Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Experimental Cooking, I

I have been wondering how to include you, Dear Reader, in my dissertation research, now that I am home from Germany and spending my days either reading secondary literature--most of it probably uninteresting to you--or doing close reads of primary sources. That may be interesting to you, but only once I have figured out what I think it means in terms of my broader argument about ideas on food and bodies in early-twentieth-century Saxony. Both of my advisers have given me the green light on my dissertation outline, so while you wait for me to fill it in with case studies, here are some gustatory illustrations.

At the moment I am organizing and reading through the photographs I took back in September 2010 at the Dortmund Kochbuch Museum of the most famous cookbook in Germany, the Praktisches Kochbuch. Henriette Davidis (1801-1876) published the first edition of this practical cookbook in 1844; after her death the publisher contracted with a series of editors to continue capitalizing on her famous name. You can still purchase editions on; the most recent edition came out last year (2010). What made Davidis's cookbook so famous in an otherwise glutted market of literature for middle-class housewives and daughters was that she wrote for beginners, describing how to prepare even basic kitchen staples like pickles, noodle dough, or flavored butters. Moreover, rather than merely "borrowing" recipes she tested the ones that she published. Later editors retained her name and often the format, but they also updated the recipes to reflect changing tastes, ingredients, and technologies (i.e. gas and electric stoves, refrigerators).

I have heard that one should not try out new recipes for parties or when company comes over for dinner, but that hasn't stopped me--or many of the users of the cookbooks from the early 1900s that I have been reading! I have attended two potlucks in the last week, and for each I tried out a recipe from the Davidis line of cookbooks. What made these recipes particularly challenging was not the translation from German to English or from grams into cups but rather the fact that they were written in the middle of World War I, when due to the incompetency of the various levels of government and the English blockade, many foodstuffs (like pork, beef, milk, wheat, potatoes, eggs, sugar, and coffee) became scarce for many Germans. Workers living in cities usually had it worse than the middle class, who could afford to buy on the black market (Schwarzmarkt), and the farmers, who simply refused to sell what they produced at the government-determined prices. I tried to find a balance between the historical frugality these recipes embody and the fact that I still wanted the results to taste good! Below are two recipes translated more or less literally from Luise Holle's Praktisches Kriegskochbuch (1916), with my comments in brackets.

Christmas Cake [Weihnachtskuchen]
Stir 50 g lard or artificial fat [1/4 cup unsalted stick margarine] until soft, add 100 g fine sugar [1/2 cup] 1 egg yolk and 2 teaspoons of beaten egg powder [Eiersparpulver], a pinch of salt, 50 g diced citron [1/3 cup], 40 g raisins [1/4 cup], 30 g coarsely chopped nuts [1/4 cup chopped walnuts] and 300 g flour [2.5 cups] mixed with 1 packet of baking powder [??] to that and then fold in the stiff peaks of the egg white. Fill a long, prepared [greased] loaf pan with all but 5 teaspoons full of the batter, which one reserves. On the dough spread 3 spoons of breadcrumbs [omitted], then 30 g raisins [1/4 cup--actually, the rest of the bag of golden California raisins] and 30 g of grated nuts [>1/4 cup chopped walnuts] mixed with 2 teaspoons of cocoa powder, and pour the rest of the batter on top. The cake must bake 1 hour at moderate [gleichmässige] heat [on the advice of an older woman at church I settled on 325 F for 25 minutes].

I decided to forgo the historical accuracy of using some kind of powdered egg substitute in favor of one actual egg. Perhaps for this reason, my dough was rather dry--and that was with only half the recommended flour (according to a couple of online measurement conversion sites). However, I am proud of the fact that I beat the egg white into "stiff white peaks" the old-fashioned way.* Plus, it seemed a little silly to use the electric mixer for only a single egg white. Besides the cooking temperature, I also had to guess about the baking powder. Who knows how much and what kind of baking powder was in one packet sold in Germany in 1916? Today they contain 15g, so I went with 1 level tablespoon of my usual double-acting baking powder. However, on account of the dryness, the two halves did not bake together. The result was something more like Christmas Granola Bars than Christmas Cake. (See above.) I think next time I will go ahead and use a whole stick of margarine (or butter) and be even more judicious with the flour. As it is, I ate what we brought home from the party with milk for breakfast. That's an economical way of using leftovers Henriette and Luise surely would have approved of.

"Blarney," in progress: potatoes, 
cabbage, carrots (later: another
layer of potatoes, then onion)
For the second event, I knew the meat dish would be a roast, so I decided to make Falsches Irisches Gericht, which literally translates as "False Irish Dish." This cookbook has a number of foreign dishes--Danish Soup, Belgian Oven Dish with White Chicory, and Gypsy Turnips--so I am not sure why the title for this one is modified by "false." I am pretty sure the turnip recipe is no more authentic, but for some reason Holle felt the need to distance this mixture of potatoes, cabbage, and carrots from the Emerald Isle. Dear Husband suggested I should call this one "Blarney"!

False Irish Dish, or "Blarney" In a cooking pot greased with fat, heat 1/8 liter of water, lay finely chopped white cabbage in layers, raw potatoes cut in slices, and some finely chopped carrots in between. Spread salt and pepper on each layer, cook everything together for 10 minutes and put the dish in a cooker [Garkocher] for 2 hours. Only stir some fat into the dish at the very end, after spreading a few spoonfuls of onion cubes cooked light-brown [in butter].

