This post was written by Luis Rodriguez, Collections Management Specialist
The holidays are full of traditions, and more often than not those traditions revolve around eating. In New Year celebrations, menus often contain foods meant to symbolize or even bring about good fortune. Lentils, for instance, are said to represent prosperity, and if you happen to be in Spain on New Year’s Eve, then you might eat twelve grapes as the clock strikes midnight. There’s one potentially similar tradition, however, that has largely faded from memory and may be due a revival: New Year Cake.
There is a recipe for “Mrs. Jackson’s New Year Cake” in the Duane Family cookbooks, a series of six volumes that contains a wealth of handwritten mid-19th century American recipes. The recipe appears in the first volume, best attributed to Eliza Duane. So, what is it? It’s a simple caraway seed cake, and if the proportions are followed, there will be more than enough to share.
Roughly transcribed, it calls for: 7 lb flour / 3 of sugar / 2 of butter / [mix] the butter & sugar to a cream / 1 pint of water / 2 spoons of saleratus (a leavener, like baking soda) / 6 oz. of caraway seed
Seed cake was relatively common throughout the British Isles for centuries. In another manuscript cookbook, this one originating in Scotland and brought to New York by the Moffat family, there is a similar recipe for “A cheap seed cake”.
But then there is the question of why this cake would be associated with the New Year. Eliza Duane didn’t invent the recipe or the name, as it does appear in other Victorian era American cookbooks. One answer might have to do with the size of the recipe. It was customary for New Yorkers to visit the homes of everyone they knew on New Year’s Day, or rather, for the men to do the calling while the women hosted the many guests. This cake recipe, large and simple as it is, would have worked for such an occasion. Another possible answer might be in the even older European custom of farmers’ wives baking seed cakes to mark the end of wheat sowing season. The echo of agrarian ritual in the caraway seeds may have just made sense to American city dwellers. Either way, here’s to a new year full of good food, and should you be curious about what else the Duane family was cooking, the Duane family cookbooks have been digitized and are available online.
Conservation and cataloging of the Duane Family cookbooks was funded by a grant from the Pine Tree Foundation, and digitization was made possible thanks to the generosity of a private foundation.