Images are History

Sometimes we get so caught up in writing history, or making it, if we’re high profile types, that even as we post photos to Instagram or Facebook we forget that we, too, are recording a visual history.

How long this history will last, however, depends on the permanence of the digital record. Will it be there forever? Or will it, like the famous Library of Alexandria, be destroyed by powers and empires of the future. As is so often the case in history, time alone will tell.

The real question then becomes, what are we taking images of, and what for? To look back on every fascinating detail of yesterday’s meal a year from now? Doubtful. You and I know that we really only look at those images when Google photos reminds us they exist. How many people regularly review all 387 images from their last vacation? Not many.

What are our real reasons for recording so many images? Habit? Peer pressure? To share? To record beauty? To cling to the past? Because we can and we remember the days when film was expensive? To build the appearance of a more beautiful life than the one we actually experience? For business? All possibilities, and certainly something to ask ourselves from time to time.

But despite all I’ve said, and in the interest of recording my history from yesterday, and especially the beauty of the Autumn season as the leaves finish their descent to the ground, is a vignette to add to the digital record…

Keep thinking history…

~ Amanda Stiver

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Gateways to History: Recreating Recipes of the Past

I recently watched an interesting video about a baker in California, Valerie Gordon, who is recreating recipes from popular restaurants and bakeries of the past on the West Coast. She specializes in baked goods and cakes and has produced a number of classic recipes that she stocks in her shop, Valerie’s Confections. To watch: https://dustyoldthing.com/bringing-back-vintage-desserts/ The Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake (<–see link for a version of the recipe from the classic Hollywood restaurant) is high on my list to attempt!

I love a good classic recipe, and not just because they may taste good, but because they taste……like history. The what, the why and the how of eating from culture to culture and decade to decade.

Which brings me to this gateway to history, culinary history. Though most of us assume that history is best accessed via books and dusty artifacts, one of the most delicious and accessible gateways is to cook up a recipe from the past. The advantage of the internet these days is that we have access to updated versions of some of these classic dishes, easier to make and with ingredients and techniques that aren’t so foreign to us now. (A few recommendations to get you started, if you are interested: Indian Pudding (think, colonial era, sweetened polenta), WW2 No-Egg Chocolate Cake, and Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream)

Image: Amanda Stiver

There is another way to experiment with classic and historical dishes, however, that is, through vintage cookbooks. One of my favorites, which is available in both original versions as well as reprints, is the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook. For generations of American women, this was the foundation textbook for daily cooking. Fannie Farmer was the principle of the Boston Cooking School at the turn of the century, and therefore the cookbook was the product of her curriculum.

Pictured, Chocolate Cake from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook and behind it, a Chocolate Cake recipe from the BH&G classic red plaid cookbook from 2003. Using an equivalent recipe will allow you to see hidden directions that cooks from the past knew by heart and also the all important temperature settings. Image: Amanda Stiver

If you get adventurous and want  to tackle a recipe, bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, in early 20th century editions of these cookbooks, there are no oven temperature directions. Instead, you’ll find instructions like “bake in a moderate oven” or just “bake for forty minutes…”

Yikes! What to do?

The simple solution is to look up a modern equivalent recipe, on the internet or in a compendium cookbook like my old standby, The Better Homes & Gardens Red Plaid Cookbook. Find a recipe that is similar to the classic one, say a chocolate cake for a chocolate cake, and use the heating instructions, usually 350 to 400 degrees. However, be careful, and watch your cake carefully to catch any variations that necessitate whipping the dish out of the oven before it burns.

But to answer the more important question, why didn’t they have temperature instructions back then?

Our modern electric and gas ovens are miracles of mechanics and technology. Back in the day, wood and coal fire ovens were the norm. So cooks got used to gauging oven temps by feel, adding a bit more fuel here or there to increase the temperature appropriately. It was as much an art form as it was a practicality. They were also in the kitchen a lot more than we are, as a rule, so they developed that feel by experience.

I have a degree (pardon the pun) of experience in this department because my maternal grandmother had a wood fire oven when I was a kid and I learned to cook with it from her. If you want to learn this skill yourself, when you set your modern-day oven to the proper temperature, and it has finished the pre-heat cycle, test the temperature carefully with your hand at the opening of the oven (don’t touch the hot metal, obviously). Get a sense of how hot it feels and make of note of the exact temperature and mentally connect it with that feeling. It will come in handy if you go camping and need to cook over a campfire, as well.

