Food in the News: More Election Cakes! (#5)

All that time I spent writing about “Election Cake” last week, then NPR went and did it for me over the weekend! You can check out their piece “A History Of Election Cake And Why Bakers Want To #MakeAmericaCakeAgain” online, complete with the audio. On the other hand, maybe this means “What’s Cookin'” is staying ahead in the food news game!




Cake and Politics/Politics and Cake

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to write a post about political food without, well, getting into politics. Since food is so much a part of our lives, it’s hardly surprising that it would play a part in our political lives, too. For you dairy fans, there are two strange examples of food gifts to politicians: the 1,400 lb “Jackson Cheese,” gifted to the President Jackson in 1837 (with additional 700 lb cheeses given to Van Buren and four others for politicians/political organizations of the time) and the 1,234 lb “Cheshire Mammoth Cheese,” gifted to then-president Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Both are interesting stories (after all, what does one do with a half ton or more of cheese??) and worth reading about. But I was looking for something a bit more accessible–we have no recipe for giant cheese that I’m aware of in the collection. What we do have, though, are recipes for “Election Cake.” (I know, I know, it’s not November yet–but I’m sharing this in advance, in case anyone want to make it for Election Day!)

I’ve got four variations of “Election Cake” to share today, though there are some definite similarities between the three versions from the 18th and 19th centuries. (The origin of American “Election Cake” is actually in the 17th century, so it’s been around a while!) The latest of the bunch is from 1914 and is also the most distinct, reflecting not a change in politics or views, but a change in kitchen and baking technologies (we’ll come back to that in a moment).


Amelia Simmons’ “Election Cake,” c. 1796, in American Cookery


Amelia Simmons’ “Election Cake,” c. 1796, in American Cookery. She also has other “political” recipes like “Independence Cake” and “Federal Pan Cake.”

The amount of ingredients in Simmons’ recipe, as you may notice, are quite large. This gets the origins of “Election Cake,” which was often commissioned by local officials in celebration of elections (and may have also been a way to entice voters to the polls). So, rather than a cake for a family or a small party, 18th century “Election Cakes” were designed to feed large crowds. Through the 19th century, such cakes were also time consuming. One had to make a mixture that would sit for hours (and even overnight) before it could be finished and baked.

Lydia Maria Child's recipe for "Election Cake," 1844, in The American Frugal Housewife

Lydia Maria Child’s recipe for “Election Cake,” 1844, in The American Frugal Housewife

Lydia Maria Child’s recipe is of a more manageable size, designed for the small/home baker. Her recipe first appeared in print in an earlier edition of The American Frugal Housewife from 1833. Like Simmons, though, her recipe relies on time and effort. This “single-loaf” version, as we might call it, occurs commonly in the time period. The first American version of Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, published in Philadelphia in 1831, includes an “Election Cake” with the following directions:

Take 5 lbs flour, 2 lbs sugar, 3/4 lbs butter, 5 eggs, yeast, 1 pint of milk, and spice as you please.

Hopefully, a good baker would know what to do from there? At any rate, the recipe’s history in America goes back to at least, the late 18th century, and cakes of the same or similar ingredients or techniques can be found in the British tradition as early as the mid-17th century (though with different monikers). Two other American variations sometimes appear in books as “Hartford Election Cake” or “Old Hartford Election Cake.” There is a story behind that, too. Alternatively, because in some places in New England Election Day was also “Muster Day” or “Training Day,” you might also find recipes for “Muster Cake” or “Training Cake” that seem remarkably familiar.


Handwritten “Election Cake” recipe from the Elvira Jane Hanna Receipt Book (Ms2013-052)

Elvira Jane Hanna’s receipt book of recipes also features “Election Cake.” The instructions she recorded are less detailed than Child’s and more so than Mackenzie’s, but it’s easy to see that the published version was making the household rounds. Although we don’t have exact dates for Hanna’s manuscript cookbook, we believe it dates to about the mid-19th century, certainly during the time that Child, Mackenzie, and others were sharing the cake. Skipping ahead a bit, one can still find “Election Cake” published in the 20th century.

