Deciphering Heirloom Recipes From Days Gone By
Sarah Lohman discusses the meaning of historic recipes including tips to decipher our own old family gems.
Recipe buffs and collectors of old family recipes were in for a treat last Tuesday night at the Fanwood Memorial Library. Food historian and blogger (www.fourpoundsflour.com) Sarah Lohman was the guest of honor with a wealth of information about old, historic recipes dating back to the 1700s.
Lohman, a 20-something urbanite from Queens discovered a curiosity of very old recipes when she was a teenager working at a "living history" museum in Cleveland. That experience garnered a love of history. This combined with daily cooking at the museum and the recipes passed down in her own family, made her keenly aware that there was a need and an opportunity to bridge the gap between past and present recipes.
"A recipe from the past is inspiring. It's something new even though it's very old," she said. "I like opening up these old recipes and letting them live again."
Guests of the lecture were encouraged to bring old cookbooks and heirloom family recipes. Geraldine Inman of Fanwood brought a cookbook called "The Practical Cookbook" by Elizabeth O. Hiller. Published in 1910, it cost $1.
"This belonged to my father's mother," Inman said. "I assume when ovens were coming into homes back then, everyone wanted to bake in them. I've always had an interest in baking. I've tried a few cakes and frosting from this one."
But, these old recipes can be challenging to decipher and no one knows that better than Sarah Lohman. Recipes in old cookbooks have odd ingredients, vague cooking temperatures and archaic instructions. On top of that, family recipes were hand written and deciphering great grandma's handwriting is a task in itself.
Lohman's challenge is to pull out the essence of the recipe for the modern cook.
"Handwritten recipes often just list ingredients without a cooking method or quantities," Lohman said. "Over the years, as they get passed down through generations, they are changed according to taste preference, cooking style, really anything. It's also a lot of assumed knowledge of family recipes, so they never get fully written."
So, she developed a strategy thanks to modern resources like the Internet and converted old time measurements into contemporary ones. Did you know the measurement of 1 wineglass is a 1/4 cup? And a hot oven is 400-425 degrees, while a quick oven is 375-400 degrees. Anyone ever cooked with rose water? We use vanilla today.
The common cooking tools in kitchens today were not around 100 years ago, but in Lohman's opinion, that shouldn't be a deterrent. In fact, she's so committed to her craft, she regularly cooks in a wood burning colonial hearth at The Old Stone House, right in the middle of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Gauging the oven temp? It's easy, she says, "Hot, hotter, hottest" and as her mother says, "Food is done when it smells done." A little intuition in the kitchen goes a long way.