This recipe reads like how I usually cook: with the exception of the strange precise-ness of the volume of water, no amounts or measurements are specified. I ended up using 3 large skin-on potatoes (or 6 the size of your fist), cut into thin-ish slices; several carrots peeled and halved short-ways (and long-ways if the top half was fatter)--I don't know how many(!); and most of a bag of prepared coleslaw mix to cut down on prep time. I hate to have Reste and would have used the whole bag if I could have fit it all in the glass casserole dish. I simply checked the water when testing the dish for done-ness every 20 minutes. In place of the slow-cooker I put it in the oven at 275 F for an hour. Although the butter-cooked onion smelled absolutely delicious, I had forgotten the salt and pepper, so I thought the result was not very tasty. (The other guests assured me otherwise.) Nevertheless, when re-using the leftovers, I am adding the rest of the shredded cabbage and some Kräutersalz [herb salt] that I brought back with me, so now this quasi-Irish dish will definitely taste German to me.

I anticipate doing more experimental cooking, if only because I like trying new dishes. But I wonder what impact this very subjective experience will have on my dissertation, if any. Does(n't) my project require that I know what common foods looked like, cooked like, tasted like--even digested like? If I don't share that sensory experience with my historical actors, if I merely re-use the words they used, I am afraid that my analysis will merely become a sort of citation analysis: "the description süsssauer [sweet and sour] often appeared in recipes for..." or "pikant [spicy] meant different things to different people...." On the one hand, it is objectively impossible to recreate boiled turnips from 1917 or Sauerbraten from 1933: the varieties of vegetables are more homogeneous now, the soil then was more nutrient-poor, my water is softer. More to the point, my taste history is different as an American in the 21st century than that of a woman of my age and class living in early 20th-century Saxony. For one, I have grown up eating more processed and packaged foods; Davidis couldn't know what Pepsi, Chef Boyardee, Pop Tarts, or pixie sticks taste like. Even though I don't eat/drink any of those things anymore, my expectations for sweet, salty, spicy, and other flavors are surely not the same as those of someone who grew up at a time when the recommended daily intake of salt was 15g[!] (it's currently 2.3g/day). This cultural variety is why Coke, McDonald's, and other globalized food commodities taste different in different parts of the world today. On the other hand, historians have long been in the practice of writing about societies of which they are not a part and cultures they have not experienced. Surely I can still come up with something interesting to say about foodways that are so different from mine, just as men can write about women in history, modern citizens can write about slaves, Americans can write about Germans, and so forth. Some scholars assert only personal experience can make one an expert in a particular category of identity, whereas others argue that being an outsider gives one a better perspective. I suppose with my food projects I am straddling the line a little bit. Come back to read more of my philosophizing about food and bodies, with the remove of an ocean and 100 years...

*--Unfortunately, I paid bodily for my re-creation: 2 days later I had shooting pain in my right shoulder, presumably my deltoid tendon complaining about the stress I put it through whipping that egg white. How did all those housewives did it for all those years??


  1. I learned to cook from my Grandmother - not my mother who as an enlightened woman of the thirties avoided the kitchen arts as demeaning, nor from my father whose idea of cooking was to cremate patties of ground beef until they reached the consistency of the bricks which surrounded the fire in his outdoor fireplace - no, I learned from my grandmother Maude Morrison Heath who learned from her mother who learned from her mother and so on back through the generations to Rosina Jaekel who with her husband Abram Boyer emigrated from Silesia to Pennsylvania in 1720.

    Grandmother eschewed recipes. She cooked mostly from memory and by instinct. Where other more modern cooks measured ingredients by teaspoons or cups she used so much as covered the deep lines of her palm or could be inched between her second finger and thumb, or just enough flour to make a good dough. She was always experimenting with an "I wonder how this would taste" flair but the base was always what her mother had past to her from the cook fires of her ancestors. Her cooking with some of this and a little of that and a pinch of something else was a delight of tastes and savors that reached back through the centuries to a village in Silesia. I still taste that history a half a century after she went to her rest and I smile.

    Merry Christmas,

    Keith Hays

  2. Thank you for sharing, Keith--and Merry Christmas!

  3. An answer to the rhetorical egg-beating question: we have an antique one of these,so I imagine these've been around a while, helping out:

    Also, you can pick up a little cooking scale for not much, if you would like to continue your German cooking experiments :). I think I saw some for 14 or so.

    So, slow cookers. They have existed in Germany? In talking with others, it seems a foreign concept (maybe due to perceived electrical usage?).

    Anyway. Keep up the good work!

  4. Ooh, an egg beater. That looks like fun!

    As to slow cookers, yes, the Germans knew about them around the turn of the last century, but they only became popular during WWI _because_ they saved on cooking fuel! The original models consisted of an insulated wooden box filled with wood chips or cotton batting and a recess or two for the pots plus a lid. Unless I'm getting my chronology mixed up, during the war already there appeared some heated with gas or electricity (they were $$$ to buy _and_ you had to have a hook-up); there were also some with either an electric coil or a Bunsen burner-type set up to heat the food.

    I don't know so much about today; I can only think of one person I knew with a fancy kitchen appliance; I think it was some kind of food-processor-bread-maker. Maybe it has to do with counter space? Or that they didn't eat a big meal in the evening the way we do? Or maybe that the people I knew didn't do much cooking!


Your comments let me know that I am not just releasing these thoughts into the Ether...