"Election Cake" from Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1914

“Election Cake” from Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1914

The first edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was published in 1896 and “Election Cake” was among the recipes. However, our earliest edition of this title is from 1914. “Election Cake” was a staple in the Fannie Farmer classic cookbook in all its later editions, too. But, it has slightly different approach: it includes bread dough as an ingredient (which, one would have have to make or have on hand), adds more fruit and spices, incorporates baking soda as a leavening agent, and it even gets frosting! Most notable, perhaps, though, is the middle item on that list. We begin to see a modernization of this recipe that relies on new ingredients that can speed up the once-overnight process. Farmer’s book tells us one need only let the mixture rise for 1 1/4 hours, not overnight, or even the 3 hours suggested by Child in warm weather.

Of course, I’ve cherry picked some variations, but there are plenty more out there–and on our shelves, too! So, whether you’re looking to celebrate the election or drown your sorrows in delicious, cake-y goodness, you might want to think about an “Election Cake.” Regardless of the politics, cake will most certainly make you a winner among your constituency.

Gelatin, Seeds, and Advertising History

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues in the library showed up on my doorstep with an old advertisement. She picked it up, thinking I would want it for the culinary collection–as, of course, I did. After all, it featured one of my favorite obsessions and frequent blog topic: gelatin.  Today, however, I won’t be subjecting you, dear Readers, to a list of terrifying recipes or a series of taunts at this wiggly food I just can’t bring myself to eat. Rather, I thought I would take an opportunity to write a post about following a trail and where it could lead someone. But first, Jell-O!


This ad comes from 1921. Jell-O had, at that time, already been a commercially made product for 22 years (since it’s developer sold it to the Genesee Pure Foods Company). The original four flavors (strawberry, raspberry, lemon, and orange) were joined by cherry and peach, rounding out the six flavors advertised. Interestingly, during the 1910s and 1920s, Genesee Pure Foods Company flirted with a chocolate flavored gelatin (not a pudding or mousse mix), but it didn’t seem to have the popularity of fruit flavors and it was gone by 1927. By 1921, though, Jell-O was a household name in convenience, efficiency, and eating. For over 20 years, the company had been advertising in innovative ways, like giving away free little recipe booklets to tempt shoppers to try something new at home.

Anyway, back to our meandering: This ad came to me in a plastic sleeve of sorts, nestled against a piece of cardboard for support. After taking in the full-color image itself, a perfect Jell-O dessert set against a vase of flowers, I found myself, as usual, overly elated about a piece of ephemera. It wasn’t until later I noticed that the dessert is even shown in a ray of sunlight! We have lots of Jell-O booklets starting as early as the 1900s, but we didn’t yet have a large size (8″ x 11.75″) like this one. It was a bit of an odd size: not quite right for a magazine, too large and lacking in fold lines to have been in a package, and not a standard paper sheet. “Is there anything on the back?” I asked my colleague-turned-donor. She didn’t know, but we were going to find out. It turns out, there was–and one that explained a bit more:


As it turns out, this Jell-O ad had been neatly cut away from the back of a seed catalog, apparently as a collectible item. While the booklets are common collectibles and while the idea of cutting items out of other items isn’t new, I hadn’t quite seen it in action in this way. At times in our history, for example, people would excise pages from illuminated manuscripts to sell off piecemeal–but Jell-O ads?

Anyway, following the trail: The seed catalog, as you can see, was for one Stark Bro’s. nursery. Stark Bro’s, like Jell-O, is a company not unheard of here in Special Collections. In fact, they are responsible for one of my favorite items on our shelves, which I’ve written about before. Although this particular page shows mostly flowers and a couple of tomatoes, Stark Bro’s were equally well-known for fruit trees–making this catalog a great venue for a product in which people were experimenting with, well, embedding fruit. This brings us to an important consideration for advertising: knowing your product(s) and knowing your audience. You don’t always see advertisements for non-seed catalog products in seed catalogs. But, if you’re going to bring in outsiders, make it something that matches up!

So, the point of all this is that individual items, even a single advertisement from the back of a long-gone seed catalog, can be of use and can lead us somewhere. In this case, it might be interesting to pursue how long the advertising relationship existed between these two companies, how fruitful (pun intended) it might have been, and how direct the link between the development of fruit-filled gelatin recipes and these kinds of advertising relationships. Or one could pursue a more-single sided topic, like how the Jell-O advertising changed over time (the artwork, the methods, the partners. etc.)

