Food Fight Club Round 2: Vegetable Curry v. Ragout of Squirrel

It’s time for match two of our March Madness Food Fight Club.

First, the reveal of last week’s smackdown: Snail Water triumphed over Pear and Tomato Chutney. Whichever recipe wins this week has a tough competitor for next Wednesday’s final match.

March Madness Food Fight Club_Round1winner

Background image: Kirkland, The modern baker, confectioner, and caterer, c1907.

This week, we pit Vegetable Curry against Ragout of Squirrel.

Vegetable Curry recipe in Blatch, 101 Practical Non-Flesh Recipes, 1917.

Vegetable Curry recipe in Blatch, 101 Practical Non-Flesh Recipes, 1917. Click to enlarge.

The innocuous-sounding vegetable curry comes from Margaret Blatch’s 101 Practical Non-flesh Recipes, a nice little vegetarian cookbook from 1917. The title might sound a bit odd to modern readers and is an interesting choice, considering the term vegetarian was well-established by the 1840s.1 A 1908 physical education article sheds some light on the terminology of the time, saying the word vegetarian “usually suggests a person who abstains not on hygienic but on religious, ethical, or theological grounds,” preferring instead “flesh-abstainer.”2 It appears “non-flesh” was less provocative than “vegetarian.”

Ragout of Squirrel recipe in Recipes for the Jewett Chafing Dish, 1896. Click to enlarge.

Ragout of Squirrel recipe in Recipes for the Jewett Chafing Dish, 1896. Click to enlarge.

Our next contestant features two items not commonly seen on today’s dinner tables: Chafing dishes and squirrels. In the 1890s, chafing dishes experienced a surge in popularity in America, and Recipes for the Jewett Chafing Dish was just one of many cookbooks published featuring recipes specifically for the dish. The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel offered “chafing dish suppers” to top socialites, and stores sold table linens to match the cookware.3 Squirrel, too, was a common sight at the American dinner table due to its availability. One can track its rise and fall by looking at editions of The Joy of Cooking over time, where the numerous squirrel recipes of the 1930s gave way to recipes for chicken.4

Which recipe should face Snail Water in the final round? Vote for your favorite—be it the most appealing, least appealing, or one that just tickles your fancy more—before 5 pm EST on Monday, March 21.

1. Spencer C. The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. UPNE; 1996. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2016.

2. Fisher I. The Influence of Flesh-eating on Endurance. Modern Medicine Publishing; 1908. Available at: Accessed March 15, 2016.

3. Lovegren S, Smith AF. Chafing Dish. Oxford Companion to Am Food Drink. 2007:103. Available at: Accessed March 10, 2016.

4. Smith H. Al rodente: Could squirrel meat come back into vogue? Grist. 2012. Available at: Accessed March 10, 2016.

Food Fight Club Round 1: Snail Water v. Pear and Tomato Chutney

Today we begin our March Madness competition, Food Fight Club.

This week and next, two recipes will go head to head, vying for your votes. The following week, the winners of the first two rounds will duke it out for the honor of being named the champion of our first Food Fight Club.

Background image: Kirkland, The modern baker, confectioner, and caterer, c1907.

The smackdown begins with Snail Water versus Pear and Tomato Chutney.

This lovely snail water recipe comes from A Collection of Choise Receipts, a late 17th-century English manuscript written in exquisite penmanship, perhaps written by a professional scribe. Snail water was thought to treat ailments including “sharpness in [the] blood” and appetite loss. Learn more about snail water in our blog archives.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

From A Collection of Choise Receipts. Click to enlarge.

It takes a bold competitor to go up against this beauty. But we have one: Pear and Tomato Chutney from the American Can Company’s undated Relishes from Canned Food pamphlet. As early as the 1850s, commercially canned goods—especially sardines, tomatoes, condensed milk, and fruits and vegetables—found an eager consumer audience in the Western United States. Their popularity only increased over time; by the 1930s, foods from supermarkets were increasingly prepackaged (learn more in our 2015 April Fool’s blog—the food history facts are true!).

Pear and Tomato Chutney from American Can Company, Relishes from Canned Foods, no date. Click to enlarge.

Pear and Tomato Chutney from American Can Company, Relishes from Canned Foods, no date. Click to enlarge.

Which recipe should move on to the next round? Vote for your favoritebe it the most appealing, least appealing, or one that just tickles your fancy morebefore 5 pm EST on Monday, March 14.

