Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How would Great-Grandma bake?

There are a couple of genealogy or history related books on my list of things to read while I'm unemployed/a housewife (Annals of the Famine in IrelandA Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but what I've recently started reading instead is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. It is a fascinating, enlightening, eye-opening book, though I'm not sure I'd recommend it unless you're open to taking a long, hard look at what you eat and where it comes from. Of course, I do think the author probably has his biases, as we all do. I recently watched his movie The Botany of Desire, where he rails against monoculture. He certainly makes good points, but to attribute the Irish Potato Famine strictly to the fact that growing a single variety of potato left the crop more open to disease with not one single mention of a single political, economic, social, or religious factor? Yes it's a movie about biology, but the Potato Famine wasn't a strictly biological tragedy, and can't honestly be presented as one. If he's committed similar omissions elsewhere, though, they haven't been in areas where I'm knowledgable enough to pick up on them. With that in mind, and if you want to know where your food comes from, I'm enjoying The Omnivore's Dilemma so far.

Now, one of the most exciting wedding presents we got was a bread machine, and I'd already started using it to bake bread recreationally. I'd have nice, thick, slices of homemade bread during the day as snacks, or a slice for breakfast, or as a side with dinner. But we were still buying loaves of sliced bread to make sandwiches. It was almost as if we thought of the fresh, homemade bread as some sort of novel new extra, not "real" bread like the stuff in the plastic bag from the shelf in the store. Thanks to this book, I made the somewhat radical decision not to pick up any bread when I went grocery shopping yesterday, despite the fact that we had no store-bought bread at home. (When I told Ben that I would make him a sandwich on homemade bread for lunch today, he responded "I'm going to have to get rid of that book!")

I also have recipes for baking bread the old-fashioned way, in the oven, and I'm thinking of trying out a sourdough starter, too. But what I'd really like to do is bake bread the old-fashioned way. The recipes I find on the internet can't be the same as the recipes my great-grandmothers would have learned a century or more ago. (Is cottage cheese really a standard bread ingredient? Or, more to the point, was cottage historically a standard bread ingredient?) The bread recipe that Grandma Molly learned from Mary Gillan Quinn, or the recipe that Nana learned from Julia Toner Mulvaney? That would be a recipe I'd love to try. The 19th century was no nostalgic era of good nutrition and food purity (see: swill milk) - but I'd still be really interested in baking the bread my great-grandmother baked. (When I add milk, it'll be milk that complies with FDA regulations, after all.)

I used the Fulton History website to search old newspapers for bread recipes. As it turns out, bread recipes did not often appear in late 19th century newspapers. (If everyone knows how to bake bread, why print the recipe? When was the last time your local paper printed a step-by-step guide to sending an e-mail?) They often appeared in mid-20th century papers, but I'm not really interested in bread recipes from the 50s, when everyone was eating Wonderbread, anyway. There were only a couple of recipes I came across that met my criteria, and I may try them all - if I can figure them out!

Elmira NY Morning Telegram, 1898

Geneva NY Gazette, 1879
Interesting - a recipe for potato bread, I guess. Not sure whether I'll try this one. I also can't tell how much flour Miss Davidson added. (Is it really more important to tell us where the flour was milled than to tell us how much of it to use?)

Hudson NY Evening Register, 1886

Syracuse NY Evening Herald, 1895
Can anyone help me with this - what is "sweet milk"? I'd like to try my hand at some of these, but some of the terminology is a little difficult to penetrate.

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