Brains, Skill, and Butter: Sample a Feast of History in Century-old Cookbooks

November 26, 2019

By Katie Mayer

Among the cookbooks in the OHS Research Library’s collections are the “Alpha Club Cook Book,” the “Practical Cook Book,” “A Portland Girl at the Chafing Dish,” the “Cherry City Cook Book,” and the “Web-Foot Cook Book,” all published in Oregon between 1885 and 1912.

Peruse cookbooks of yore in the OHS Research Library, and you'll encounter recipes that inspire reactions from curiosity to cringes: Ham boiled with hay, creamed spaghetti on toast, pigeons in casserole, twenty gallons of “sour krout,” and pork cake (with raisins and frosting, lest you think this means meatloaf). Check out the slideshow at the end of the post for more on those.

And those aren’t the only intrigues and oddities. Eggs and butter seem to appear on nearly every page. Measurements include not only the familiar cups and teaspoons, but also decidedly non-standard quantities such as a “teacupful” or “butter the size of a walnut.” Oven temperatures, described with terms such as slow and quick, moderate and hot, leave much to the imagination. And, speaking of the imagination, a great deal of it is required for a current-day cook, as the recipes are often little more than a list of ingredients.

These examples come from several cookbooks published in Oregon during the late 1800s and early 1900s, including: The Web-Foot Cook Book (1885), published in Portland; A Portland Girl at the Chafing Dish (1897), by Alice H. Sansbury; the Alpha Club Cook Book (1904), compiled by the women of Baker City; the Cherry City Cook Book (circa 1911), published by the Ladies' Auxiliary of Unity Church in Salem; and the Practical Cook Book (1912), compiled by the Women's Auxiliary to Pacific College in Newberg. In addition to the published dishes, some of the books contain additional recipes handwritten on blank pages by previous owners.

“The ‘Cherry City’ Cook Book” (1911) compiled by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Unity Church in Salem, Oregon. OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c
A previous owner of “The ‘Cherry City’ Cook Book” used blank space inside the book’s cover to write additional recipes. At right, the blank page facing the inside cover has been partially torn away, and the recipes written on it have been lost. OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

Along with soups and cakes and brains on toast, historic cookbooks yield juicy hints about the cooks who provided and used the recipes, about the equipment available to them, and about which foods were abundant or scarce. But, more than 100 years later, it's not always easy to read between the lines. An invaluable guide to interpreting the cookbooks is The Way We Ate, by Jacqueline B. Williams, who describes the evolution of cookery among emigrants to the Northwest.

Williams’s descriptions are a vivid reminder of how different kitchens were from those today. During the era when these cookbooks were written, cookstoves were made of cast iron or steel and burned fuel such as wood, coal, or kerosene, and cooks regulated temperature with complex sets of dampers that took practice to master. Rotary egg beaters began to appear in the 1870s, providing mechanical alternatives to whisk-type tools, but they were no match for the power of a modern mixer. Standardized measuring cups and spoons entered use during the mid-1880s, but Williams notes that “impressionistic measurements,” such as butter the size of an egg, appeared in cookbooks well into the twentieth century. Both types of measurement appear throughout the cookbooks I consulted, sometimes in the same recipe.

As for the lack of instruction in recipes, brevity was a mark of the cooks’ expertise, whether they were readers or writers. “The women of yesteryear learned the art of cookery at an early age and did not require standardized recipes,” Williams writes — they might not write down a recipe at all unless someone requested it. Without the unwritten knowledge behind the recipes, to cook from a historic book today requires a spirit of experimentation and an openness to spectacular failure.

Obviously, I couldn't resist a go at it.

Never-Fail Sponge Cake in “Alpha Club Cook Book,” 1904. OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c
Julia Miller’s 1904 recipe for Never-Fail Sponge Cake, found on page 94 of the “Alpha Club Cook Book” includes vague instructions such as “the mixture should now look like a puff ball” and “bake in moderate oven.” OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

I decided to attempt Julia Miller's Never-Fail Sponge Cake from the Alpha Club Cook Book, reasoning that even if the cake were a disaster, the irony would be delicious. Miller’s recipe includes more instructions than most, but even so, I had a list of questions far longer than the recipe itself, including: How long do I beat the egg whites after adding sugar, and when do I incorporate them into the batter? What temperature is a “moderate oven”? What size and type of pan should I use? Should I grease it? How do I know when the cake is done? To answer them, I did what any modern cook would do, which was to scour the Internet for sponge-cake recipes.

Quick primer: Miller’s recipe is an example of a fatless sponge cake, which relies on the air beaten into the batter to rise, rather than a leavener such as baking powder or soda. The cake is baked in an ungreased tube pan, so the batter can cling to the sides as the cake rises. Once removed from the oven, the pan is immediately turned upside down and left that way until the cake cools completely, so it won’t collapse.

