Notes on collections at the RIHS
The Rhode Island Historical Society’s theme for 2017 is Relishing Rhode Island. To celebrate this, our staff will be cooking recipes found in our collections. Some recipes will be paired with collection items to help tell the stories of the author/compiler, while others will come straight out of cookbooks from our printed collection or miscellaneous recipes found in the manuscripts collection.
The first recipe in our series is from a collection compiled by Helen Francis Abbot Washburn (MSS 783 sg 1). Mrs. Washburn began her recipe collection while living in Providence at 15 Cabot Street in 1898. By 1905, she and her husband, Maurice King Washburn moved to East Greenwich with their children.
Mrs. Washburn’s recipes and even a few housekeeping tips date from 1898 through 1931. There are magazine clippings tucked into pages while others are handwritten by Washburn on the pages of the volume or glued in. Like many recipe collections of this time, there are numerous preserves, jams, and pickle recipes. Other recipes include fish chowder, dandelion or rhubarb wine, brandied peaches, and cakes.
I decided that I wanted to bake something and came across a recipe for nut bread, which intrigued me. The recipe was somewhat familiar to me or anyone that has baked a quick bread before. It reminded me of a cross between raisin bran muffins and a date and walnut cake, which I love! This recipe is titled “Miss Davis’ Nut Loaf”, recorded on May 2, 1916. Unfortunately, there is no information as to whom Miss Davis is.
If you have ever tried to cook from old family recipes or even historical cookbooks, you probably noticed differences in measurement techniques, names of ingredients, even the instructions for setting the temperature of the oven. There are many websites that have popped up over the years with helpful tips for translating historical cooking terms and sourcing forgotten ingredients.
A few ingredients on this recipe immediately gave me pause: graham flour, sweet milk, and unseeded raisins. Graham flour was easy to define, but not as easy to source. Named after Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), this flour is a course ground, whole wheat flour that is not sifted. After much searching in the grocery store and my small, local health food store, I decided to settle on stone ground whole wheat flour. Sweet milk is just non-soured milk, and given the time period, the original recipe would have used whole milk. This recipe called for the use of either sweet or sour milk. Sour milk was often used in baking so it was not wasted. Finally, it was clear to me that raisins are no longer sold with seeds! I decided that like my grandmother and great-grandmother, I would just have to do with the ingredients on hand and not fuss over the details too much. I chose to use a mixture of golden raisins, organic raisins, and currants to make up the three cups required for this recipe.
The recipe came together very nicely and was enough for two standard loaf pans. The baking instructions “bake in a slow oven an hour” left a little flexibility in the temperature setting. A “slow oven” is a lower temperature oven, though the definitions available vary dramatically (225 F – 325 F). I set my oven at 275 F and checked on the baking after about 40 minutes and I did leave the pans in for the full hour before taking them out to cool on a rack.
I brought the final result to the library to share with my coworkers. It was a nice snack for morning tea or an afternoon pick-me-up.
Stay tuned for future cooking adventures from the stacks!
~Michelle Chiles, MLIS, Research Center Coordinator
Historical Cooking Blogs:
Measurements, Conversions, and Definitions: