Old recipes reflect a different kind of cooking

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WEEditor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Recipes today have very precise measurements, baking times and ways of serving them. One hundred and fifty years ago, when Bartlett was founded, it was quite different. Most women learned to cook from their mothers and grandmothers, who told them, “You put a handful of this or a pound of that for the ingredients, mix together and bake.”

There were very few cookbooks as we know them today, and most recipes were handwritten as they were handed down from generation to generation.

In 1830 a new women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, was published by Louis A. Godey, and it contained many original American manuscripts by both men and women, the latest fashions of the day (along with a pattern), a sheet of music and recipes. Many of the recipes below are from this magazine, and one is even in rhyme.

Pound Cake

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1860


  • Citron: A large citrus fruit that looks like a large pebbly-skinned lemon, but with less acidic flesh and thick, fragrant peels. See a photo of this fruit and learn about candied citron here.
  • Gill: In the U.S., this means a half cup. For information on the history or what a gill meant in other countries, see here.
  • Loaf sugar: Sugar sold in a solid block rather than in granulated or powdered form. Loaf sugar was commonly used through the early 20th century. See this Wisegeek.com article to learn where loaf sugar was stored and why this form of sugar was an irritant for bakers.
  • Slow oven: By modern standards, this refers to an oven temperature in the range of 300–325 degrees F. See this article to learn more about other oven terms, including a “fast oven.”

This cake recipe requires that you beat one pound of butter to a cream, and mix with it the whites
and yolks of eight eggs beaten apart. Have ready, warm by the fire, one pound of flour, and the same of sifted sugar; mix them and a few cloves, a little nutmeg and cinnamon, in fine powder together; then by degrees work the dry ingredients into butter and eggs.

When it is well beaten, add a glass of wine and some caraways. It must be beaten a full hour. Butter a pan, and bake it an hour in a quick oven. The above proportions, leaving out four ounces of the butter, and the same of sugar, make a less luscious cake, and to most tastes a more pleasant one.

Queen Cake

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1860

This cake recipe requires that you mix one pound of dried flour, the same of sifted sugar and of washed currants; wash one pound of butter in rose water, beat it well, then mix with it eight eggs, yolks and whites beaten separately, and put in the dry ingredients by degrees; beat the whole an hour; butter little tins, teacups, or saucers, filling them only half full; sift a little fine sugar over just as you put them into the oven.


“Directions for Making Cake,” American Recipes from 1864

Beat the whites of nine fresh eggs to a stiff froth, then mix with it fifteen spoonfuls of finest white sugar, and five or six drops of essence of lemon. Drop them on paper with a teaspoon, sift sugar over them, and bake them in a slow oven.

Christmas Cake

Recipe written in rhyming format

To two pounds of flour well sifted unite
Of loaf-sugar ounces sixteen;
Two pounds of fresh butter, with eighteen fine eggs,
And four pounds of currants washed clean;
Eight ounces of almonds well blanched and cut small,
The same weight of citron sliced;
Of orange and lemon-peel candied one pound,
And a gill of pale brandy uniced;
A large nutmeg grated; exact half an ounce
Of allspice, but only a quarter
Of mace, coriander, and ginger well ground,
Or pounded to dust in a mortar.
An important addition is cinnamon, which
is better increased than diminished;
The fourth of an ounce is sufficient.
Now this …
May be baked four good hours till finished.

Fried Chickens

The Virginia Housewife, 1860

Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown; fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked, to be served in the dish with the chickens; take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter, with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley; stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.

Potato Salad (Hot)

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1861

Boil as many potatoes as will make a dish for your family; when done peal them carefully and slice while hot into a deep dish; cut in very small pieces young onions or shives (chives) and mix them among the slices, distributing a little pepper and salt; pour over the whole, good vinegar, scalding hot, and send it to the table immediately.  A wholesome and pleasant dish for spring and early summer.

French Stew of Peas and Bacon

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1867

Cut about one quarter of a pound of fresh bacon into thin slices; soak it on the fire in a stewpan until it is almost done; then put about a quart of peas to it, a good bit of butter, a bunch of parsely, and two spoonfuls of catsup, simmer on a slow fire and reduce the sauce; take out the parsley and serve the rest together.

Browned Tomatoes

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1865

Take large round tomatoes and halve them; place them, skin side down, in a frying-pan in which a very small quantity of butter or lard has been previously melted; sprinkle them with salt and pepper and dredge them well with flour and let them brown thoroughly; then stir them and let them brown again, and so on until they are quite done.  They lose their acidity, and the flavor is superior to stewed tomatoes.

Historical note: Tomatoes were not considered poisonous in the 19th Century despite stories to the contrary.

Biscuits, Bread

Of course two mainstays to the Southern meal were cornbread and biscuits. They could be served at breakfast, dinner or supper — very often biscuits were served for breakfast with white gravy, or with butter and jelly; and as a side dish with meat for dinner or supper. Cornbread was also used in similar ways.

Below is a cornmeal bread recipe from the 1800s, but I could not find an old biscuit recipe. If you have a favorite family recipe or two that has been handed down through the years, send it to the attention of Suzanne Griffith Coleman at Bartlett Historical Society, 2969 Court St., Bartlett, TN 38134, or post it on the Facebook page for the Bartlett Historical Society, and we will print it at a future date.

Cornmeal Bread

The Virginia Housewife,by Mary Randolph, 1824

Rub a piece of butter the size if an egg into a pint of corn meal, make a batter with two eggs and some new milk, add a spoonful of yeast, set it by the fire an hour to rise, butter little pans and bake it.


<i>Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.</i>