Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Light or Lite?

Today’s recipe from the column Receipts for the Table from the New York Times of 1876 shows beautifully how our use of the language – and our very concepts – change with time.  Today’s rigorous standards would not allow “light” gingerbread made with half a pound of lard, for example.
Light Gingerbread.
One pint New Orleans molasses; set on the corner of the range until warm enough to melt one-half pound of lard in it; beat it up well; one half nutmeg, one teaspoonful each of cinnamon and cloves, and two tablespoonfuls ginger, a pinch of salt, one cupful milk stirred in two beaten eggs, and prepared flour, with two teaspoonfuls baking powder added; mix until just stiff enough to break off clear when you pour it from the spoon.
New York Times Dec 10, 1876.
So, when did we start to become interested in lite food?
I was amazed to find that lite is a very old variation of the spelling of light – and “light” has been used in relation to food and drink which are “light of digestion” for at least a thousand years! There are references from about the year 1000 of “leoht beor” and “leoht wyn.”

The modern context in which Lite is “used positively” and especially “with capital initial” as a marketing buzz-word, seems to have begun in the early 1960’s. The OED sums it up by saying that it designates “ a manufactured product that is lighter (in weight, calorie content, etc.) than the ordinary variety.”
Light is always relative of course, and I am intrigued as to the Heavy (Hevy?) version of the above recipe. Presumably it refers to the older form of gingerbread not leavened with baking powder. The English Saturday Magazine of April 24, 1841 seems to suggest that this is so:
“To produce very light gingerbread is a desirable thing, and this result is now easily obtained by the gingerbread-bakers, by secretly using sesqui-carbonate of ammonia, or common smelling salts, instead of the magnesia and tartaric acid, or the potashes abovementioned. This salt is entirely dissipated by the heat in baking, and leaves no taste. The carbonic acid gas, and the ammoniacal gas of which the salt is composed, in forcing their way out, expand and perforate the most tenacious dough, and give lightness to the richest and heaviest materials. The proportion of sesqui-carbonate of ammonia to be used in making gingerbread, is half an ounce to every three pounds of materials, including flour, treacle, spices, butter, &c.
Hevy or Lite however, this recipe fits nicely into the Through the Ages with Gingerbread archive.

Quotation for the Day …

Had I but a penny in the world, thou shouldst have it for gingerbread.”
William Shakespeare.


Joanna said...

What a lovely sentiment! What work is it from?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Joanna - the recipe is from the New York Times, the comments on 'light gingerbread' are from the English 'Saturday Magazine' of 1841, and the definitions from the OED.

SometimesKate said...

I'm pretty sure that's from Love's Labour's Lost.