This particular advertisement will be joining the Culinary Pamphlet Collection (Ms2011-002) along with the myriad of other Jell-O and other gelatin booklets. Just in case it piques your interest…

#AskAnArchivist Day 2016

Next Wednesday, October 5th, is #AskAnArchivist Day! During the day, several members of our staff will be on social media to take YOUR questions! Wonder about the oldest book in our collection? Curious about the number of  collections we have? Interested in what archivists do all day? Want to know why we’re so passionate about what we do and why it matters? Just ask!

Archives around the country (and the world!) will be answering questions and engaging with people on Twitter. If you want to ask us about something, be sure to include us (@VT_SCUA) in your tweets. Or head to the Facebook page for the International Archive of Women in Architecture and ask there. You can also ask questions to the broader community–just use #AskAnArchivist and see who responds! Join the conversation on October 5th!

A Lesson in English (Receipts)

Exciting news! Thanks to the hard work (and on-going efforts) of our staff and students, a handful of the handwritten recipes books among our collections have gone online! As a group, you can find these items on our online platform, Special Collections Online. We will have more of them going up in the future, as we continue to scan and acquire new collections, but this feels like a great start! As with many of the Civil War diaries we have digitized, we are also working on transcripts of these manuscript receipt (and recipe!) books which we will add to the site as they are completed. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Hertford Receipt Book (Ms2008-027). You can view the whole item online, but we haven’t transcribed it just yet. Here’s the front cover:


There is a finding aid for this item, but it is, to use a recipe term, a bit scant. Many manuscript receipt books, when separated from original owners for whatever reason, lose context, and leave archivists and researchers with very little provenance (the archival field’s word for “[i’]nformation regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection”). In this case, there are multiple handwritings and a variety of attributed recipes, but no clue as to who collected them or wrote them on the pages. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t learn from it.

This is a soft, marbled cover notebook, and from what we know, it dates from about 1800 to 1833. If you’re expecting recipes for food, you won’t be disappointed, but hopefully you’re open to a bit more. You see, the Hertford Receipt Book is mostly home remedies. Many of them. Have a cough? Toothache? Boots need blackening? Need white paint? Have a rat problem? Worms (there are at least three cures for that one!)? This item can help!

That being said, in true English style, you’ll also find puddings, tarts, and cakes among the pages, along with wines, “devil’s pot” and other pickling options, jams, and the intriguing “to pot pigeons like lampreys.”

One of the things I really like about this receipt book is that it has an index. While not all the ones on our shelves do, I’m surprised at how often there’s a guide at the front or back to what’s in the pages. I shouldn’t be shocked by the organizational skills of these generations of savvy women, but they certainly should get extra credit for hand-indexing! If I had to guess, in this case, it was probably done by one owner (it’s all in the same hand) and probably at a point where new recipes weren’t being added. Still, a lovely, tasty, toxic, strange, and functional labor of love.

As football fever continues around Blacksburg (and elsewhere), keep an eye out for some posts to help with those tailgating days. (Though, as someone who enjoys a number of VT sports, I’m thinking we might need to start volleyball, soccer, or basketball tailgating trends, too.) And as fall has arrived, you can probably also expect some autumnal foods in the future, too!

Cheers (To the Designers of These Great Cocktail Artifacts)!

Artifact (in an archival context): a man-made, physical object

While Special Collections isn’t artifact-driven–that is, we don’t go out of our way specifically to find artifacts–that doesn’t mean they don’t find us. Between a Civil War-era rifled musket, Corps of Cadet sabers, a football trophy, and more recently, a snare drum from a student who attended VPI in the 1940s, we do have a range of museum-type items. If we’re talking food history, we even have a 19th century stove here! Most of the food-related artifacts are on the smaller size: toys sets to teach nutrition to children, an old cast iron kettle, or, for the Hokie-spirited, an empty bottle from a Hokie-branded beer (probably from an event several decades ago). Last week’s post, though, alluded to some new cocktail artifacts and let’s face it, I couldn’t wait to share them. In the last month or so, we’ve acquired a handful of unique early and mid-20th century cocktail artifacts. Here are a couple of them…

This vintage faux cocktail shaker is about 5 1/4 inches tall. It’s chrome on the outside and the rotary on the inside features early Bakelite panels (Bakelite was created in the late 1910s) and is probably just pre-Prohibition era in terms of its date.


