Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Baking history mysteries: Solved?

So, I had some oral surgery a few weeks ago and have been dealing with a diet pretty much limited to liquids, purees, and mush. (OK, technically after the first week of liquids I was also allowed very soft foods...but considering it still hurts to chew anyway, that doesn’t really expand my options a whole lot!) Basically, most of what I’ve been eating has to go through a blender, and since “Will it Blend?” is already a thing that has been thoroughly covered, I can’t really do much in terms of recipes right now. But I do have a bunch of recipe-related research to share, and the next few weeks seem like a great time to share it!  

I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with the various early American uses of rice and rice flour in baking, along with other historically-gluten-free baking. In the course of my research on this subject, I’ve come across a few unresolved mysteries with the origin of some of these recipes. I know this probably isn’t an especially compelling topic to many people other than me, but I’ve been super excited over the fact that I think I may have gotten to the bottom of a few of them! So, for any fellow food-history geeks out there, here’s what I’ve been investigating (And for the rest of you, there are also some yummy updates at the bottom of the post!):
Mystery #1: A set of recipes attributed to unfindable newspaper sources, purportedly decades earlier than their appearance in the Confederate Receipt Book (1862) and the Carolina Rice Cook Book (1901).
The recipes that appear in both the Confederate Receipt Book and the Carolina Rice Cook Book are the same word-for-word (well, except for the confusing omission of a couple of lines of text in Mrs Stoney’s version which results in one long, nonsensical run-on sentence of a recipe that originally was two separate recipes), and both claim to have originated from a Charleston paper. However, we know Mrs Stoney wasn’t simply repeating the information found in the CRB - there is no date given in the CRB, nor is any specific paper identified; the submitter in the Sept. 20, 1862 edition of the Mobile Register says only that “they were printed in Charleston, S.C., several years ago.” Mrs. Stoney, on the other hand, lists the source as “The Charleston Gazette, April 1830.” As Karen Hess, food historian and author of The Carolina Rice Kitchen (an excellent book, by the way, for anyone interested in food culture), has noted, this April 1830 article has not been found - nor, apparently, has any source prior to the 1862 appearance. This has led some people to speculate about the true age of the recipes.
Hess’s book was published in 1990, however, and since then, approximately a zillion old periodicals have become freely available online - and through the wonders of optical character recognition, these digitized documents are not only available, but searchable. The character recognition isn’t flawless, but between a few different snippets of the text, I was able to turn up several appearances of the article. It seems the recipes were repurposed throughout the mid-1800s, showing up attached to advertisements put out by various rice millers etc., and even collecting a few additional recipes along the way. I still did not find the Charleston source, unfortunately. But in the end, I was able to see that the original article did indeed appear in 1830...and even earlier than initially thought! In fact, the earliest printing I’ve found so far is an edition of the Philadelphia Port Folio dated March 25th 1830 - - and that article is attributed to the Charleston City Gazette, meaning it was originally printed even a little earlier still! A small thing, I know, but I was extremely excited to be able to confirm the previously-unverified age of these recipes.

Mystery #2: The origin of the upside-down rice bread.
You may have heard me mention this highly unusual, literally-topsy-turvy technique for making 100%-rice bread before - if you missed it, it’s towards the end of this video. The first English-language description of it, to my knowledge, was printed in 1796, attributed to a French periodical and, as far as I can tell, it’s a word-for-word translation. These articles claim the method comes from ‘the Americans,’ but no further context is given. But where in America? How and when was this method created? Are there other examples of upside-down baking anywhere? Searching snippets of the text only turned up later reprints of the exact same English translation - - a dead end. But then I went to the French article and employed the same method of text-searching. Well. I discovered the method seemed to have quite a history - the earliest description I found was from 1761! Subsequent descriptions were not just reprints, either - there are at least four somewhat different versions spanning 1761-1795, becoming more detailed over the years. A historical note: While the use of rice in loaf breads was far more common in the rice-growing region of America, rice breads were not unheard of in Europe despite the higher cost of rice there. Formulas for making part-rice or, more rarely, all-rice bread were published occasionally in both France and England in the later 1700s into the early 1800s, as both countries suffered frequent shortages of wheat many times in those decades, and it seems many people liked bread with some rice flour in it even after the shortages were resolved. What sets this particular recipe apart is the unusual method - and the significantly lighter crumb texture it allegedly produces, something the writer of the recipe makes sure to emphasize. Meanwhile, any attribution of this method to America doesn’t appear until a 1790 article. Earlier versions have no introduction beyond presenting a means of making bread from rice alone.

I began to question the recipe’s origins - if the method was American, why was it described in French many times across over 30 years before ever appearing in English? More troubling still is the fact that following that first English printing, a reader from South Carolina - the epicentre of American rice production and rice-based baking - sent in a letter to the editors of the publication in response, declaring the method “more complicated and tedious than that used in Carolina,” and offers his own recipe much more in line with those we later see in The Carolina Housewife, etc., which combines hand-pounded rice flour with either well-cooked corn mush or boiled potato, along with leaven and salt. (It may be noted, however, that apart from the unusual baking technique used in the previous account, the overall process of Drayton’s method is really not that different - both employ a pre-cooked starch source and sourdough-like leaven and are mixed as a batter consistency.)

Now I was even more determined to figure this out! This research was harder than the previous mystery - optical character recognition is far less helpful when searching through these older documents with their imprecise printing and antiquated spelling, not to mention the fact that the letter “s” used to look a whole lot like “f.”
Case in point: This was the result of copying text from an older version
with the antiquated typeface as shown below - the word should be "furnage,"
not "surnage." Even the typesetter got confused sometimes!
See what I mean?
After a whole lot of digging and thinking, another explanation began to look more and more possible: I have a hypothesis that this method of making rice bread may have been devised by French-speaking colonists in the territory that was then New France. Here’s my reasoning: Settlers in this area produced rice for their own use and to ship to France, and wheat did not grow well there. In Le Page du Pratz’s account of time spent in the French colony in the early 1700s, bread made of rice is clearly mentioned and said to be very white and good. Based on his description of the bread itself and the fact that the method goes unmentioned, I don’t think it’s quite the same bread. And perhaps it’s not even related to the above bread. In any case, though, it is very clear that the French colonists were creating their own rice bread traditions which developed separately from those in South Carolina, and the Louisiana colony (which, by the first attribution to “America” in 1790, was indeed no longer owned by France) seems like the likeliest French-speaking place for such a rice bread to be developed. Whatever the origins of this unusual bread, I really hope I can eventually find out more about it!

OK, enough about history for today - 
as promised, now here are some miscellaneous updates/pictures of things I've been making these last couple of months:
Based on one of my much older recipes, but now
without the eggs or additives. Almost there! 
More experiments in homemade natural food colorings - buttercream frosting for pumpkin cakes I made a
few months ago. This bright orange and vivid green are made entirely from scratch, not a store bought extract! 
Experiments in flaky yeasted pastry, using an unusual traditional technique to create the layers.
L: Banana bread mix from Caly's Kitchen, toasted under the broiler.
R: Rugelach recipe from Alice Medrich's "Flavor Flours."