Finally, enjoy the process of discovery, and if things don’t go perfectly well…don’t panic. Chalk it up to experience and education, and then find a modern version that’s easier to do. Learning why your recipe works chemically is as instructive as figuring out why it tastes so good (or bad, as the case may be). Science, art, food, and history, all rolled into one!

Have at it and keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Short on History: Context and the Electoral Process

The recent US election has shown, among many things, that various segments of the population, but particularly younger people are missing a vital facet of education…knowledge of the past and how our written laws and systems of governance emerged from the circumstances of their era and reached up to become supra-generational universalisms (I just made that last one up). For instance, the hotly debated and debased electoral college. Some hate it, but they don’t know why. Some love it, but they don’t know what it is.

This is where context comes in. In the study of history (which we all should be doing, by the way) context is a short mental rehearsal of the key players, national and individual, and the geo-political or cultural spectrum of the day. Religious institutions and mores, popular societal trends, styles of government, etc. We do this when we begin to study a new historical topic. Good historians will write books interwoven with context, unfortunately, so will bad historians who make up non-existent context. One has to do a little individual research.

For instance, one popular slogan goes, “we don’t need that electoral college, we just need a popular vote!” Sounds all neo-socialist, get rid of the elitists, etc, but the reality is that government structures like the electoral college were originally implemented as a check and a balance against any one  side of the US government quadrangle of executive-legislative-judicial-demos (the voters) from misusing its power and presuming to take privileges that don’t belong to it. This was a reaction, in part to the governmental institutions of Enlightenment Era Europe (which only went so far), and the remaining monarchies that ruled nations through both religion and dominion or kingship. The balance of power wasn’t. It was also a reaction to the constitutional monarchy of England and the peculiarly interwoven parliamentary system through which aristocrats and semi-common men could rule. America sought a system with a greater balance of power.

And it is only through a kind of intergovernmental detente that our system works. Thing is, many people would like to up end the balance, from all sides of the political spectrum, in order to funnel power their way. Hence we have checks and balances, however imperfectly they function.

So there you have it, a small sampling of context and how it applies to understanding the past and the world around us now.

Where do you need to apply the tool of context for better understanding?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Tomorrow’s History: Politics and the Seasons – The Sanity Our Rural Past Brings to Election Nonsense

As I write this a U.S. Presidential election is upon us, tomorrow. I cannot, at this point, following on months of listening to campaigns, lies (let’s be real), and observing endless posturing endure any more analyses of politics, so I shall diverge.

Looking around us now, and by looking around I will be taken to mean, looking around the Internet because that’s where we are these days. We stare at screens, big ones (if we’re well funded), medium ones, and little ones. Ubiquitous rectangles of blue light distorting our ability to sleep and, for that matter, telling us what to think. They’ve only been around on this scale for the last 10 years, a mere blip in the historical timeline, but we seem to be unable to imagine life without them.

And that’s just what I want to do. Imagine life without them. What on earth would we be doing, in say, 1886?

Well, the vast majority of us would be farming.

And no, I don’t mean hobby farming with a flock of rare heritage goats that we pay someone to keep so they can make handmade cheese for us that we can sell with our own cleverly designed label that connotes rural overtones in a setting of glamorous urban prosperity. Sigh.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

I mean the real deal, dad, mom and kids working the land, eating what they grow and raise. Planting, tending, harvesting, and preserving. With real dirt and real injuries and real dependency on the land. That’s the kind of rural reality that most Americans faced in 1886.

If you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, and cannot even think of a single recent television series you’ve binged on Netflix to draw on for reference (sigh), then tackle a book. One I highly recommend, and have probably done before and will again, is The Seasons of America Past by Eric Sloane. Sloane was one of the foremost meteorological painters of the 20th century and he also put his artistic skills to work preserving images of the rural, agricultural norm that was the American way of life, and of which we are now completely and most tragically bereft.

These sketches, of which the book is full, will put a shape to the past. When we think of tablets, smartphones, and laptops, we can in some, rather inadequate, way attempt to compare to the scythes, plows, apple presses, and wagons of the past. These were the tools of their existence. People were fluent with these items in the same way that we are fluent (or reasonably so) with our technology. They are the implements of our lives.

