What magic exists in those heirloom recipes from our great-grandmothers that just reading them connects us into family and culture and time as poetry might? In making the recipe we can physically smell and taste what once kept a family going.
I have always had that fascination with recipes and hence a houseful of cookbooks that I refer to as much in writing stories as in cooking. My daughters always had a clue what Mom was writing about by what we had for dinner. So, when The Friends of Land Between the Lakes approached me about writing a history cookbook about the living history museum, The Homeplace, a working 1850s farm, I was excited to accept such a commission.
Cindy Earls (the project’s coordinator), Charlotte Huggins (who demonstrates at The Homeplace and is known for her wonderful cooking), and I (the writer) had the first of our many meetings in finding a shape for what became The Homeplace History and Receipt Book: History, Folklore, and Recipes from Life on an Upper Southern Farm a Decade before the Civil War (The Friends of Land Between the Lakes Publishing).
It became clear that we wanted not just a collection of recipes, but a history through those recipes (often called receipts in the 1800s) of the people who lived in the Kentucky/Tennessee frontier of the 1850s. For me, the next year became a study of the diaries of people of that time, the celebrations and folklore of this unique area, and along with accessing the library at The Homeplace and asking Cindy, Charlotte, and the other Homeplace staff endless questions on everything from music to ice cream, many visits to special collections of the libraries in Kentucky and Tennessee to find the original advertisements and even poems published in the newspapers of the time. Of course, it was much easier to make these travels by car with a willing friend than in 1859, when Betty Gleaves stated in her diary: Roads too bad and Frank lame. We go horseback.
There were days when I was so firmly entrenched in this decade before the Civil War that I was surprised to go into my own kitchen and see a microwave oven rather than a fireplace or woodstove. (And one time when she was reading a draft of the book alone in her office, Cindy is sure she smelled a baking pie!) I began to know these people through their day-to-day diaries and the recollections I found of their celebrations, large and small. I could feel the summer excitement of Jane M. Jones when she stated in her August 18, 1859 diary: We are as merry as crickets. I was right there with Jane again on November 8, 1860, when she shared: Mr. Jones goes to town, says Lincoln is elected President of these United States. I humbly pray it is all for the best. And then, knowing how much the world would change for people in the coming Civil War years, I shared a recipe for Election Cake from Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife, published in 1839.
Being one of the main resources of receipts from our area in the 1800s, I had gotten to “know” Lettice’s entries so well that it seemed I could hear her speaking. I was captivated by her imagery and use of words and so broke the recipes into lines of poetry. I hope readers will enjoy reading these recipes just for the joy of the poems. For those who want to try them (and others of the original recipes of the day), charts are included so that modern readers know that butter the size of a hen’s egg is ¼ cup and the temperature of a quick oven is 400-450 degrees.
In addition to recipes from the documented historical sources, there are many recipes in the book that are a bit more adapted to the present day and yet still true to what would have been eaten in the 1850s. These are designated by: The Homeplace Recipe. Being a storyteller, I simply had to share stories and lore that pertained to the times. This autumn, you can make a dried apple pie and share “The Time Jack Tricked Old Scratch: A Tale for Snap Apple.”
By Christmas you will be ready to make not only sugarplums (and know what a sugarplum really is), but also make a Victorian Wonder Ball as a gift.
Along with reading the book, through the lovely photographs of Jennifer Lee Roberts and charming illustrations of Brooke Gilley and Michael W. Earls, you can see much of The Homeplace as you sit on your own porch, snuggle next to your fire, or connect with these sturdy folks that came before us in your own kitchen. Enjoy your journey back through time.
Writer and storyteller, Geraldine Ann Marshall (also published under Geraldine Marshall Gutfreund), has had nine books published. She is currently completing a new book, Learning the Language of Birds: A Novel Netted in a Charm of Stories. The Homeplace History and Receipt Book is available at amazon.com.