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What’s Cooking – Celebration Foods

interpreters at picnicJuly 8, 2019

Midwesterners love a good party. It can be a dinner party, a picnic, a birthday party, a potluck. This week Living History Farms interpreters take a look at special occasion foods and celebration ingredients through the years. The Ioway culture often celebrated successful hunts, seasonal harvests, and trading gatherings. Early white settlers celebrated weddings, barn raisings, and harvests among other things. By the 1870s, small towns thrived on community celebrations. During the summer, strawberry festivals, baseball games, July 4th picnics, church socials, and traveling circus shows were just a few common reasons for party foods! Easier travel meant out of town guests were more common and a visit could mean a round of guests at tea parties, garden lunches, and suppers. Farming families at the turn of the century enjoyed better roads and telephones. Now invitations and visiting neighbors became easier than in pioneer settlements. Visit this week for celebration food across the museum! Visit the Tangen House on Wednesday, July 10 for the construction of a Victorian Trifle. Thursday, July 11, the 1700 Ioway Farm celebrates the Chokecherry Moon and the 1850 Pioneer Farm makes a beef dish, showing off an expensive ingredients for a party. Flynn Mansion will spend the week getting ready for summer picnics and indoor dinner parties.

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“What’s Cooking” Program Presenting Sponsor – Hy-Vee

1700 cook fireSometimes, celebrations brought out special recipes or hard to get ingredients. The Ioway cultural party foods were often things that celebrated seasonal fresh seasonal food like chokecherries in July, green corn in August, and fresh bison right after the June buffalo hunt. While a party often means sweets to us today, the Ioway did not have that inclination. Prior to white settlement, the Ioway had natural sweeteners such as maple syrup available to them. White settlers brought with them their eastern seaboard sweet tooth for celebrations, but had to be particular about how often they could afford to indulge. Everyday cakes or cookies might be sweetened by maple syrup or sorghum syrups. True cane sugar had to be purchased at a store. An Iowa City retailer listed sugar and butter for 12.5 cents per pound in 1847.  Flour was only 2 cents per pound. Such a splurge might be made for a special occasion like a wedding feast.

Cakes were still were much heavier and denser than 21st century cakes, relying on beaten eggs or chemicals like pearlash, saleratus, and even yeast for lift. For the pioneer, a large gathering might be worth harvesting a cow or hog. With neighbors around to help with preparation and the chance that more meat would be immediately consumed, beef was a celebration possibility.

Flynn picnicFor summer celebrations, picnics were one of Victorian America’s favorite summer activities. 1870s town dwellers and farmers enjoyed a “basket” lunch in the local picnic grove or park. It could be an upscale event with expensive dishes, cutlery, and cut glass all brought out on the lawn. Or, it could a relaxed meal on a blanket under the trees. Many churches and clubs hosted July 4th picnics or held summer fairs, including a picnic social. Historian T. Schlereth claimed, “An English traveler in 1870 noted that on July 4, ‘picnics are going off in every direction—quiet little church picnics, Sunday school picnics, working people’s picnics, Fenian picnics, picnics of a hundred societies and associations.’ . . . out came basket lunches of cold fried chicken, corn bread, potato salad, and beer and lemonade . . . ‘Nothing more picturesque, more delightful, more helpful,’ Hamlin Garland recalled, ‘has ever risen out of rural life. Each of these assemblies was a most grateful relief from the sordid loneliness of the farm.” — Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, by Thomas J. Schlereth, Harper Perennial, NY: NY. 1991.

cake at TangenCooking and baking on a wood stove allowed farm wives and town women alike easier opportunities to make more complex party foods, such as layered desserts, fried appetizers like croquettes and cheese straws, and showy beef dishes, fish platters and so on. Even a family celebration might include an appetizer or soup, the main meat and vegetables, and a rich dessert. By 1875, railroads brought many once expensive treats to the average Iowan. Exotic and out of season ingredients could be purchased at the drug store, grocer, or general store. Baking powder, invented in 1856, revolutionized the cake possibilities, but change came slowly. In the 1870s, cake recipes became easier and more reliable. Cookbooks offered recipes for pound cakes, fruit cakes, Temperance cake, National Cake on July 4th, Election Cake, Wedding Cake, and even a Tin Wedding Cake for your tenth anniversary party.

Some notable cake trivia: 19th century “Cup cake” recipes often meant mixing a cup of sugar, cup of flour, cup of butter, etc. Chocolate cakes were not common until the 1890s. It wasn’t until the 1920s that home cooks could buy a box mix—the first was for ginger cake. Betty Crocker did not produce a box cake mix until 1947!

cake at Pioneer WeddingGroom’s Cake or White Sugar Gingerbread
The Good Housekeeper, 1841
Original: “Take two pounds of flour, one pound of butter, one of sugar, five eggs well beaten, two ounces of powdered ginger, and a tea-spoonful of pearlash.” Mix and bake.

1½ c sugar
1 t baking powder
¾ c butter
1 t powdered ginger
3 eggs
¼ t nutmeg
3 c flour
1½ milk
Cream sugar and butter, add eggs. Beat well. Combine dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients to cream mixture alternately with milk. Place batter in a greased and floured 8” baking pan. Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.

Tin Wedding Cake
Buckeye Cookbook, 1877.
“Rub one cup butter and three of sugar to a cream; add one cup milk, four of flour, five eggs, one tea-spoon cream tartar, half spoon soda, one-fourth pound citron. This makes two loaves.” Mix and bake in loaf pans.


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1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   19th Century Leisure   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   What’s Cooking

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