The other facet of The Seasons of America Past that I relish is the step by step progress through each month of the year that gives us a sample of what agricultural tasks would have been on the schedule for that season.

Let’s take November for instance. Sloane relates that by this time cattle had been or were being driven to market in a parade of moving herds that marked the season for many (or to the railyard and transported by train in 1886). Crop harvests had been taken in and at this time there was abundance and time to preserve and enjoy. Meat was butchered, preserved, and products like the yearly supply of soap made from the rendered fat. Candles were made of the same animal by-products, though some plant sourced fats, such as bayberry, were used for their pleasant aroma. Nuts were harvested from trees, particularly chestnuts, though, tragically, a blight that began from an international exhibition in New York in 1904 destroyed much of the American chestnut tree population.

Daily chores were done, animals were fed, tools were repaired and sharpened, fields dressed for winter. The changing of the seasons was so deep and abiding and intertwined in daily life that people didn’t have to wait for the trees to turn colors and drop their leaves to know what was coming. They saw it coming from August on in every small detail that connotes a slight shift in the seasons from summer to fall. The seasons came to you, you didn’t have to go out in search of them. They still can.

It is a remarkable heritage that we possess, this rural connection. Don’t lose it, even if you don’t live in it, and I confess, I do not, though I should like to. My grandparents did and probably so did yours. Take the time to reflect on the genuine triviality that all politics descends into. For no matter how vaunted a potential leader, he or she cannot make the weather. He or she cannot bring in the harvest and put food on tables. He or she cannot change the seasons. They are inexorable, and remain as their Maker dictates.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Tomorrow’s History: When The Details Hit You In The Nose

I stepped outside one day a couple of weeks ago and all of a sudden Summer had jumped into Autumn. Not faded, mind you, as many poets have told us that it does, but jumped, leaped, maybe even threw itself into Fall. And yes, where I’m from it isn’t officially yet “Autumn”, which is scheduled to be with us in late September, but I don’t go by calendars when it comes to the changing seasons!

You know how I could tell?

The light and the smell.

As the seasons shift across the globe and the tilt of the earth angles through its yearly course, there is a nearly, but not entirely imperceptible shift in the rays of the sun’s light as we migrate through the day. Rather than dead above us at noontime, they begin to slant as Autumn comes and are most slanted of all in the Winter.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

These slanted rays give us part of the feeling of “crispness” in the Fall air. As leaves turn and fall to the ground they seem to dazzle us in the spotlight rays of slanted sunfall. In addition, the tiny, first shift in color from deep green to lighter green of the maple trees began in early August. By late August, when the slanted rays of sunshine meet that delicate color change, the light takes on a pink glow.

It really is tremendous to watch it happen, but you have to step away from the devices daily to see it. Don’t get stuck in a digital world, when the real one is so fully and fantastically before us. Lecture over.

The other measure of the autumnal shift? Smells.

I like smells…some of them. But I really like the smell of the grass, the plants, my garden, veggies, roses, myriad things. And I really, really like the smell of lavender. I like it so much that, wherever I move to a new place I plant it, a lot of it. Always. It is spicy, floral, slightly soapy, strongly herbal, but not perfumey.

A good whiff of it will cause your central nervous system to take a short rest and step down from “high alert.” It is a powerful, soothing herb…and it repels many bugs (does it get better than that?).

As I step outside my front door I am gladly assaulted by this wonderful fragrance. Most especially following a good heavy rain the moisture releases the oils in the leaves and carries it into the air.

As Autumn rolls along, and the temperatures cool, the leaves begin to fade and the fragrance of the lavender shifts and takes on a stronger woodsy scent. That’s how I know my seasons are moving along. The plants also die, but that’s later.

I love to measure these tiny markers of the seasons for many reasons, but especially because it reminds me to appreciate nuance. To collect those little details that are seemingly unrelated or irrelevant, but put together paint a larger, more complete, eventually overwhelming, and sometimes sinister portrait.

And this is where history comes in. The sinister bit. History, when you measure it as it happens around us, something we call, “the news” or “current events,” you must be alert to these “tells” or tiny bits of nearly imperceptible change, shift, and nuance that added together, give us a sense of where things are going. Better times or worse.

I don’t mean to be a rain cloud, but times are not getting better. That’s the sinister bit. The tells and details of the moment are plain if we watch for them. We are in for turmoil, the whole world. Instability, migration, and hostility among the great and small powers are cause for concern.

