In the introduction to her 1845 cookbook, Domestic Cookery, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea writes, “[T]he Authoress offers to her young countrywomen this Work, with the belief that, by attention to its contents, many of the cares attendant on a country or city life, may be materially lessened; and hoping that the directions are such as to be understood by the most inexperienced.”1 This charge to guide novice homemakers in cooking, cleaning, and medicinal remedies has universal appeal, but for me it was more than that. The “Authoress” is a distant cousin and as it stands, I am the very audience she is targeting — a young and inexperienced apartment dweller.
In one way, it seemed fortuitous that my mother (also a Lea) should discover this book precisely when I was confronting the realities of apartment life — among them clogged drains and gas leaks — as well as my new job as a food writer. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what relevant homemaking knowledge a 19th century Quaker woman could impart on a 21st century New York renter.
Nonetheless, the journey from college dorm room to New York apartment required a steeper learning curve than I imagined and it was comforting to find that even distant relatives of mine went through similar trials (though maybe not in a recession). Lea wrote the book for her own daughter who was unsure of how to navigate married life. Her daughter’s concerns — including how to store silver and mend china — appeared more elegant than my own questions about how to install smoke alarms and successfully ward off mice. But Lea’s constant emphasis on resourcefulness and patience applies to even the most menial chores and recipes in the book, making my less appealing problems still seem worthy of my full attention.
The book’s mere existence today — and the reason I own a copy — is thanks to food historian William Woys Weaver, who brought Lea’s work out of obscurity with his revised edition in 1982 followed by another edition in 2004. But the persistence of Lea’s Domestic Cookery in the 19th century (it went through nineteen editions by 1879) was due to its practical and often thrifty approach to homemaking. “Never try a new dish when you expect company,” she instructed her young readers, “Your guests will be more gratified with a neat and moderate table, with a few plain and well cooked dishes, accompanied with the smiling countenance of the hostess, than with a great variety of ill cooked and badly arranged viands.” Memories of crumbling veggie burgers that I’ve served to guests of my own confirmed Lea’s advice.
In his extensive introduction, Weaver outlines Lea’s life from her upper class Quaker upbringing in Ellicott City, Maryland to her marriage in 1812 to Thomas Lea to her eventual position as a widowed farm owner. Elizabeth and Thomas settled in Delaware and Lea was promptly thrown into household life. In Domestic Cookery, she writes that she was “frequently embarrassed by her ignorance of domestic affairs.”2 But through trial and error (and some help from neighbors) Lea pieced together the necessary domestic knowledge expected of her and in 1821, she began a manuscript of recipes that would make up part of her book.
The couple and their seven children eventually moved to rural Walnut Hill farm in Sandy Spring, Maryland. In 1829, Thomas Lea died and Elizabeth was left to manage both a household and a farm. In addition to these duties, Lea took on the massive project of authoring this cookbook for her newly wed daughter Mary Lea Stabler, even though she was often confined to bed from illness. During such times she stationed herself in a room above the kitchen stairs and would bellow out instructions to the family cook or her friend and assistant Rebecca Russell below. By all accounts she was an exacting and extremely stubborn figure.
After I received my copy of Domestic Cookery, I immediately wanted to try my hand at some of Lea’s recipes. I was optimistic if only because I knew they would not require a food processor, an appliance whose absence in my kitchen constantly foils me in modern recipes. Lea presents all of her recipes in paragraph form without the glossy photos we’re accustomed to and doesn’t waste any words in her instructions. The recipe for stewing sweet breads is all of one sentence: “Stew them in a little water, with butter, flour, and a little cream; season with salt, pepper, parsley and thyme.” The directions for rice pudding and mulled jelly are much the same: “Pour a quart of boiling milk on a pint of rice flour, stir it well, and put in six spoonfuls of sugar, one of butter, and four eggs; beat all together, and bake in deep plates, with or without crust.” This makes them look deceptively easy, until you realize that ratios are often left unmentioned and cooking times are few and far between. I could already feel Lea forcing her zeal for independence on me.
