012, pp. 17, 151.

[2] http://www.art-and-flour.de/english/history.html

Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

Free Flash Fiction: “The Scent of Food is Memory and Love”

The Scent of Food is Memory and Love

Azedah took the leaves off of the last small, round eggplant, then cut through the dark purple flesh until she had turned it into a pile of thick slices. She added them to the others already simmering in olive oil in her largest frying pan, so wide it covered most of the cooktop on that side of the stove. When both sides were golden brown, she lifted the eggplant pieces out of the pan and put then aside to drain. Quickly, her fingers moving with long experience, she chopped a large yellow onion; the fine slices sizzled when they hit the hot oil left in the pan.

“Azedah,” the house said. “The visitors have arrived.”

“Ah, they are early! Is Yasmin out of the shower?”

“Yes. Yasmin is in the study,” the house replied.

Azedah stirred the onions with a worn wooden spatula, and the smell of their cooking spread across the large kitchen. “Ask Yasmine to greet our guests,” she said. Behind her, the pressure cooker beeped, its cycle finished. She tapped the “natural release” icon, and turned back to the stove.

She reached to her left – but her hand closed on empty air. Continue reading

Ube Waffles! (with pictures and recipe)

The other week, Michi was talking about waffles on Twitter. Specifically, she mentioned having (and now, missing) ube-flavored waffles at a Filipino food festival, and though I’d never had ube in a waffle before, I immediately craved them too.

Ube is a purple yam popular in Filipino desserts. It has a subtle spice flavor, like a potato grown in cinnamon dirt. I’ve had it in cake, ice cream, and of course, in halo-halo, the best of all summer treats. But, I’d never thought to put it into a waffle. Worse, I rarely see it in my little college town at all, even though I go to the local Asian market often enough that the owner teases me – every time – about how I need to try cooking Chinese food instead of Filipino. I hadn’t seen ube extract, which is what most people cook with in the US. I thought, well, I could get it on Amazon…

Just in case, I went over to the market and surprise! I walk in and she immediately tells me they got a little batch of fresh ube that morning. We were go for waffles!

DSC_0070.JPG

Ube uncooked: sliced open (top left) and peeled (bottom right)

Continue reading