Equipped with enough information to pretend I knew what I was doing, I rolled up my sleeves and, in a nod to historical accuracy, attempted to beat the egg whites with an old rotary beater. I cannot recommend this approach (nor, I imagine, would the women of yesteryear). It went well enough for the first five minutes, but then futility set in: after adding the sugar and trying unsuccessfully to whip the whites into stiff peaks for a period of time that felt like eternity but was actually 20 minutes, I sighed loudly, wrote “EGGS FOREVER” in my notes, and moved on.

Sponge baked from 1904 “Never-Fail” recipe cooling upside down.
After beating eggs for what seems like hours, the sponge batter is baked in an ungreased tube pan. Once removed from the oven, the pan is turned upside down to cool, while the baker holds their breath with the hope it will not collapse.

“Moving on” meant beating egg yolks, which I continued to do with the rotary beater because I was committed. This went better than the eternal beating of the whites, although it was a true arm workout after the mixture stiffened. I added the flour, then the egg whites, and then probably overmixed the batter. I poured the batter into my tube pan, slid it into a 350-degree oven, set the timer for 25 minutes as the recipe suggested, and realized I had forgotten to sprinkle the top with sugar as directed. I decided that I frankly did not care and proceeded to sit anxiously in front of the oven like a contestant on the Great British Baking Show.

Sponge cake made from Julia Miller’s 1904 Never-Fail Sponge Cake recipe. Photograph by Robert Warren.
With assistance from the internet, the author made Julia Miller’s 1904 Never-fail sponge cake, one of many historic recipes housed in the Oregon Historical Society’s Research Library. Photograph by Robert Warren.

While 25 minutes in a moderate oven may have been sufficient for Julia Miller, it was not sufficient for me, as the cake was still raw. Around 55 minutes, it had stopped rising, was browned on top, and sprang back when I poked it, so I deemed it done. And, while it was not a perfect sponge cake, it was not a failure. It was drier and denser than it should have been, and probably overbaked, but still light, sharply lemony, and willingly eaten by brave OHS library and museum staff.

Emboldened by the knowledge gained during my first attempt, I tried it again, this time rejecting the rotary egg beater in favor of my trusty electric hand mixer. I slightly reduced the lemon and added a teaspoon of vanilla to suit my own taste. I remembered the sprinkle of sugar on the top, and baked it for about 45 minutes. Sponge Cake number two was a clear improvement: it rose higher, had a more delicate and slightly richer flavor, and was, as Julia Miller promised, pleasantly crackly on the top. I'll never know how my version (or my arm strength) compares to Miller's, but I think she'd be happy to know that her recipe truly stood the test of time.

OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

On the right is the original cover of the Web-Foot Cook Book, published in 1885 (this copy of the book has been rebound). According to Heather Arndt Anderson’s Portland: A Food Biography, the Web-Foot Cook Book was the first cookbook published in the Pacific Northwest. Arndt writes: “The book serves as a culinary yearbook of the who’s-who of Portland women: the daughters and wives of Failing, Hoyt, Ladd, Reed, Corbett, Dekum, Meier, and Frank, among myriad other prominent families. The recipes, nearly a quarter of which were desserts, reflect the sensibilities of wealthy women, and with numerous recipes for chowders, Shaker-style salt cod, baked beans, and biscuits, it also reflects the New England origins of the majority of Portland’s more affluent residents.”
OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

Pasted inside the front of this copy of the Web-Foot Cook Book is an errata sheet that lists corrections to recipes in the book. A previous owner or user of this book has found an additional error and written a correction at the bottom of the list.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

At the top of page 26 of the Web-Foot Cook Book are two recipes for boiled ham, one of which calls for adding timothy hay to the pot. Recipes for meat that is finely chopped, boiled, or otherwise cooked at length may reflect that meat was frequently tough. In The Way We Ate, Jacqueline B. Williams writes that meat available to cooks today is tender because it’s aged before coming to market, which requires refrigeration that was difficult or impossible when cookbooks of the late 1800s and early 1900s were published.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

Two somewhat striking recipes appear on page 176 of the Web-Foot Cook Book. The first is a breakfast dish that calls for cream and egg yolks poured onto stiff-beaten egg whites and baked in a “good oven.” Brains on Toast, meanwhile, may trigger the gag reflexes of some present-day cooks and eaters. Both recipes also reflect the prevalence of eggs, cream, and butter throughout cookbooks of this era.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 W388

OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

A poem and a dedication at the front of the Alpha Club Cook Book, published in 1904, acknowledge women’s labor in the home.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

