Artifact Corner: Betsey’s Receipt Book

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a very special book from the 1850’s. This is Betsey’s receipt book, or recipe book. There are both hand written recipes, and newspaper clipping with different culinary delights. The majority of the book is written in Betsey’s hand, but towards the back of the book, you can see that the hand writing has changed, and we believe her granddaughter, Fannie kept the book and continued to add to it. Betsey’s penmanship is fairly legible, but Fannie’s can be very hard to decipher at times. In addition to all sorts of tasty delights, we also have cleaning techniques, and medicinal remedies listed in this book. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of receipt books, or recipe books.

So, why were recipe books called receipt books in the past? The word ‘receipt’ derives from the Latin ‘recipere’ meaning “to receive” or “to take.” Both ‘receipt’ and ‘recipe’ originally referred to medicinal preparations. These would be either literally prescriptions with lists of ingredients, or loose instructions for mixing herbs, plant extractions, and foodstuffs. So a receipt or recipe could be for just about anything, not just food. The first recorded cookbook is said to be four clay tablets from 1700 BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia. The first recorded cookbook that is still in print today is Of Culinary Matters, written by Apicius, in fourth century CE Rome. For millennia, people have been trying out new dishes, and when they were successful, they would pass the recipe or receipt along to their family and friends. What we would consider a recipe or cookbook throughout much of history was really the domain of the ultra wealthy. Kings and Queens, the high nobility, and the high clergy would all have recipe books for their cooks to reference. Recipe or receipt books were all hand written until the invention of the printing press. The introduction and spread of modern printing in the 15th century eventually made it viable to think beyond the wealthiest customer bases. Receipt books of all manner started to be available around the world. From cook books for the poorer members of society, such as “Plain Cookery for the Working Classes” to books intended for people who could afford to splurge on large sumptuous meals like, “Les Soupers de la Cour” or “Court Dinners,” which were meals fit for royalty.

Our book of receipts has many delightful recipes like this one for what is called a Mountain Cake. Beside it is written the word “good,” so they must have really enjoyed this one. The recipe reads as follows:

  • 1 pound of flour
  • 3/4 of sugar
  • 1/2 pound of butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon full of saleratus (which is sodium bicarbonate) dissolved in a cup of milk
  • A wine glass of French brandy
  • Fruit and spice to your taste.

That’s it. That’s the entire recipe. There are no instructions on what to bake it in, how long to bake it, or at what temperature. This is not surprising, most cookbooks of the time assumed everyone knew how long to bake a cake. They were also using wood or coal stoves in the 1850’s, and therefore, you didn’t just walk over, press a button, and set your oven to a designated temperature. A lot of cooking and baking was done by practice and experience. If you were a good cook, and used to the tools in your kitchen, you could judge how hot your stove was, and therefore how long your cake would need to bake.

This book has been handled and used quite a lot in it’s 170 plus years, and that attention has left it’s mark. A bit of the cover is missing, and the pages are fragile and dog earred. But, overall, it is in decent condition, and mostly still legible. We are so lucky to have this little gem in our collections. If you are interested in learning more about historic cooking, we have just the event for you! Our Taste of the Past event is coming back this summer. Our first tasting will be this coming Sunday, June 12th at 2 pm. At this event we try three historic food recipes and one historic drink recipe, and discuss all things historic foods. This is a members only event, but if you’re not a member and would still like to attend, you can become a member on the day. A year long membership only costs $35. We hope to see you there. And if you give this mountain cake recipe a try, please let us know in the comments! As always, thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,