One of the most common questions I get from people about my work is, “But do the recipes work?!” These days, potential cures can be found in chia seeds and red wine, so why not in historical documents? I get it, it would be really cool to find out that a cure for the common cold was discovered ages ago and all we’ve got to do is just dig through these recipe books to find it. And maybe it is there. But, that isn’t my shtick. Why don’t I try the medical recipes in the recipe books that I research? Well, many of the recipes are for serious illnesses that I don’t have, thankfully, and wouldn’t want to mess with on my own anyway – cancers, fistulas, kidney stones, and plague… The ingredients are mostly herbal, but I’m not a botanist. Plus, sometimes I just know when not to mess – Mercury? Antimony? Puppies? No thanks.
That being said, I can make some of the recipes: Candied lemon peel? Potato Pudding? “Carolina Snow Balls”? Yeah, I’m into that. So, freshly returned from Italy and back to the Wangensteen Library and my dissertation writing, and onto a new chapter. It is time for some old timey recipes.
We could say that beginnings call for breakfasts, but really, I just wanted pancakes. This recipe comes from one of the Wangensteen Library’s many manuscript recipe books. Cookery and Medical Receipts (ms. Small QV C773 1820) was handwritten in the early 19th century probably somewhere in the United States. It is a pretty small book, 11 x 17 cm, and can be read from both sides – front-to-back and back-to-front. There are culinary recipes and medical recipes that were copied down by several different people (these writers aren’t identified by name, but you can tell that the handwriting is different).
On the page in question we have recipes for two types of pancakes: “Milk Pancakes” and “Common Pancakes”…someone crossed common pancakes out, I guess they weren’t great, so we’re going with milk pancakes today.
Mix a pint of milk with as much flour as will make a thin batter, put in a glass of brandy a little nutmeg ginger and salt- break in four Eggs beat them well together until they are smoothe fry them in hot lard and then sprinkle sugar over them. (a)
Notes on the recipe:
I have no brandy, so I used whiskey. Also, I don’t have any lard, so I used a little vegetable oil. There are only two people who live in my apartment, so I halved the recipe. It was easy because, as you can see, we only have amounts specified for 2 of the 7 ingredients.
These are definitely more like crêpes than pancakes because they were super flat and pretty egg-y. Pancake recipes these days tend to include baking powder or soda, which makes them fluffy enough to soak up all the maple syrup that your heart desires. The whiskey added some sweetness, but not a ton of flavor; make your “glass” as substantial as you please. The spices were delicious.
Because we had two pears that were just about to become too ripe, I made a quick pear mash: pretend like you’re making applesauce, but use pears – chop up pears in little-ish pieces, put in a pan with cinnamon and add nutmeg and ginger (they’re on the counter anyway because of the pancakes, so why not…). Cook until mushy. This pear mash nonsense ended up being pretty tasty on top of the pancakes.
Ken and I agree – A+ old timey pancakes. We’d make this meal again.
Now, I could give you amounts here, “But how much milk did you use? How much of the spices?” But in the game of trying to understand historical recipes, why people wrote them the way they did and how they reproduced them, it is sometimes better to just take what is in front of you and experiment. For example, why does the writer only specify the amounts of milk and eggs to include? Here is my best guess: They probably assumed that whoever used the recipe would just instinctively know how much of the other ingredients to use, that the reader would be experienced in cooking and simply need reminders or suggestions, not full instruction in the art of pancake making.
What is next? I’ll be on the lookout in the library for other recipes that won’t be too expensive, that I can make in smaller quantities (many of these could feed 20+ people), and that can actually be made in an apartment. (b)
(a) Just for a point of comparison, here is my family’s normal pancake recipe: Buttermilk Pancakes (from James Beard’s American Cookery) – 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 cups buttermilk, 3 eggs, separated (beat the whites until stiff), ¼ cup melted butter.
(b) I found a recipe for a dried goose… It is pretty complicated, but I feel confident… How do you think my parents will feel about it hanging their chimney for a week?