Cook like a Roman: The New York Academy of Medicine’s Apicius Manuscript

By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This is one of several posts leading up to our day-long Eating Through Time Festival on October 17, 2015, a celebration of food, cookery, and health. View the full program and register for the Festival.

Ancient sources document the culinary excellence of one Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who flourished during Tiberius’ reign (1st century CE). It isn’t clear from textual evidence that this Apicius ever wrote a book of cookery.1 And yet, the gem of our Library’s cookery collection—a 9th-century manuscript collection of Greek and Roman recipes—bears his name.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius. Click to enlarge.

Our manuscript, transmitting a 4th– or 5th-century compendium of culinary and medical recipes compiled from a number of 2nd-century Roman sources, packs a powerful wow factor. It contains 500 Greek and Roman recipes from the Mediterranean basin. A handful may date as early as the 4th century BCE. As such, our manuscript is sometimes referred to as the oldest extant cookbook in the West.

This collection of recipes was likely compiled from multiple sources. The 2nd-century satirical writer Juvenal indicated that the name “Apicius” was frequently used to describe a foodie, not a specific person. Other sources suggest that the name conjured luxury and excessive eating.2

These recipes appear to be written by and for cooks. While some recipes called for cuts of meat that might have been beyond the means of the average Roman citizen, many others, including a number of meat, vegetable, and legume dishes, were well within the reach of Rome’s tradespeople, builders, artists, and modest farmers. Some of the recipes may have reflected popular dishes served in local popinae (street bars).

A closer look at book one reveals a wide range of useful directives applicable for the Mediterranean home cook. Called Epimeles (careful, or attentive), book one includes recipes for a spiced wine surprise, honeyed wine, and Roman absinthe. Here too are tips for preserving pork and beef rind, fried fish, blackberries, and truffles.

The dishes reflect the polyglot culture of the Mediterranean basin. The dominance of Greek culinary tradition in the early empire makes it likely that the Apicius began as a Greek collection of recipes, though mainly written in Latin, and adapted for a Roman palate.3 The cookbook incorporates a number of Greek terms, like melizomum (honey sauce) and hypotrimma (here a mixture of cheese and herbs), despite the existence of Latin glosses. Other words are hybrids of Greek and Latin, like tractogalatae, combining the Latin tractum (thin sheet of pastry) and gala, Greek for milk.

The Apicius manuscript is the gem of the Academy’s Margaret Barclay Wilson Collection of Cookery, acquired in 1929. Conservators restored and rebound it in 2006.

Our manuscript was penned in several hands in a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian scripts at the monastery at Fulda (Germany) around 830 CE. It is one of two manuscripts (the other at the Vatican) presumed to have been copied from a now lost common source.4

The gilt and illuminated Vatican manuscript of De re culininaria, as replicated in a 2013 facsimile.

The gilt and illuminated Vatican manuscript of De re culininaria, as replicated in a 2013 facsimile. Click to enlarge.

Images from both 9th-century iterations illustrate the different approaches to the text. The image above shows the gilt and illuminated Vatican manuscript, as replicated in a 2013 facsimile. Below is the Academy’s text. The number of cross-outs and the plain, unadorned style of the manuscript suggest it may have been a teaching tool for scribes.

The Academy’s unadorned 9th-century manuscript of De re culininaria. Click to enlarge.

The Academy’s unadorned 9th-century manuscript of De re culininaria. Click to enlarge.

Apicius has been a bestseller since the beginning of the print era, published in multiple editions since the 15th century. The Academy library holds many print editions, including two of the earliest.

This title page is from the earliest dated edition of the text, published in Milan in 1498. Pictured below is the device of the printer, La Signerre, who later set up shop in Rouen. Our copy is annotated by an early reader who adds the titles of the text’s ten books, grouped by type of dish.

Title page from the earliest dated edition of the De re culininaria, published in Milan in 1498.

Title page from the earliest dated edition of the De re culininaria, published in Milan in 1498. Click to enlarge.

The second earliest dated edition, printed in Venice, offers one of the earliest examples of a title page in printing history. It too is heavily annotated by an early food-lover, fluent in Greek and Latin.

Marginalia in our 1503 printed Apicius offers Greek glosses on Latin terms.

Marginalia in our 1503 printed Apicius offers Greek glosses on Latin terms.

Enthusiasts will find many other print descendants of this extraordinary manuscript in the Academy’s library.

