Friday, October 22, 2021

Were Cooks More Instinctual in the Past?


For the story I finished this week, Ginger Cake by Glynna, I showed my character in the kitchen a lot--after all, she owns a bakery in 1876 Astoria, Oregon. She’s also the third generation in the family to run it, so the business has been around a while. One facet of cooking and baking that we in our current time take for granted is standard utensils for measuring.

From reading cookbooks of the era, I knew teacups and thimbles were listed in recipes. But think of teacups you’ve seen or might have in your cupboard. They are not a standard size. My paternal grandmother cooked by feel and sight. She always used the same mixing bowl and had been making certain recipes long enough that she just knew what the right amount of flour was supposed to look like in the bottom of that bowl. One time I asked to be taught to make her from-scratch egg noodles. She talked me through scooping out enough flour, using a big spoon, and measuring the salt in the palm of my hand. But after I broke the eggs into the bowl and was ready to add the water, I was nudged aside because she said the amount of water varied and it was based on the feel of the dough while mixing. Needless to say, I did not learn to make Grandma Mary’s noodles. In later years, when I attempted a recipe from a cookbook, they didn’t taste the same.

image from wikimedia

But I did learn that utensils used as a standard for measured ingredients weren’t “invented” until 1896 by Fannie Farmer. As director of The Boston Cook School and author of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, she saw a standardized measure for dry ingredients as an essential tool in the kitchen.  She is credited with inventing measuring cups and spoons.  (Although interesting this fact didn’t help me in my 1876 story)  A standard measurement for liquid was even more distant from my setting because Pyrex wasn’t invented until 1910. My solution came from another field altogether.:)

image from wikimedia

My conclusion is that all those 19th-century women cooking meals and baking bread in sodhouses or on farms, ranches, or in city row houses had a good instinct for the ratio between dry and wet ingredients to produce the desired dish. I also think a lot of experimentation went on. So go pull out the drawer that holds your measuring implements and take a moment to appreciate Miss Fannie Farmer and what she devised that makes preparing our meals easier.

BLURB for Ginger Cake by Glynna, book 7, Old Timey Holiday Kitchen releases 10/25/21

Baker Glynna Shaughnessy wants to bolster sales for her struggling bakery almost as much as she wants to revive her drab personal life. A baking competition in commemoration of the city’s incorporation offers a chance at making the shop’s name known…until she’s accused of cheating. According to the competition’s sponsor—a roguish man who sets her heart aflutter—Glynna can only remain a contestant if she invents a brand-new recipe…something she’s never done before.

Hotel manager Ritter Anton has six months to boost patronage at his grandfather’s Anton Grand Hotel. He accomplished success with the family’s Cheyenne hotel and he’ll succeed here then move to the next. The baking contest he invented sparks controversy with the entry of a baker who others claim has an unfair advantage. Ready to reject her, he can’t say no when the auburn-haired beauty pleads her case. How will he remain neutral as a judge when all he can think about is Glynna?

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1 comment:

  1. That's really interesting, Linda. My mother-in-law was a great, instinctual cook. Wish I could have gotten her recipe for pecan pie, but there wasn't one! She just threw the ingredients together and her pie always came out delicious. Sigh.