Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cakes and Travellers.

March 20 ...

Charles Joseph La Trobe was born on this day in 1801, and when I discovered that fact, I was sure that today there would be an Australian story. La Trobe was the Superintendent of the Port Phillip District from 1839 to 1851, and Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria from 1851 to 1854. He was a man of great vision and good intentions, although his period in office was not without its controversies and difficulties. His name has been given to several locations and institutions, particularly in Victoria, where the State Library holds a large collection of his papers and correspondence.

I had no idea that La Trobe ever visited the United States, until my brief foray into his life-story. In 1824, he accompanied his student-protégé the Comte de Pourtalés on a long trip to the North American continent, where he spent some time with Washington Irving. Sadly I have been unable to find, in my very brief browsing, any food stories relating to his time in Australia, but he was clearly impressed with the baking skills of the women of New England.

“No where is the stomach of the traveller or visitor put in such constant peril as among the cake-inventive housewives and daughters of New England. Such is the universal attention paid to this particular branch of epicurism in these states, that I greatly suspect that some of the Pilgrim Fathers must have come over to the country with the Cookery book under one arm and the Bible under the other.”

He must have found it a startling contrast when he arrived in Australia where most of the early citizens had not arrived voluntarily, and a lot of the second wave were gold-diggers. It is likely that far fewer of these folk made a priority of packing their bibles and cookbooks! The first cookbooks in both America and Australia were the ones brought by migrants from their home countries, and were almost certainly the popular English texts of the time.

Naturally, in view of La Trobe’s comments, today must be a comparative cake-day. The first genuinely American cookbook was published by Amelia Simmons in 1796, just about the time that the baking-soda and baking-powder type leavening agents came on the scene. Here is a nice cake from her book.

Honey Cake.
Six pound of flour, 2 pound honey, 1 pound sugar, 2 ounces cinnamon, 1 ounce ginger, a little orange peel, 2 teaspoons pearl-ash, 6 eggs; dissolve the pearl-ash in milk put the whole together, moisten with milk if necessary, bake 20 minutes.

The first genuine Australian cookbook was published in 1864, seventy-six years after the first batch of convicts arrived. It was written by a Tasmanian politician called Edward Abbott, and was called the English and Australian Cookery Book: Cooking for the Many as well as the Upper Ten Thousand. It was an eccentric book, only ever went to one printing, and never had a chance against the English Victorian cookbooks (particularly Mrs Beeton’s Household Manual) brought by the later free settlers. The recipes are a strange mix of ‘Australian’ recipes (not popular in the colony, where the standard was everything from ‘Home’, and recipes lifted from other sources. Here is a very classic cake from the book:

Plain Sponge Cake.
One pound of flour, one pound of sugar, and eight eggs. Beat the yolks and the whites separate sufficiently, then add the two together, and put in the sugar. Whe mixed, add the flour by degrees; a few drops of essence of lemon is an improvement. Butter a dish and bake.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Good Friday Buns.

Quotation for the Day …

A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die. Mark Twain, ‘A Tramp Abroad’

1 comment:

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

The "six pounds of flour" always throws me a bit. These cakes were enormous! But, I guess it was a matter of big families with big appetites.