The Apicius manuscript and a number of print editions of the text will be on display in the Academy Library’s Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room during our October 17th festival, Eating through Time. A complete schedule of events can be found here.


1. Mayo, H. (2008). “New York Academy of Medicine MS1 and the textual tradition of Apicius”. In Coulson, F. T., & Grotans, A., eds., Classica et Beneventana: Essays Presented to Virginia Brown on the Occasion of her 65th Birthday. Turnhout: Brepols. pp. 111–135.

2. Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger, eds. Apicius. A Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text Apicius. Devon: Prospect, 2006. p. 35.

3. Grockock and Grainger, p. 17-20.

4. Mayo, p. 112.

Recipes for Cooking by Electricity (Item of the Month)

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

In 2015, our programming will focus on food, including a day-long festival on October 17. This is part of a series of blogs featuring the theme.

It’s difficult to imagine a modern kitchen without electric appliances. But in the early 1900s, most people had to be persuaded to use them—often unsuccessfully.

As Doreen Yarwood explains in An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology, electric cookers made their debuts in the 1890s and catalogs started selling them by 1900. Still, people found them difficult to use. They were unreliable and often burnt out, they weren’t aesthetically pleasing, they were difficult to clean, and it was easy to burn yourself while using them. As so few people had electric current in their homes at the turn of the century, it’s not surprising that it took three more decades for electric cooking to become commonplace.1

But the New York Edison Company saw an opportunity. In 1911, it published Recipes for Cooking by Electricity, a slim cookbook that not only gave recipes (ranging in cost and complexity from toast to lobster a la Newburg), but also specified the cost of the electric current used. The cookbook also included a page with tips for the care of the electric appliances, such as not immersing the heating elements in water, cleaning a warm stove top with Vaseline, and keeping a coffee percolator “sweet and clean” by rinsing it with cold water after each use and boiling water with a tablespoon of baking soda in it each week. The cookbook concludes, “It is a simple thing to cook with electricity and the cost is surprisingly small.”2

Here are some sample recipes:


1. Yarwood, D. (2002). The Domestic Interior: Technology and the Home. In I. McNeil (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of the History of Technology. London: Routledge.

2. New York Edison Company. (1911). Recipes for cooking by electricity. New York: Edison Company.

Canapé Parade

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Thanksgiving means many things: spending time with family, reflecting on what you’re thankful for, looking back at American history. But the essence of the holiday can be stated in three words: food, football, and parades.

Our collection contains a whimsical pamphlet that combines two of the three (sorry, football fans): “Canapé Parade: 100 Hors d’Oeuvre Recipes,” published in 1932. (We have the fourth printing, from November of that year.)

The cover of Canapé Parade. Click to enlarge.

The cover of Canapé Parade.

The personality-filled canapés from the cover reappear throughout the pamphlet, illustrating recipes like bloater paste, Japanese crabmeat, herring, and marrons in brandy. Unfortunately, the pamphlet does not credit the illustrator.

None of the recipes specify ingredient amounts, “as the consistency and proportion of ingredients used will vary according to the individual palate.” The recipes take a semi-homemade approach, adding minimal fresh items to packaged food before spreading on crackers. The cookbook also advises that “the majority of these hors d’oeuvres also make excellent sandwich fillings to be served between thinly sliced bread at afternoon tea or buffet suppers.”

Enjoy the recipes on parade below (click to enlarge and view the gallery):

For more traditional Thanksgiving recipes, read Thanksgiving, 1914 Style.

Thanksgiving, 1914 Style

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist, and Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Still working on your Thanksgiving Day food planning? How about recreating a menu published 100 years ago?

In The Calendar of Dinners: A Daily Blessing to the Housekeeper, author Kate S. Teetshorn recommends a meal for every day of 1914, including Thanksgiving. Each menu is accompanied by a recipe or two. Recipes for some of the Thanksgiving menu suggestions are found on other days of the year, but unfortunately, she doesn’t include recipes to go along with all the recommendations (know how to make hot butter thins? Please tell us. They sound delicious). 

November 26, Thanksgiving Day

Below are additional recipes she provides, some that sound appropriate to the holiday or similar to the recommended dishes, and a closing poem.


Hungry for more? Check out this pumpkin pie recipe from 1804. We bet it would go well with ginger ice cream, as Teetshorn recommends.

