The Summing Up

I’ve spent much of the week writing on the what of chemical leavening…the various types, the chemistry involved, the way the chemicals were produced. I’ve expended comparatively little energy discussing how they were used. There’s actually not as much information on this subject as you might think, since the specific leavening innovations are fairly well documented, but the manner in which they were used isn’t. Of course we can pretty much figure out where chemical leavening succeeded by the recipes that have been passed down to us: biscuits, muffins, cookies, quick breads, cakes and the like.

The question is: what do these various baked goods have in common? Other than layer cakes, which can obviously be extremely complex, the thing that strikes me is that they’re all simple, no-frills sorts of bakery that can be made without much fuss at home. They also share the common characteristic of being very fast to prepare. Taken together, it all would have made a very attractive package for 19th-century Americans, some of whom lived on the frontier, others of whom didn’t have access to professional bakery, and nearly all of whom would have been busy managing farms, tending homes, or working businesses.

There’s no question that given their choice, most people living at that time would have preferred to eat soft, sweet, yeast-risen bakery breads. But bakery breads take kitchen skills, time, and above all equipment to prepare. Frontiersmen especially had none of those things. But if they were lucky enough to have some basic ingredients, gear, and a little powdered leavening, they could whip up something close enough to actual bread to be passable for dinner. If you’ve ever seen a traditional cast-iron dutch oven you’ve had a glimpse into this part of our baking past. Flat on top and with short metal feet, the original dutch ovens were made to be set over open fires with coals shovelled on top. Thus heated from two directions, quickly-prepared, chemically-leavened breads could be baked up fast inside.

But while we now consider such foods to be charming, rustic and delicious, the writings of the time testify to the fact that “lightning breads”, as they were sometimes called, were usually edibles of last resort. The aftertastes that I discussed yesterday were readily apparent to both bakers and diners, and were frequently remarked upon (unkindly). I expect if our forebears were able to flash forward to the present, most would have been appalled that their descendants would be going out of their way to eat biscuits, corn bread, quick breads and the like. But that’s they way of food. One age’s necessity is another’s delicacy. We can see that in everything from cheeses, sausages, stews and sauces to pasta dishes, stir fry’s and rice and beans.

I suppose it’s the human sense of nostalgia at work. We see those that came before us do something, so we want to do it too, like a 2-year-old putting on her father’s shoes, out of some strange mixture of curiosity, admiration and pride. Good for them, good for me is, I suppose, the base assumption. Or maybe the stuff just tastes good.

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