Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

A Recipe for Time Travel

Long-time readers of the Language Lounge will know that it is kitchen-adjacent: my interest in words is closely followed by my interest in food. I was delighted to learn recently of a gigantic database of historical cookbooks that is now online; you can read an account of it here. My first thought was that this would mean one-click navigation to my 2nd-great-grandmother's recipe for hoe cakes. It's not quite that; it's actually both less and more than that.

The actual database is The Sifter - A Food History Research Tool. It isn't a repository of the text of the books themselves, and for good reason: Google Books has pretty much already done that (see below for how to use the Sifter and Google Books together). The Sifter is more like a card catalog and index of old cookbooks. In other words, not the books themselves, but their metadata. By using it you can zero in very quickly on the cookbooks' contents.

The best way to get a grip on what The Sifter is and isn't is to read its FAQ, which you can navigate to from the landing page. The Sifter is built on the Wikipedia model, that is, crowd-sourced scholarship, and it encourages contributors to add to its data. If you have access to cookbooks that aren't indexed yet, especially in languages other than English, it would be great if you can add what you have.

What I've been doing in The Sifter initially is a kind of time travel via language. For me, an old recipe conjures a time and a place just as richly as a great novel does, equally artfully but in a completely different way. The recipe writer sets out with a simple goal: to give you the instructions you need to make a dish, using only words. In achieving such a goal, the writer succeeds in something that she probably never planned: creating a view into her world for readers in the future whom she could not have imagined.

My family on both sides has been in the United States for many generations and most of the major branches lived in the South for decades. So I started my search in The Sifter with a word I associate with my Louisiana-born grandmother: molasses. Her kitchen was never without a large supply of it, and it went on or in many things. I remember especially how delicious it was on pancakes and on ice cream. My search in The Sifter on molasses led me to an 1885 cookbook, La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous for Its Cuisine, by Lafcadio Hearn. As I noted above, Google Books has digitized nearly everything findable in print, so by taking the title of the target book there, I landed on this page in the actual cookbook:

This is where my time-travel adventure begins. I probably won't be making either pork and apple pie or molasses pie, rich or richer. My modern notions about healthy diet preclude that. But in my mind I like to sit at the table with the large family on a fall day when apples are plentiful and feast on pork and apple pie, with the other boys. After all this, we might have molasses pie for dessert. The recipes enable me to taste these delights, if only virtually.

Grits is another food that features richly in my family's history. A search on it led me to Maria Parloa's Kitchen Companion, A Guide for All Who Would Be Good Housekeepers. It's a compendium nearly a thousand pages long that would bring even the most ignorant housekeeper up to speed, though with considerable effort. I learned from Miss Parloa a thing I didn't know about the connection between two familiar words, hominy and grits. Here's her explainer: "Grits is the name given to fine hominy in some sections of the South, 'hominy' there meaning the coarse hominy. Both the coarse and fine hominy are desirable food materials, and should be found in every household. The fine hominy can be used for many more purposes than the coarse, and is therefore more desirable."

I'm with her on the idea that hominy (and grits) should be found in every household. You can certainly find them in mine! Here's her recipe for baked hominy, which I am inclined to try:

Households of yesteryear often did not have easy access to professional healthcare and it was typical for large cookbooks to include recipes for remedies of various kinds, for ailments common and uncommon. This can lead to somewhat less comfortable time travel, when you begin to wonder whether you might not be better off in the modern age. Here's a page from Mrs. Hill's Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, originally published in 1872 and available today via Google Books in the original and in a modern reprint edition:

Here I am grateful for being a child of the mid-20th century. I don't think anything could persuade me to swallow a teaspoonful of turpentine, even in the delirium of typhoid fever. Fat bacon rubbed on every part of the body, night and morning, is an intriguing fantasy; but it sounds rather messy and smelly for both rubber and rubbee.

A product that has changed very little since my childhood is Clabber Girl baking powder. It may be familiar to you as well.

This inspired me to search The Sifter on clabber, which I am vaguely aware of as an old-fashioned word for soured milk. This search led me to Estelle Wilcox's Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping (1876) and this delightful recipe for bonny-clabber.

Here I find everything I enjoy in in recipe time travel: in just one paragraph I can go back to a time when households got by happily without either refrigeration or air conditioning, and made due with deliveries from the iceman; where you can expect to find maple sugar in the pantry; where the notion of a supper table and the things that composed it were an everyday affair, and especially where the idea of making the supper table pretty was someone's concern. This is a supper table I want to sit down to with the family, and now with the help of The Sifter, I can go there.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.