Mother Eve’s Pudding Redux


By Erin Albritton, Head of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory

Last month, we kicked off National Poetry Month by sharing a rhyming recipe for Eve’s Pudding from our manuscript collection. Although charming, the recipe lacked the level of specificity to which most modern cooks have become accustomed. To solve this problem, cooking teacher and food historian Steve Schmidt (who will be delivering NYAM’s Friends of the Rare Book Room lecture on May 23rd) was kind enough to send along the following adaptation, together with a recipe for Cold Sweet Sauce that is scrumptious when drizzled over the top:

For the pudding:
3/4 cup (3 ounces) fine dry bread crumbs, plus a handful for coating the basin or bowl
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (3 ounces) sugar
1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp grated or ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 medium (about 1 1/4 pounds) firm, dry apples, such as Golden Delicious
2/3 cup (3 ounces) currants
3 large eggs, beaten until light and frothy
6 Tbsp (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp strained fresh lemon juice

For the Cold Sweet Sauce:
1 stick of butter
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1-2 Tbsp of brandy or lemon juice
A pinch of nutmeg

Very generously grease a 5- to 6-cup heatproof bowl or pudding basin with butter or solid vegetable shortening. Sprinkle the inside of the bowl with a handful of dry bread crumbs, tilt the bowl in all directions until coated and then tap the excess crumbs out.

Mix the 3/4 cup crumbs, sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl. Peel the apples and grate on the shredding plate of a box grater down to the cores. Stir the apples and currants into the crumb mixture, then the beaten eggs, then the melted butter and lemon juice. Pack the mixture into the prepared bowl, cover tightly with foil, set an upside-down plate on top of the foil, and steam the pudding for 3 hours in sufficient simmering water to reach halfway up the sides of the bow

While the pudding is steaming, make sauce by melting butter and whisking in sugar, brandy and nutmeg. Remove the pudding from the pot and let rest 15 minutes before unmolding. Drizzle (or drench!) with sauce and enjoy.

Below is a photo essay documenting one staff member’s kitchen adventure making this recipe (click to enlarge and open photo gallery). The next time you’ve got a couple of hours and find yourself craving a delicious dessert (with a bit of history), give Eve’s Pudding a try . . . you’ll be glad you did!

Mother Eve’s Pudding

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing a poem from our collection each week during April. With the support of the Pine Tree Foundation of New York, we are currently cataloging our manuscript recipe collection, which is the source of our first poem. The rhyming recipe was in both English and American cookbooks through the end of the nineteenth century, but this particular version is most likely from the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

To try out a modern take on this recipe, see “Mother Eve’s Pudding Redux.”

A recipe in verse for Mother Eve’s Pudding, late 18th-century.

To Make Mother Eves Pudding

To make a good Pudding pray mind what your taught

Take two penny worth of Eggs when twelve for a groat

Six ounces of bread Let Moll eat the Crust

The Crumb must be grated as small as the Dust

Take of the same Fruit that Eve once Cozen

Well pared and Chop’d at Least half Dozen

Six ounces of Currans from the Grit you must sort

Least they break out your teeth and spoil all the Sport

Six ounces of Sugar wont make it to sweet

Some Salt and a nutmeg will make Compleat

Three Hours it must boil without any Flutter

Nor is it Quite Finished without melted Butter

Cookery for a Jewish Kitchen

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Aunt Sarah's Cookery Book-page-001

Passover begins the night of March 25. In preparation, we’re sharing some recipes from an early English-language Jewish cookbook in our collection. The library and rare book room house a large number of cookery-related items, as nutrition and health are inextricably linked.

After the cost of books plummeted in the 1800s, Jewish cookbooks came on the scene, first in Germany around 1815. In 1846, the first English-language cookbook was released in London.¹

The cookbook in our collection, Aunt Sarah’s Cookery Book for a Jewish Kitchen, was published in Liverpool in 1872.

 “I have been induced to publish this little Book, the result of long experience, for the purpose of teaching young and inexperienced Jewish Housewifes the art of cooking their daily food in a proper manner, without infringing those dietary laws, the observance of which has been of so much importance to the health and well-being of our people. The directions are plain and simple, the most minute particulars are given with the greatest exactness, which, if attended to as written down, cannot fail of success. I have taken every pains, so that it may be easily understood by the most inexperienced; and if my humble endeavors to assist my Sisters in Faith in acquiring a knowledge of one of the most important of their Domestic duties be appreciated, and the higher object be also recognized, my labour will not have been in vain.AUNT SARAH”

“I have been induced to publish this little Book, the result of long experience, for the purpose of teaching young and inexperienced Jewish Housewifes the art of cooking their daily food in a proper manner, without infringing those dietary laws, the observance of which has been of so much importance to the health and well-being of our people. The directions are plain and simple, the most minute particulars are given with the greatest exactness, which, if attended to as written down, cannot fail of success. I have taken every pains, so that it may be easily understood by the most inexperienced; and if my humble endeavors to assist my Sisters in Faith in acquiring a knowledge of one of the most important of their Domestic duties be appreciated, and the higher object be also recognized, my labour will not have been in vain.