But there is profit in chaos (and no, not what you are thinking). We, as individuals, who live through the crucible of chaos have the opportunity to develop our true selves (please don’t take that in an flaky, “new age” sort of way), our deepest character and conviction that is at the core of who we are. The honor code, the force of principle that we must have and must develop to enjoy any sense of a meaningful, fruitful life that will see us through tough times.

I get my inspiration and that core conviction from the Bible. It is a personal journey, just like history, which is the measure of our experience in life, both personal as well as communal. Everybody has to face history.

So learn to see the tiny details, watch for what is coming and tackle those core principles you need to soldier through the tough times. It’s all part of the historical experience. Just don’t be a footnote of history, really live it!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

Cooking Up History: ‘Kitchen Klatter’ and Other Resources of Home Economy

During the course of reading a fabulous book called The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski (to learn more please read my post here), the author references and used as source material the databases available to us through the digitizing of many publications from the early 20th century. One such database is called HEARTH – Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, and History – maintained by Cornell University (see link here).

The HEARTH collection encompasses a stunning array of books, journals, and articles on the art of home economy, domestic science, and home making. A treasure trove…if you know how to value it.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

Shooting from the hip: I’m a traditionalist and a sentimentalist, so I find the underappreciated quantity of research and practical information produced by the early 20th century home economists a tragedy. When did we stop valuing the efficient, sanitary, effective, imaginative, joyful making of the home? Have we stopped living in homes? Do we somehow not need to have economic savvy anymore? Is sanitation a thing of the past?

The modern feminist movement has achieved many of its purposes, but unfortunately in many cases it has done so at the expense of and through degrading the contribution and acumen of home makers, “home women” as Przybyszewski puts it, and home economists. This is short sighted, and rather sad. We have suffered for underappreciating the value of women who choose to focus their lives on making a home and raising children.

So what to do? Legislation? Protests? Long social media rants? Um, as if there is any shortage of those things these days.

How about simple appreciation?

Start with a little knowledge. Look into some of the published works of the generation that valued home economics. Find out what savvy they accrued and put it to work!

The HEARTH collection is one place to start, but another is the folksy magazine produced by Leanna Field Driftmier (1886-1976) an Iowa farm wife and educator. She produced a highly popular and long running early radio show on home making topics, and later translated that knowledge to a newsletter-style magazine, Kitchen Klatter.

The Iowa Heritage database preserves many issues of this publication. Take a moment to explore them. Try some of the recipes, and maybe you will find a practical tip or two to make your life a little more efficient and economic! Don’t undervalue these kind of resources in your quest to understand the past. They aren’t flashy, but they help us understand the daily lives of our predecessors in the past.

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

One Egg A Week: WW2 Rations and Irrational Over-consumption

Have you ever walked through the supermarket, or the out-of-doors market (if you are lucky enough to have one nearby) and stopped to appreciate just how much food we have access to on a daily basis?

Intellectually we know that there are many places around the globe where food is not so plentiful nor available. Venezuela at the moment is struggling through famine triggered by political unrest and a decade of instability. In other places it is simply the norm to be without. However, to quantify scarcity is sometimes difficult as we stroll the aisles of the supermarket and decide if we want the artisan, “hand-made” (by machines shaped like hands) cumin basil crackers or the tomato pesto anise flavor? Gasp.

Was there a time when the western world had to face food scarcity? You bet! It was called the Second World War. Almost all of the European nations, and beyond, suffered from going without. For much of continental Europe that was a result of having been overrun by hostile armies and subjected to starvation so that food could be shunted back to the German Army. Russians, German citizenry, Italians, the French, the Dutch, Spaniards (who had been going without all through the 1930’s because of a civil war) all faced famine, and the list goes on and on. The British Isles certainly suffered, but theirs was, from the start, superimposed rationing to feed the populace and its soldiery. The Americans, too, ended up with varying degrees of rationing, but certainly not as strict as the British model.

And it is to British rationing that we’re going to turn to help get a sense of personal scale of scarcity. The Ministry of Food was the organization that implemented rationing for the populace at the behest of the British Government. When you look over the requirements you realize how little each individual was allowed, but you also see the care and thought given to maintaining vitamin intake for children (fruits and fruit preserves were to be given to children first to sustain healthy growth). Bread and Vegetables, especially the homegrown variety, were not rationed and people were encouraged to grow their own. For adults, vegetables were the mainstay of nutrition.

