The University of Chicago has two recipe books dating from the second half of the 19th century.
The University of Chicago has two recipe books dating from the second half of the 19th century. Credit: Julia Thiel; cookbooks courtesy university of chicago special collections

THE FOOD ISSUE: Ancient Methods, Modern Cuisine

A friend of mine has a treasured box of recipes handwritten on index cards by her great-aunt Della. I’ve sat in her kitchen while she juiced lemons for Della’s lemon chess pie and whipped egg whites for Della’s meringue. If there were a fire, she sometimes says, it would be the first thing she’d save (besides the cats).

Understanding why someone would be attached to recipes penned by loved ones is easy: replicating the culinary efforts of our ancestors helps create a sense of connection with the past. But what about recipes written down 150 years ago by god knows who? The University of Chicago has two such manuscripts in its Special Collections archive, both of them recipe books dating from the second half of the 19th century. The recipes provide a fascinating glimpse into the past, but the U. of C.’s ownership of the cookbooks suggests that no one has a personal connection to them anymore; even the identity of the original owners is unknown. I wondered whether the receipts (the old-fashioned word for “recipe”) could stand up on their own merit or if they’re best relegated to history.

As a result of that curiosity, one sunny October morning I found myself breaking down cubes of salt pork fat in my food processor—an appliance that’s been popular with home cooks for less than 50 years—because I don’t own a meat grinder, which would have been in almost every 19th-century kitchen. I’ve become determined to make pork cake, which is essentially a spice cake made with pork fat instead of butter or oil.

It’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. For one thing, the recipes in these near-ancient texts generally list ingredients but not instructions. The lack of step-by-step guidance is common to cookbooks of the era; it was assumed that all housewives knew how to make a cake, pie, pudding, or soup. And because stoves at the time were generally made of cast iron fueled by wood or coal, there was no reason to specify a temperature at which to bake things (the gas range became popular in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century).

Which is all well and good for housewives 150 years ago, but doesn’t help me much. Each book has a recipe for pork cake, and they’re remarkably similar—right down to the fact that neither provides any clue as to what I’m supposed to do with raw pork, raisins, sugar, molasses, milk, flour, spices, vinegar, and baking soda.

No one at the university has studied the books, so I can’t look to anyone there for guidance, and the only identifying information regarding ownership is a stamp from the New York stationery store where one notebook, inscribed “Bill W. Niles,” was presumably purchased.

Whoever the delicate, sloping handwriting that fills the book belonged to, I doubt it was Bill Niles. According to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, these collections, known as manuscript cookbooks, were the most common form of recipe keeping between about 1600 and 1900, and “are generally handwritten recipes collected by one person (usually a woman) or a series of people over successive generations.”

The two books in the U. of C. archives fit that definition to a tee. Each is written, for the most part, in one hand, with a few additional recipes and notes on existing recipes added in different handwriting, presumably later. The pages of both books have been painstakingly scanned and are available online in PDF form, but I took a trip down to the library to see them in person. It was only then that I realized how many of the scanned pages aren’t part of the bound journals, but slips of paper, newspaper clippings, and a few envelopes with recipes scrawled on them, stuck inside the front cover of each book.

Not that there’s much left of the binding of the first manuscript (the one from the New York stationery store). The cloth around the spine has partly crumbled away, exposing the paper underneath. I’ve been given a foam cradle in which to rest the books so I don’t damage their bindings, but it’s a little late for this one: when I open it I find that many of the delicate pages, browning around the edges, have already detached themselves from the spine.

The book is arranged alphabetically, with a quote for each letter: “‘A friend should bear a friend’s infirmities’ —Julius Caesar” for A, a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII for B, and so on. Not all the pages are filled; C, P, and S are well populated—cakes, custards, pies, puddings, pickles, soups, and syrups were all common at the time—but there’s nothing under E except another Shakespeare quote (there are lots of omelet recipes, but apparently nothing for “eggs”). And the definition of “recipe” seems to have been much broader back then. In the second cookbook, nestled between the whortleberry pudding and the “Nice Mince Pies,” are a headache remedy calling for morphine, several soap recipes, bed bug poison, and a newspaper clipping advising that according to the London Milk Journal, warm milk will cure “violent diarrhea, stomach ache, incipient cholera and dysentery.”

While part of the charm of these cookbooks is that they’re handwritten, the old-fashioned writing style is difficult to decipher, and I find myself disappointed when what I think is “Jolly Cake” turns out to be Jelly Cake (which, oddly, contains no jelly). I desperately want to make Charlotte White’s “Good!!! Coffee Cake” to find out what makes it worth three exclamation points, but can’t decipher more than half of the ingredients. And there’s also the aforementioned dilemma of there being no instructions.

Fortunately, these days we have the Internet, and I find several recipes online for pork cake, complete with instructions—and even an article in Okra Magazine (published by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum) offering a little bit of history. Made without eggs, butter, or milk (most recipes call for water instead), pork cake was economical and didn’t contain any ingredients that spoil easily. Apparently this also translated to the finished product—pork cakes were said to keep anywhere from several months to a year.

I locate salt pork fairly easily, at Paulina Meat Market, but these days it’s significantly more expensive than butter. It’s a pain to deal with too. I’ve learned from what I read online that I should use only the fat, not the lean parts, but since I can’t buy just the fat, I cut off the skin and lean meat myself. After I dice up the fat and freeze it slightly comes the step of trying to grind it in the food processor; the result is more like pork paste than ground pork. From there the process is fairly simple: I pour hot milk over the pork fat and stir it. The fat doesn’t dissolve, but it does seem to get softer. By the time I’ve added the other ingredients and stirred everything together, I can’t see any fat chunks in the mixture (though the texture, like a less sticky caramel, is like no cake batter I’ve seen before).

When I finally try the finished product, I can see why it keeps so well. Dense as a brick and nearly as dry, it already has the texture of a cake that’s been sitting in a pantry for months. Any pork flavor has been covered by the molasses and spices, and I’m first relieved, then disappointed. The pork fat was so much work that I actually wish I could taste it a little. Still, the combination of molasses, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg gives the cake a nice flavor.

I share the two loaves I’ve produced with friends and coworkers, and a few people even say they like it. No one asks for the recipe, though, and I suspect that it’s not destined to be passed on to future generations.

Credit: Julia Thiel

How to make Pork Cake (if you dare)

Under the recipe title in the first manuscript are the words “Julia Newell 1865.” This is very close to Newell’s recipe, except that I omitted a half pound of currants. The other pork cake recipe is virtually identical to this one except that it calls for one quarter the amount of dried fruit. I averaged the two and settled on a half pound of raisins. The instructions are from various recipes I found online.

? lb salt pork fat, cut into small cubes
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup milk (I added a little heavy cream to 2 percent milk to mimic the full-fat milk that would have been used)
? lb raisins
5 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon each cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Freeze the pork fat for half an hour or so, then put it in a food processor until it’s chopped fine (it may turn into a paste, which is OK too). Heat the milk, put the fat in a large bowl, and pour the hot milk over it and stir. Let stand for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the other ingredients (the mixture will be very thick). Press into two greased loaf pans and cook for an hour or more, until a toothpick comes out clean.