Food is a critical part of our daily lives, and of our history. Cuisine is passed down from generation to generation and is an expression of a shared identity. At the most basic level, it reflects ethnicity, but also lifestyle, values, and traditions. The Duane and Wells family’s recipe book gives us a glimpse into their mid-19th century, New-York City mindset with desserts named for popular singers and politicians, medicinal cure-alls, and patriotic cakes. The cookbooks in the Duane Family Cookbooks collection are mainly attributed to Eliza Duane (a relation to James Duane, the 44th Mayor of New York City), Mary Wells, and Fanny T. Wells. The items in the collection most likely belonged to these women or other members of the Wells or Duane families.
It was common in the 19th century to name baked goods after famous people who garnered respect and attention. For instance, the recipe for Jenny Lind Bread pictured above is named after Jenny Lind — a popular singer whose career lasted from 1838 to 1883. You may recognize her name from the 2018 film The Greatest Showman, but she has long held a reputation as a talented singer. She set sail for New York in 1850 for her American Tour with P.T. Barnum. Ms. Lind’s popularity was so great, that journalists coined the term “Lind Mania.” Nicknamed the Swedish Nightingale, this bread pays tribute to her by being a classic; the ingredients (flour, eggs, milk, and sugar) are simple and loved by all, much like Jenny Lind herself. Even the noted Danish author, Hans Christian Anderson, met and fell in love with Ms. Lind while she was touring Denmark in 1843. It is widely believed he modeled the Snow Queen, a cold-hearted character from his fairy tale of the same name, after her when his affections went unreciprocated. (The Disney film Frozen’s Elsa is loosely based on The Snow Queen.) I’d wager that the creator of the Jenny Lind Bread recipe was an avid fan.
Not surprisingly, the Washington Cake is named for George Washington, our first president, and was usually made in February to celebrate his birthday. The cake, made with sugar, flour, milk, eggs, wine, saleratus (a precursor to baking powder), and rosewater was reportedly a favorite of Washington’s in the last years of his life. Legend has it that the cake became popular after a former slave of Washington’s, named Mary, was freed and moved to Manhattan. There she became a baker, and as a tribute to Washington would bake his favorite cake every year on his birthday. The Washington Cake was particularly popular in the 19th century; however, like most cakes from the period, it disappeared into relative obscurity.
Election days were jubilant and revered times for people to be proud of the hard-won privilege to vote and select their own leadership. These were often days of celebration, with alcohol, and food, including Election Day Cakes. Although the exact recipes vary based on local customs, they all have the same basic, dense quality enhanced with spices and fruit. According to the recipes pictured above, they are not very sweet and use soda or brandy to add a savory flavor. The first recipe includes a large amount of each ingredient, indicating it was meant to feed a lot of people. The coffee-sized recipe is clearly for a more intimate occasion when there are fewer mouths to feed. Today, this tradition of baking cakes on Election Day is almost unheard of. I say it’s one that should be brought back!
Family and household recipe-books are also a way to study the history of medicine. It was common to include medicinal recipes in cookbooks as a way to pass on practical knowledge. Instead of taking a trip to the doctor every time a family member felt ill, families would consult their cookbooks. When recipe-books contain medicinal recipes, they are also commonly referred to as receipt-books. While today the word receipt carries a different meaning, it comes from the Latin recipere, which means “to take in.” Cooking and medicine are intertwined, both requiring lists of ingredients and instructions for mixing them together. Naturally, they would be recorded in the same place. In the Duane Family Cookbooks, there is a recipe for a “Cholera Mixture” that includes camphor and essence of peppermint. Another recipe with black pitch, rosin, and flour is named “Cure for the Scrofula.” Scrofula is when the bacteria that causes tuberculosis manifests outside the lungs, causing inflamed lymph nodes in the neck. Additionally, there is a recipe for “Syrup of Sarsaparilla.” Sarsaparilla is made from a tropical plant and was often used to treat psoriasis and other skin diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease.
The Duane Family Cookbooks are available in our Shelby White and Leon Levy Digital Digital Library. Take a journey to the mid-19th-century through food, or better yet give one of the recipes a try. We certainly don’t suggest experimenting with laudanum, or black pitch, or any other “cures,” but that Jenny Lind cake sounds tasty!
This post is by Gina Modero, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.