At the time of the book’s publication, matzo didn’t look like it does today—a piece of matzo was most often “round, irregular, or oval-shaped.”² The mechanization of matzo began with the invention of a kneading device in 1838, and progressed after the first matzo factory, Manischewitz, opened in Cincinnati in 1888. Eventually, the factory produced entirely machine-made, and square, pieces of unleavened bread.²

Aunt Sarah did not write the recipes in this book with most (non-shmurah) modern matzo in mind, and her ingredients are not always as common today as they were in the 1870s. If you try one of the recipes, let us know how it translates to the modern kitchen. And take a picture—unfortunately, this little book only includes text.

Here are some recipes to add to your holiday repertoire this year.³

Matzo Cake.

Put a matzo on a plate, strew over it almonds finely chopped; then sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake on a tin five or six minutes.

Potato Cake, or Pudding.

One pound of gratered potatoes (boiled in their skins the day before), one pound of sifted loaf sugar, three ounces of pounded almonds, the rind (gratered) and juice of one lemon, and the yolks of twelve eggs (beaten). Mix all together. Then take the whites of the eggs, beat them to a froth, and add it to the rest. Bake in a moderate oven, in small dishes, greased with salad oil.

A delicious Pudding for Passover.

Take whole matzos [a handwritten note specifies two or three], put each into a soup-plate, with sufficient cold water to make them very soft; drain off the water, leaving the matzos whole; grease a basin with dripping a quarter of an inch thick, cover it well with brown sugar, and line it with the soaked matzo the same as the paste for a steffin [another of Aunt Sarah’s recipes, basically a pie crust dough made with water, flour, and suet]. Mix well together a quarter of a pound of chopped raisins, the same of currants, ditto of chopped suet,* one ounce of preserved citron, ditto of orange and lemon (chopped), the juice of one lemon, the rind of half (gratered), half a teaspoonful of ground cinnamon, a quarter of a small nutmeg (gratered), half a teaspoonful of salt, and a wine glass of rum. Then put the mixture into the lined basin, about an inch thick; cover with the soaked matzo, strew over brown sugar; then the mixture and the matzo alternately, until the basin is full, the matzo forming the top layer. Make holes with a knife not quite to the bottom of the basin, and pour over it by degrees eight eggs (well beaten). When all is soaked into the pudding, put a little dripping over the top; then cover it with brown sugar. Bake in a moderate oven from an hour and a half to two hours, until quite brown. Turn it on to a flat dish, bottom up, and serve very hot. I must be made two hours before putting in the oven.

And Aunt Sarah’s take on the evergreen classic:

Matzo Ball Soup.

Stew slowly for six hours, in five pints of water, four pounds shin of beef, four pounds of mutton or veal, three leeks, a little celery, and a teaspoonful of salt. Strain and take off the fat.

For the Balls.—Take a teacupful of matzo meal, half a teaspoonful of salt, the same of ground ginger, one small Spanish onion chopped fine, and browned in a frying pan with a little dripping, and two teacupsful of matzo soaked in cold water and squeezed dry. Mix all together, with a half a teacupful of the broth and one or two eggs, sufficient to make it the consistence of forcemeat. Make it into balls, and boil them in the soup twenty minutes before serving.

*A common English ingredient, often found in early Jewish cookbooks, but not kosher.¹


1. Marks, G. (2010). Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. John Wiley & Sons.

2. Sarna, J. D. (2005). How Matzah Became Square: Manischewitz and the Development of Machine-made Matzah in the United States. Sixth Annual Lecture of the Victor J. Selmanowitz Chair of Jewish History, Touro College, Graduate School of Jewish Studies, New York, NY. Retrieved February 22, 2013 from

3. Aunt Sarah. (1872). Aunt Sarah’s cookery book for a Jewish kitchen: Containing plain and easy directions. How to cook fish, meat, poultry, and vegetables; to make pastry, puddings, sweets, preserves, and pickles, &c., with additional recipes for Passover. Liverpool: Yates and Hess.