I bypassed the recipes for baking a pig’s head and cooking pigeons and tried out some of the lighter fare, like Philadelphia milk-less ice cream (milk-less, but not dairy-less — the recipe calls for large quantities of cream). I grew up outside of Philadelphia so this seemed like an appropriate place to start. Luckily, Philadelphia ice cream required zero cooking. All I had to do was break a few eggs, mix a pound of sugar with cream, vanilla, and lemon juice and stick it in the freezer. Here things got slightly problematic since my freezer could barely contain that much ice cream even after halving the recipe. But I crammed the creamy mixture in and moved on to Lea’s recipe for bacon potato dumplings.
I approached the recipe on the triumphant high of having so easily mastered Philadelphia ice cream. Plus, any relative who has a recipe for bacon and potatoes wrapped in dough is a relative after my own heart. But there was trouble from the beginning. Lea writes, “Roll out crust as for apple dumplings.” As for apple dumplings? I turned to the apple recipe to be further frustrated. It read, “Make crust as for plain pies.” Eventually, I found the pie crust recipe, but I couldn’t help but feel like Lea was sending me in circles. Clearly, Lea’s daughter had more experience making pie crusts than I did.
I managed to construct the dumplings and they looked picture perfect uncooked, but when I dropped them in the boiling water several unwrapped immediately and others became a viscous mess. I desperately tried to dry out the slimy-looking dough by fishing the few intact dumplings from the water and transferring them to the oven, to no avail. They smelled wonderful, but I can’t imagine that these were the savory bacon-filled dumplings Lea was talking about.
Slightly chagrined with Lea, I turned to her recipe for “mush cakes,” a dish that the Europeans in the region had inherited from the Delaware Indians. Name notwithstanding, the cakes sounded appetizing. Mush turned out to be simply a boiled mixture of cornmeal and water that is stirred for an hour. Once the mixture cools, it’s combined with wheat flour and butter (or lard), molded into small balls by hand, floured and cooked on a griddle. The cakes looked a lot like pancakes and paired perfectly with jam.
Emboldened by this success I tried her recipe for pickled oysters. The recipe was easy and though Lea did not give any ratio for cloves to pepper to vinegar, there wasn’t much that could go wrong. When finished, the oysters looked shriveled and alien, but their profoundly briney flavor won me over. All in all three out of four of Lea’s recipes proved they had staying power, but I can only imagine how my version of her “hash made of fowls” would have turned out. As it stood, my roomates had to deal with a freezer overflowing with milk-less ice cream, a trash can full of half-cooked dough, and a refrigerator stacked with jars of oysters that looked more like a science experiment than food. There was hardly room to tackle the fowl section and even if there were, I was too exhausted to try.
One problem with using antique recipes is assuming ingredients have not changed. When I told William Woys Weaver about my dumpling disaster, he expressed surprise that I didn’t have more trouble with the mush cakes since modern cornmeal is denser than the kind Lea used. Additionally, names can have different connotations today than they did in the past. Lea’s recipe for pickled mangoes is actually a recipe for pickled cantaloupe. Mango was used colloquially to refer to any fruit or vegetable that could be stuffed and pickled like a bell pepper.
I asked Weaver if women in Lea’s day would have been expected to know how to cook so extensively, as well as to have a thorough knowledge of medicinal cures, many of which are listed in Lea’s book. He answered that some women did, especially those like Lea who had been widowed or were on their own. But he continued, “I really think that one of the reasons for her book’s popularity was its usefulness as a reliable reference. If you needed to know how to make bacon, she gives you the basic advice.”
Basic for 19th-century Quaker women maybe, but not always for a 21st century apartment renter like myself. Nonetheless, Weaver is right, Lea’s steady advice does endure beyond her time because of the sincerity with which she addresses young cooks and homemakers. She succeeds in making you believe that if she could learn to boil a cow’s head, cure lock jaw, and manage a farm, then you can probably learn to unclog the drain. Probably.
Eleanor West is a New York-based food politics writer for Food Republic where she covers everything from heritage meats to the farm bill (and the occasional pickle festival). You can follow her on twitter at @Eleanor_West.