Historical Baking

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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Being a graduate student in the midst of a global pandemic comes with a specific set of challenges. Already busy with coursework, reading for comprehensive exams, grading or teaching our own classes, and working on our dissertation research without physical access to the archive, the state of limbo that we are currently experiencing has made all of these tasks more difficult than before. Over email and through Zoom, many professors and fellow students have discussed how self-isolation and social distancing does not equate with more productivity. Rather, in order to deal with this heightened state of anxiety we need to learn how to take a break and truly engage in self-care.

In my case, self-care has taken multiple forms, whether that be taking long walks or catching up on my favorite television shows. Baking has become another way in which to escape the stress generated by everyday life and amplified by this pandemic. Obviously, I am not the only person who has turned to this activity. The news has been saturated with stories about yeast and flour shortages. It is almost impossible to go on social media without seeing dozens of pictures of freshly baked breads and tasty sweets. For me, baking serves two functions: it keeps me focused on something other than my studies and research; and it allows me to keep in touch with my friends through doorstep (and 100% contactless) deliveries.

About a month ago, while baking my grandmother’s famous challah, I thought to myself, how could I combine my love of history with my new favorite hobby of baking. I pondered this question for a while. Then, it hit me. I was doing some research for one of my term papers and came across digitized articles from The Ladies’ Home Journal, a monthly magazine addressed to American housewives and housekeepers. After reading a few articles, I came across a series entitled “Mrs. Rorer’s Cooking Lessons.” I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try to follow Mrs. Rorer’s eighth lesson: Making Bread and Rolls. Could I reproduce an easy and cheap nineteenth-century bread recipe? Would it taste good? I was about to find out.

For the sake of time, the lack of ingredients in my pantry, and the yeast shortage, I decided to try Mrs. Rorer’s recipe for “a quick loaf bread.” It seemed fairly simple. All that was needed was baking powder, whole wheat flour, water, and milk. As with most recipes featured in this magazine, large quantities of ingredients were necessary as the recipes were meant to produce large servings (for six to twelve people). Since this recipe was supposed to make four loaves and I live alone, I decided to cut the recipe in half. Another challenge was to convert the measurements into cups. For example, I converted two quarts of whole wheat into cups. If you want to try this recipe at home, here are the converted measurements for one large loaf of bread: 3 tablespoons of baking powder, 4.65 cups of whole wheat flour, and 3 cups of cold water. Mix the baking powder and whole wheat flour. Add the water and mix until fully combined. Flip onto countertop dusted with flour and knead the dough until it is no longer sticky. Mold into one large or two smaller loaves and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush loaf with milk and bake at 360F for one hour.

Compared to the breads that I already made during the pandemic this recipe was far simpler. I worried that it would end up being flavorless and dense. About thirty minutes into the bake, my apartment was filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread. The delicious smell gave me a glimmer of hope that this recipe might turn out alright. After an hour and a half in the oven (yes, I left it in thirty minutes more than the original recipe called for because when I first took it out after an hour, it had not fully cooked through), I took my loaf out and let it cool for about thirty minutes. At first glance, it looked like a large rustic crusty bread similar to a sourdough. Unfortunately, my suspicions were right. Not only was this bread flavorless, it was also extremely dense and chewy. As a quick loaf that does not require any yeast or hours for proofing, I guess this recipe serves its purpose. This might have been a very good option for families who could not afford expensive ingredients and who simply needed the extra calories in their diet. This bread might be okay to have as a side dish to dip in a stew, but when it comes to eating it on its own, I would not recommend it. Because I didn’t want to waste the loaf but also did not want to eat any more of it, I cut it into cubes and turned the bread into garlic croutons for a big Caesar salad, which actually made it taste okay.

As an experiment, trying a late nineteenth-century recipe from a digitized archival resource was a lot of fun. Although I did not enjoy the final product, the process was amusing and definitely helped with the stress of these crazy times. I would recommend this activity for any history graduate student who has recently added baking to their repertoire of social distancing activities. I challenge you to go through some digital archives from your period of study and try a recipe that the average household of the time would have consumed.

Good luck!

[Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier is a PhD student at Florida State University.]

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