Each of the remaining 23 panels contains a cocktail recipe:

20160909_083542 20160909_083520

Basically, there’s a mini-rolodex inside and twisting the knob drops a new panel into view until it cycles through and starts again. Of course, the panels are small, so there are no directions, other than the list of ingredients. But, for the most part, these are traditionally shaken cocktails: Pour all the ingredients over ice, shake, strain, and enjoy!

The second item dates from about 1940:


This is a long scroll on two spindles. You can turn either knob to “scroll” forward and backward. In it’s original case and box, this is leather over a case of metal and plastic. “Baron Fougner’s Bar Guide: Standard Recipes for Cocktails, Mixed Drinks, Canapes” came with two choice of colors: walnut or mahogany (ours is the latter). “Baron Fougner” was actually G. Selmer Fougner (1885-1941), a journalist and columnist. From 1933 to 1941, he wrote a daily column for the New York Sun called “Along the Wine Trail” that covered wine, food, and even recipes. He also wrote several books including New York City restaurant guides and a history of his role in several “dining societies.”


The panel on the back contains an index to the sections and kinds of drinks and food included. (Unfortunately, it didn’t photograph too well through the textured and slightly wrinkly surface.)


Our bar guide came with a pamphlet pointing out its use, efficiency in the home bar (look, it’s spill-proof, unlike those pesky books!), and what it includes. And it’s in the original 1940s box.


So, “cool” factor aside, there really is research value to items like these. They can clue us into popular cocktails of a time period, show us who the “authorities” in the cocktail world were, what kinds of quirky items people were collecting, and, in the case of these items, how the “home bartenders” were learning their skills. In addition to these items, we’ve also recently acquired a retractable tape measure with inches on one side and cocktail recipes on the other; a key-chain with cocktail recipes on small cards inside a metal case; a glass tube with recipes on long narrow cards (which are protected from spills by the glass); and an Art Deco era cocktail betting game (more on that one another day). It turns out collecting and researching cocktail history is even more fun than you might have guessed! If you’d like to learn more, you’re always welcome to drop by and check these items out in person–we’ll be here!

Upcoming Food History Events!

At the end of September, there will be a guest speaker coming to Newman Library! This event is free and open to the public. The flyer below has a description and details (plus, we’ll have some materials from Special Collections on display!). Please note: The organizers are asking attendees to register in advance to help plan. You can register using this link:

The following day, there will be a second event, a luncheon, in Roanoke. Please note: This event requires registration and the deadline is September 22, 2016. The pdf version of the flyer, which contains links and can be printed, is available for download here: PHCHF September 30 2016.

PHCHF September 30 2016_Page_1 PHCHF September 30 2016_Page_2


New Pamphlet Round-Up #4

So, earlier this week I finally sat down and updated the Culinary Pamphlet Collection (Ms2011-002). Over the last several months, I had been collecting new additions and since the 0.5 cu. ft. box in my office where I store items had reached capacity, it seemed a good time. I added 19 new folders for food or appliance companies and added items to about 30 existing folders–it was quite a haul! Here are a few highlights:

“The Presto Recipe Book for Little Girls and Their Mothers” comes from the Heckler Products Corporation and is dated 1937. It’s primarily baking recipes like the cakes below.
Ms2011-002_B5FF43_presto1 Ms2011-002_B5FF43_presto2

“Recipes that Pep-Up Meals with Wise Potato Chips” put chips in and on everything. Seriously…everything. Published in 1957, it features chips with dips, in meatloaf, on coffee cake, in candies like fudge, and even under creamed seafood!
Ms2011-002_B5F_wise1 Ms2011-002_B5F37_wise2

This unique little advertisement from Libby, McNeill, & Libby is actually also a scissor-sharpener! The front side talk about available products and the back has directions for use of the sharpener. Functional advertising is useful–and creative–approach to “getting your product out there!”

Ms2011-002_B5FF46_Libby1 Ms2011-002_B5FF46_Libby2

Last up (for now), here are a few pages from a fold out pamphlet by the William G. Bell Company, maker of Bell’s Seasonings. (We’ve talked about Bell’s once before, in a Thanksgiving post during the first year of the blog.) For only 8 small pages (4 shown below), this item is packed full of company history, recipes, and suggestions.