Pages 74–75 of the Alpha Club Cook Book contain several things of note. Advertisements are featured at the top of both pages. Community cookbooks of the era are sometimes crammed with ads, which helped to fund publication. Also common were multiple recipes for the same dish; here, there are three recipes for macaroni and cheese. Two of them call for breaking the pasta into small pieces, which suggests that “macaroni” had a somewhat different meaning than it does today. Also note the “sour krout” recipe on page 75, which calls for 200 pounds of cabbage. Jacqueline B. Williams notes in The Way We Ate, that many families made huge quantities of sauerkraut for the winter, with some women mentioning 50-gallon barrels. And let the recipe for canned string beans serve as a warning that present-day cooks should not follow canning recipes of this era, which don’t conform to modern standards for ensuring home-canned foods are safe to eat.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

Two pages of cake recipes from the Alpha Club Cook Book are pictured here. Note the varying detail in instructions as well as the two recipes for “Scripture Cake” on page 96. Scripture Cake recipes required the cook to know (or to look up) specific Bible verses to determine what ingredients to use in the cake.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

Here are two pages of beverage recipes from the Alpha Club Cook Book. In particular, note the recipe for Cider Eggnog on page 151, a surprising spin on both cider and nog.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

Recipes for Fruit Cookies, Bran Gems, Bran Bread, “Plain Carmel Filling,” and Mayonnaise were written on blank pages at the back of the Alpha Club Cook Book. The fruit cookie recipe is in a different person’s handwriting than the others, and is dated September 3, 1907, three years after the book was published.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 A4568c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 S58p

A Portland Girl at the Chafing Dish by Alice H. Sansbury features small illustrations throughout as well as this unconventional recipe for Chili Con Carne, which includes raisins, olives, and a substantial quantity of brandy.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 S58p

OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

The Cherry City Cook Book (circa 1911), like the Alpha Club Cook Book, features advertising throughout the book. Pages 68–69 include two unusually lengthy recipes, one for Pigeons in Casserole, and one for ravioli with an unconventional filling of eggs, lettuce, celery, garlic, cracker crumbs, oil, cheese, spices, mushrooms, and finely chopped brains.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

Pages 124–25 of the Cherry City Cook Book feature an array of sandwich recipes (note the cheese sandwiches at upper right that call for one and a half cups of cream) and an ad for an undertaker.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

The parade of sandwiches continues on pages 126–27 of the Cherry City Cook Book, ranging in complexity from a simple peanut butter and celery sandwich to a beef sandwich that requires steak boiled for two hours.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 U58c

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Page 11 of the Practical Cook Book (1912) features a variety of beef recipes, all calling for long cooking times, and musings on how to make good gravy from a cook identified only as A.M.W.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Among the variety of recipes on page 16 of the Practical Cook Book (1912) is a somewhat minimalist Oyster Dressing for Turkey, featuring bread crumbs, two quarts of canned oysters, and celery.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Page 42 of the Practical Cook Book is a celebration of dairy and carbohydrates, particularly the Creamed Spaghetti on Toast, which boldly incorporates cream, butter, cheese, pasta, and bread, and could be delicious. Also note the Cheese Omelet at top, which measures butter both loosely (size of a walnut) and specifically (one ounce) in the same recipe. The Cheese Filling for Sandwiches, just below, calls for “butter the size of a small egg” while providing standardized measurements for the other ingredients.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Keep your fire extinguisher handy for the Burnt Sugar Cake on Page 112 of the Practical Cook Book. The recipe directs that one cup of granulated sugar be “burnt until house is blue with smoke,” clearly predating the existence of smoke detectors.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

The cake recipes on page 113 of the Practical Cook Book variously call for “sweet milk” or “sour milk.” Sweet milk refers to regular whole milk, and sour milk refers to unpasteurized milk that has begun to sour through fermentation. Should you feel inspired to try one of the recipes that calls for sour milk, resist the temptation to use the expired milk lurking in the back of your fridge; it’s not the same. According to Jacqueline B. Williams in The Way We Ate, “today, when milk is pasteurized, it spoils instead of turning sour.” Instead, try substituting with buttermilk or a buttermilk alternative, such as milk soured by stirring in vinegar or lemon juice.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Page 121 of the Practical Cook Book features four, count them, four competing recipes for Ginger Bread (three soft, one “choice”). Which one is best? There’s only one way to find out: make them all, of course.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

In The Way We Ate, Jacqueline B. Williams sheds light on the pork cake recipe from the Practical Cook Book, which is a sweet, rather than savory dish. The recipe includes brown sugar, buttermilk, raisins, nuts, and spices in addition to finely chopped pork. For cooks of the era, it was a way to preserve cooked meat. Cooks at the turn of the century bent their ingenuity to problems that modern cooks, with precisely controlled ovens and convenient refrigeration, no longer need to solve or even consider.
OHS Research Library, 641.5 P117pr

Sources

Heather Arndt Anderson, Portland: A Food Biography (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2014).

Jacqueline B. Williams, The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843–1900 (Washington State University Press, 1996).

Katie Mayer’s Other Posts

The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of OHS. The Oregon Historical Society does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.