Weary Willie cake is named after a type of hobo who used to wander the American countryside. Weary Willies would more accurately be called tramps, because unlike hoboes, who prided themselves on their work ethic, the Willies were known for slacking off and looking for handouts.
The term was originally used for worn-out Civil War veterans, some of them deserters, who became drifters. (I learned this from a 1970 episode of “Bonanza,” of all things, starring Richard Thomas as one of a group of Willies who turn up at the Ponderosa Ranch!) The name Weary Willie was later used for a comic-strip tramp in the early 1900s, and decades after that by circus performer Emmett Kelly for his sad-clown character. Continue reading →
George Washington wrote that of all fruits, “none pleases my taste as do’s the pine.” He had acquired a taste for pineapple in Barbados, and later bought it whenever possible, asking sea captains who traded his goods to bring pineapples back from the West Indies. But he was one of the lucky few to enjoy this fruit. It was so costly at the time, some hostesses would actually rent the fruit from bakers to display as a centerpiece, then return it uneaten. The pineapple would be rented out again and again, sometimes until it rotted!
There were occasional recipes for pineapple in 18th- and 19th-century British and American cookbooks. But most were just instructions for cutting and serving the fruit raw, or preserving it. As the 19th century progressed, pineapples were imported in larger numbers from Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America, and recipes for using them increased. Most of these were for preserves, compotes, and cold dishes like pineapple salad, ice cream, and Bavarian cream.
The origins of the brownie are somewhat mysterious and controversial. Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, cookbook author Fannie Farmer, and an unknown housewife in Bangor, Maine, all have some claim on its creation.
I’ll start with the Palmer House story, which is that its kitchen invented little chocolate cake bars glazed with apricot preserves and decorated with nuts for the 1893 Columbian exposition, and named these treats brownies. They were made to put in boxed lunches for ladies attending the exposition. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, this legend may be true, and the hotel served brownies like these later on — and still does — but there is unfortunately no documentation for the 1893 date.
Fannie Farmer was the first to actually publish a recipe for brownies, in 1896. Her creation was different from the modern brownie (and Palmer House’s), as it had no chocolate and wasn’t cut into bars. But the texture was brownie-like, and she followed it up a decade later with a recipe more like the brownie as we know it today.
I became interested in cottage pudding largely because of its name. Why was it called a pudding, since it seemed to be a cake, and why a cottage pudding?
“Pudding” was once a general term for dessert (and still is in Great Britain), but there were plenty of recipes in old cookbooks for “cake,” so why wasn’t this one of them? The answer seems to be that although it was a cake, this dish was served with a sauce that was poured over the top, resulting in a slightly mushy, pudding-like dessert. The cake itself was also very moist.
As for the term “cottage,” it probably identified this dish as simple and affordable — suitable for farmers or laborers who lived in modest cottages. (It is similar in that sense to cottage pie, an early name for shepherd’s pie.) Continue reading →
Much is made of Thomas Jefferson’s love for haute cuisine, but when he moved to Washington as president in 1801, he missed the simple muffins made by his cook Peter Hemings back home at Monticello. Well, not that simple — Jefferson’s French chef in Washington could not master them. The president wrote to his daughter Martha, “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”
Peter Hemings was a slave who became head cook at Monticello in 1796, after Jefferson freed his brother James, the previous chef. (They and their sister Sally were probably the children of Jefferson’s late wife’s father.) James had trained in Paris and taught his brother French cooking techniques, but there was a strong tradition of Anglo-American food at Monticello as well. The muffins that Jefferson loved so much were yeast raised and cooked on the griddle — what we now call English muffins. Continue reading →
I had read somewhere that Emily Dickinson was a baker, but I somehow pictured the reclusive poet making only loaves of spartan bread. When I began reading about her cooking, however, I realized that my image of her was all wrong. She was a prolific and joyful baker, and she delighted in making not just bread (and very good bread) but also puddings, cakes, gingerbread, and candies. Continue reading →
“Why are they called sand tarts?” asked my daughter. I told her that I think it’s because these delicate sugar cookies crumble like sand when you eat them.
Growing up, I looked forward to eating sand tarts every Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania. They are common in Pennsylvania Dutch country and throughout the state. My grandmother baked a lot of good cookies during the holidays, but this one was my favorite. She made them so thin you could practically see through them, and they were a sugary, buttery delight.
This post was originally going to be called “Martha Washington’s Potato Rolls.” I had found recipes by that name in several cookbooks, and thought this would be a straightforward historical re-creation. Well food history is rarely straightforward — haven’t I learned that by now? The recipes turned out to be completely different, and I couldn’t tell which was really Martha’s.