Ms2011-002_B5FF50_Bells1 Ms2011-002_B5FF50_Bells2 Ms2011-002_B5FF50_Bells3 Ms2011-002_B5FF50_Bells4

In addition the Culinary Pamphlet Collection, I also updated the Cocktail Ephemera Collection (Ms2013-027) last week, adding new pamphlets (for wine, spirits AND temperance!), bottle labels, and some neat artifacts. I’ll save that for another post, since we just received three MORE new artifacts I need to add and these items are prime “feature” content. Next up, I hope to add the small folder of ephemera I have waiting to go into the Culinary Ephemera Collection (Ms2013-028), which includes a series of collectible trade cards, among other things.

In other words, there are PLENTY of great new items and publications coming into the collection and you’re always welcome to stop by! The blog barely scratches the surface of our shelves.

Patent Medicines, Cure-alls, & Bitters Exhibit

Our new exhibit is done and on display! If you’re in Newman Library, swing by the first floor to check it out in detail! If you can’t visit us, here are a few pictures.

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Summer (Cooking) School, Part 7: Here’s How (to Make an End of Summer Cocktail)

The “end” of summer has arrived in Blacksburg. No, it’s still a month till the solstice, but the great event has begun: move-in! Students are coming back (though, if you ask anyone in Special Collections, we don’t know how time passed so fast!) and we’re getting back into a semester way of thinking. But, there’s time for one last hurrah and one last lesson before the real classes begin.🙂


Okay, okay, so the front cover of this small publication doesn’t tell you much. “Curb service,” by the modern definition, is  basically service from a restaurant provided to customers remaining in their parked vehicles. Or, in this cases, on their horses. The reason the cover may look a little odd in the scan is that is actually has a fuzzy fabric texture to it and it’s beginning to show a little wear. Let’s get to the fun part…

TX951H461900z_1 TX951H461900z_2









So, this is Here’s How: A Handbook of Recipes of Spirituous and Non-Spirituous Drinks Gathered from Authoritative Sources. It dates from some part of the early 20th century (possible the 1930s). The back cover has a stamp from a jeweler in Allentown, PA, so it was likely something given away to promote the business (and a good drink). Some of the recipes between these two covers are drinks you’ve seen on the blog before from other historical manuals, in modern bars, or out in the ether, but sadly, we don’t get any clues as to what “authoritative sources” were actually used. Since this is our last summer cooking school lesson, I’ll be sure to point out the other page I’ve added above: the standards of measure for the recipes that follow. Not that we need follow these kinds of directions exactly–There’s a lot of fun in experimenting with proportions and substitutions…in most cases. As we’ll see below, it’s not recommended you mix vichy water with wine if you’re considering a variation on the “Kir.”

One of the interesting things about this little booklet has to do with the jewelers store information on the back (sort of). If you go looking for other copies of this little work, you will find a few, but with some differences. There are at least 3 other cataloged editions out there in academic or public libraries, but they have different places of publication and publishers–yet all of them appear to be companies or corporations of some sort. So, basically Here’s How: A Handbook of Recipes of Spirituous and Non-Spirituous Drinks Gathered from Authoritative Sources was a booklet with a set text block that a company could label with its own name as a promotional item. There aren’t any other copies digitized, so we don’t know if the front cover varies by edition. At any rate, it’s just one part of what makes this rare item even more intriguing!

When I sat down this morning to start scanning pages, I made the decision to scan the entire item. After all, it is only about 40 pages, out of copyright, and a quick scan due to its small size. I’m in the process of adding it to our digital collections site, where the entire item will be available for reading (and mixing)! In the meantime, hopefully there’s still something to strike your fancy in the pages above, whatever your tastes! UPDATE: You can view the item online here:!

On a related note, your usual archivist/blogger Kira will be installing a new exhibit in the Special Collections display cases over the next few days. Hopefully it will be done next Monday at the latest. It’s going to feature items in our collection relating to the history of patent medicines and bitters, and will include a bit about their role in the development of the American cocktail. It should be up for the next 4-6 weeks, so if you’re in Blacksburg and want to check it out, you can view our cases on the first floor of the library whenever the building is open!

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