Cooking Up The Past

The Mixology 101 Signature Series event was a resounding success this past Thursday and the enthusiasm for the history of food and drink is strong in our community. That’s why I thought I’d share a few gems from the Research Library’s manuscript vault that I came across while adding items to the new online catalog, Ask Caesar.

Before personal computers, the blogosphere, and a prolific cookbook publishing industry, women kept their treasure troves of domestic know-how in little blank books.  When a woman was married and began to set up “housekeeping,” she often kept notes on recipes for cooking the family meals, preserving harvests, making medicine, and, yes, brewing homemade spirits and libations. The Delaware Historical Society has many of these recipe books, and most of them date from the 19th century. Anna J. Black kept her recipe book in the 1840s. Examining her recipe book, we know that she most likely kept at least some hard liquors in the pantry in large part for medicinal purposes. Her recipe for a “cure” of fever and chills includes soaking a “handful of the root of musterwort” in whisky. Mrs Jos. T. Bailey recorded several recipes for beer and variations of fruit wines in her 1863 recipe book. She may have found these recipes in newspapers, ladies’ magazines, or jotted them down in a recipe exchange from a friend or neighbor. We know that Susan Maria Fromberger, wife of Thomas Rodney, collected many of her recipes from magazines and friends. In her recipe book from 1834, she pasted what she must have considered a particularly delicious formula for elderberry wine, among other delicacies such as pickled walnuts and brown bread.

These recipe books are more than just curios of our culinary past. They are windows into the lives of the women who kept them. From them we can guess at the kinds of things they may have kept in their pantries, had access to in the general store, the dishes that were in fashion, and, of course, what they may have put on the table to feed their families and nurse the sick. Consider coming in to the research library to have a look at these little gems for yourself. Maybe you can try your hand at perfecting Mrs. Bailey’s Sallie Lunn cake or Susan Fromberger’s blancmange. But please, don’t take their medical advice!


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