English Gingerbread Old and New

Food historian Stephen Schmidt wrote today’s post, which includes findings from research he conducted at NYAM last summer. The post was originally posted on the Recipes Project blog.

Food writers who rummage in other people’s recipe boxes, as I am wont to do, know that many modern American families happily carry on making certain favorite dishes decades after these dishes have dropped out of fashion, indeed from memory. It appears that the same was true of a privileged eighteenth-century English family whose recipe book now resides at the New York Academy of Medicine (hereafter NYAM), under the unprepossessing label “Recipe book England 18th century. In two unidentified hands.” The manuscript’s culinary section (it also has a medical section) was copied in two contiguous chunks by two different scribes, the second of whom picked up numbering the recipes where the first left off and then added an index to all 170 recipes in both sections.

The recipes in both chunks are mostly of the early eighteenth century—they are similar to those of E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, 1727—but a number of recipes in the first chunk, particularly for items once part of the repertory of “banquetting stuffe,” are much older. My guess is that this clutch of recipes was, previous to this copying, a separate manuscript that had itself been successively copied and updated over a span of several generations, during the course of which most of the original recipes had been replaced by more modern ones but a few old family favorites dating back to the mid-seventeenth century had been retained. Among these older recipes, the most surprising is the bread crumb gingerbread. A boiled paste of bread crumbs, honey or sugar, ale or wine, and an enormous quantity of spice (one full cup in this recipe, and much more in many others) that was made up as “printed” cakes and then dried, this gingerbread appears in no other post-1700 English manuscript or print cookbook that I have seen.

And yet the recipe in the NYAM manuscript seems not to have been idly or inadvertently copied, for its language, orthography, and certain compositional details (particularly the brandy) have been updated to the Georgian era:

25 To Make Ginger bread

Take a pound & quarter of bread, a pound of sugar, one ounce of red Sanders, one ounce of Cinamon three quarters of an ounce of ginger half an ounce of mace & cloves, half an ounce of nutmegs, then put your Sugar & spices into a Skillet with half a pint of Brandy & half a pint of ale, sett it over a gentle fire till your Sugar be melted, Let it have a boyl then put in half of your bread Stirre it well in the Skellet & Let it boyle also, have the other half of your bread in a Stone panchon, then pour your Stuffe to it & work it to a past make it up in prints or as you please.

Eighteenth-century recipe book, England.

Eighteenth-century recipe book, England.

From the fourteenth century into the mid-seventeenth century, bread crumb gingerbread was England’s standard gingerbread (for the record, there was also a more rarefied type) and, by all evidence, a great favorite among those who could afford it—a fortifier for Sir Thopas in The Canterbury Tales, one of the dainties of nobility listed in The Description of England, 1587 (Harrison, 129), and according to Sir Hugh Platt, in Delightes for Ladies, 1609, a confection “used at the Court, and in all gentlemens houses at festival times.” Then, around the time of the Restoration, this ancient confection apparently dropped out of fashion. In The Accomplisht Cook, 1663, his awe-inspiring 500-page compendium of upper-class Restoration cookery, Robert May does not find space for a single recipe.

The reason for its waning is not difficult to deduce. Bread crumb gingerbread was part of a large group of English sweetened, spiced confections that were originally used more as medicines than as foods. Indeed, the earliest gingerbread recipes appear in medical, not culinary, manuscripts (Hieatt, 31), and culinary historian Karen Hess proposes that gingerbread derives from an ancient electuary commonly known as gingibrati, whence came the name (Hess, 342-3). In England, these early nutriceuticals, as we might call them today, gradually became slotted as foods first through their adoption for the void, a little ceremony of stomach-settling sweets and wines staged after meals in great medieval households, and then, beginning in the early sixteenth century, through their use at banquets, meals of sweets enjoyed by the English privileged both after feasts and as stand-alone entertainments.

Through the early seventeenth century banquets, like the void, continued to carry a therapeutic subtext (or pretext) and comprised mostly foods that were extremely sweet or both sweet and spicy: fruit preserves, marmalades, and stiff jellies; candied caraway, anise, and coriander seeds; various spice-flecked dry biscuits from Italy; marzipan; and sweetened, spiced wafers and the syrupy spiced wine called hippocras. In this company, bread crumb gingerbread, with its pungent (if not caustic) spicing, was a comfortable fit. But as the seventeenth century progressed, the banquet increasingly incorporated custards, creams, fresh cheeses, fruit tarts, and buttery little cakes, and these foods, in tandem with the enduringly popular fruit confections, came to define the English taste in sweets, whether for banquets or for two new dawning sweets occasions, desserts and evening parties. The aggressive spice deliverers fell by the wayside, including, inevitably, England’s ancestral bread crumb gingerbread.

As the old gingerbread waned, a new one took its place and assumed its name, first in recipe manuscripts of the last quarter of the seventeenth century, and then in printed cookbooks of the early eighteenth century. This new arrival was the spiced honey cake, which had been made throughout Europe for centuries. It is sometimes suggested that the spiced honey cake came to England with Royalists returning from exile in France after the Restoration, which seems plausible given the high popularity of French pain d’épice at that time—though less convincing when one considers that a common English name for this cake, before it became firmly known as gingerbread, was “pepper cake,” which suggests a Northern European provenance. Whatever the case, Anglo-America almost immediately replaced the expensive honey in this cake with cheap molasses (or treacle, as the English said by the late 1600s), and this new gingerbread, in myriad forms, became the most widely made cake in Anglo-America over the next two centuries and still remains a favorite today, especially at Christmas.

By the time the NYAM manuscript was copied, perhaps sometime between 1710 and 1730, molasses gingerbread was already ragingly popular in both England and America, and evidently the family who kept this manuscript ate it too, for the second clutch of culinary recipes includes a recipe for it, under the exact same title as the first. Remembering the old adage that the holidays preserve what the everyday loses, I will hazard a guess that the old gingerbread was made at Christmas, the new for everyday family use.

150 To Make Ginger Bread

Take a Pound of Treacle, two ounces of Carrawayseeds, an ounce of Ginger, half a Pound of Sugar half a Pound of Butter melted, & a Pound of Flower. if you please you may put some Lemon pill cut small, mix altogether & make it into little Cakes so bake it. may put in a little Brandy for a Pepper Cake

Recipe book England 18th century.

Recipe book England 18th century.

An interesting question is why the seventeenth-century English considered the European spiced honey cake sufficiently analogous to their ancestral bread crumb gingerbread to merit its name. It may have been simply the compositional similarity, the primary constituents of both cakes being honey (at least traditionally) and spices. Or it may have been that both cakes were associated with Christmas and other “festival times.” Or it may have been that both cakes were often printed with human figures and other designs using wooden or ceramic molds. Or it may possibly have been that both gingerbreads had medicinal uses as stomach-settlers. In both England and America, itinerant sellers of the new baked gingerbread often stationed themselves at wharves and docks and hawked their cakes as a preventive to sea-sickness. (Ship-wrecked off Long Island in 1727, Benjamin Franklin bought gingerbread “of an old woman to eat on the water,” he tells us in The Autobiography.) One thinks at first that the ginger and other spices were the “active ingredients” in this remedy, and certainly this is what nineteenth-century American cookbook authors believed when they recommended gingerbread for such use. But early on the remedy may also have been activated by the treacle. Based on the perhaps slender evidence of a single recipe in E. Smith, Karen Hess proposes that the first English bakers of the new gingerbread may have understood treacle to mean London treacle (Hess, 201), the English version of the ancient sovereign remedy theriac, a common form of which English apothecaries apparently formulated with molasses rather than expensive honey. I have long wondered what, if anything, this has to do with the English adoption of the word “treacle” for molasses (OED). Perhaps a medical historian can tell us.

Works Cited

Harrison, William. The Description of England. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994

Hess, Karen. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Hieatt, Constance and Sharon Butler. Curye on Inglysch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

“Treacle, I. 1. c.” The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1991.

Stephen Schmidt is the principal researcher and writer for The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey, an online catalogue of pre-1865 English-language manuscript cookbooks held in the U. S. repositories, which will launch in early 2013. He is the author of Master Recipes, a 940-page general-purpose cookbook, was an editor of and a principal contributor to the 1997 and 2006 editions of Joy of Cooking, has contributed to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink and Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, and has written for Cook’s Illustrated magazine and many other publications. A resident of New York City, he works as a personal chef and a cooking teacher and hopes soon to complete Lemon Pudding, Watermelon Cake, and Miracle Pie, a history of American home dessert.