What was rationed, and here is where we can begin to appreciate what and how much we have on a daily basis, was meat. Meat was rationed by price, only so much per person per week and then only of what was available and sometimes that was offal, or organ meats…heart, lungs, intestines, etc. So, no hamburgers or juicy steaks every night for a week!

Recipe books of the era recommend stews and pot pies with minimal meat supplemented by plentiful vegetables. My favorite cookbook from this era, incidentally, is a reprint by the Imperial War Museum called, Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts From 1940-1954 by Marguerite Patten OBE, 2002. I found it at a wonderful booksale held in the Guildhall in the city of York…a story for another time. This volume presents reprints from government material produced during the war, much of which was the work of a young woman named Marguerite Patten, whose creativity helped inspire home cooks throughout the war.

Milk was also rationed, 4-6 cups per person, per week. Think of what that meant, if you are a regular consumer of hot chocolate you could have a cup every other day, but you couldn’t get the chocolate. But what if you wanted pudding…that requires milk and, whoops, you just used up your allowance. Or baking, which often requires milk… there it went again. Milk in your tea (which was also rationed, think of that the next time you order a 28 oz glass of sweetened iced tea!)? What do you choose? And yes, you could combine a family’s portion, but how did you refrigerate it until you could use it? Refrigeration wasn’t universal in the 1940’s. Powdered milk was a big bonus, but it wasn’t the same as fresh.

Something to contemplate the next time you see all those gallons of milk lined up in the dairy section as you absentmindedly grab one.

Then were was cheese and butter, 2 oz (yes, two thumbs-size slices worth) of each per person each week! That would give you roughly one small sandwich or two after-dinner cheese chasers or a quick gobble for an afternoon snack…no cheesy, gooey grilled sandwiches to eat four bites of and throw the rest away. And butter, you have to bake with butter, remember? So, cookies, scones, cake…all required major planning and the pooling of amounts between family members (which, in the days of mothers being the main organizer of home was all planned and implemented by mom, kids didn’t get to take their cheese stash to their room and watch it mold).

A lot to think about. Belts were tighter then, and interestingly, mass produced bread was made with 1/2 regular “white” flour and 1/2 whole wheat or whole meal flour. As statistics were compiled during this time period, it was found that the health of the nation actually improved as a result of this austere, but very healthy diet.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

And then we get to eggs, or, I should say, egg. Just one a week, and sometimes just one every two weeks. No high-protein, cheesy, three-egg breakfast omelets, no scrambled eggs, probably few egg dishes at all as these precious few eggs would have gone to work in the weekly baking. Things improved somewhat when powdered eggs were made available from the US, but if you have ever had the misfortune to consume powdered eggs regularly you will realize what a glorious blessing it is to have fresh eggs at all! Let alone the ability to buy 4 dozen at will!

Then there was sugar, and this is killer because I think it is safe to say that we nowadays could be referred to by archaeologists looking back at us from well into the future as the “sugar-eaters”, so much do we consume it in sweets and even in things that should be savory. Sweets were rationed to 12 oz every four weeks. If this was granulated sugar imagine, 12 ounces is just a cup and a half, and the average cookie recipe these days typically calls for 2 cups of sugar, per batch! So for a month you could enjoy the stale remnants of your monthly less-sweet cookie baking binge. But again, even pooled together for a family of four, you would need this sugar mostly for preserving fruits, if you could get them, or making faux-fruit preserves from vegetables…Carrot Marmalade anyone? (quite serious, there was a recipe!).

So, as we step off the nostalgia tour bus, I hope you can use this personal-scale food scarcity overview to get a sense of how blessed you may be. While it is vital to do what we can to help others in need, to not waste what we have, and to share, we also need to take a moment, a deep breath, a bowed head, and thank God for what we have. America has a history of overflowing abundance and it is a very popular mindset right now to try to apologize for that abundance (while gorging on it, it seems), but ungratefulness is not improved by embarrassment or apology. To be grateful is to be grateful. Out of gratefulness flows generosity, while out of embarrassment flows self-consciousness and self-centeredness.

So let’s be grateful for our blessings, look outward and share what we have!

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver