Dessert recipes from Mary K. William’s “Polk Cookbook”, 1858, NC Digital Collections.
Recently the New York Times published a piece on the “Cook’s Oracle”, an historical cooking database that has been a five decade long work of scholarship (and labor of love) of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton. Wheaton is a food historian and worked for 25 years as a curator of the culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. In the Cook’s Oracle, she has gone back centuries to patiently and persistently cataloge recipes, ingredients and food techniques with the goal of doing so for all of the cookbooks printed in North America and Europe. To date she has logged the contents of more than 3,400 cookbooks with more than 130,000 records. The possibilities for research are intriguing, particularly with the recent growth of historical work being done by ethnographers and food historians.
Wheaton’s work inspired me to visit the oldest cookbooks we have at the GHL and in the NC Digital Collections. Looking at some of the earliest gave me a taste of the magnitude of her project. For example, the Polk Cookbook (1858, from the State Archives collection) was handwritten by Mary Williams, mother of President James K. Polk’s sister-in-law Lucy. The book includes culinary recipes as well as cleaning and medicinal concoctions. Some that might today even come under the heading “don’t try this at home.” The ante-bellum culinary recipes are at times notable for the absence of the precision of modern recipes with their measurements, tools, process, temperatures, and timing. If you’re up for experimenting with these artifacts, my favorite edible recipes with holiday desserts in mind are “Transparent Pudding” and “Bread Pudding”. On the same page, she also includes a recipe for traditional mince pies, made with beef. (See the image at top right for recipes and link to the cookbook.)
Pumpkin Pudding, from Mary Mason’s The Young Housewife’s Counsellor and Friend, published 1871.
The most unique recipe a propos of Thanksgiving that I’ve come upon is from Mary Ann Bryan Mason. Mason was a native of New Bern, born there in 1802, who eventually relocated to Raleigh with her husband, the Rev. Richard Sharpe Mason (rector of Raleigh’s Christ Church). She published the Young Housewife’s Counsellor and Friend in 1871, and in its 380 pages she includes instruction for housewives from everything from the nursery and sickroom to recipes for food, cures, and poisons.
My favorite is a recipe for turkey boiled in (yes!) a towl. General disclaimer: we don’t necessarily recommend that you try this at home!
“If your turkey or fowl is to be boiled, have ready a pot of boiling water, dip a towell into it, then, after rubbing it with flour, inclose your fowl or turkey; tie it tightly, and drop it into your pot of boiling water. A large hen will take an hour and a half or two hours, a turkey hen two hours. When you think it is done, thrust a large darning needle into the breast of thigh; if it goes in readily, it is done, if not, let it boil longer.”
Mason also included more pudding recipes than I could count, including Edgecombe Pudding, Croatan Pudding, Henderson Pudding, Raleigh Pudding and Barbados Pudding (no doubt included for her husband, a native of Barbados). Her recipe for Pumpkin Pudding is included in the lefthand image.
If you have the courage to experiment, you can find Williams’ and Mason’s cookbooks in the North Carolina Digital Collections. And you can learn more about the Masons in NCpedia.
Happy Thanksgiving from the N.C. Government & Heritage Library!
— Kelly Agan, Digital Projects Librarian