You can find many versions of The American Frugal Housewife online. Most are in much better condition than this 1844 version found amongst my grandmother's belongings. And while we can't be absolutely sure this volume's history was linked to my family history, the sense that it was is tangible. If it was with my family, then there is a good chance it traveled on the Oregon trail with them where it witnessed great adventures, successes and losses. Was it useful when settling in what amounted to a brand new world? What wisdom and practical aid did it provide its owner? What bits and pieces are laughably archaic and which still offer wisdom today? And what of the woman who wrote it and the time she lived in?
Before we get started, a little recipe (for disaster maybe?)
For dough-nuts, take one pint of flour, half a pint of sugar, three eggs, a piece of butter as big as an egg, and a tea-spoonful of dissolved pearlash. When you have no eggs, a gill of lively emptings will do; but in that case, they must be made over night. Cinnamon, rose-water, or lemon-brandy, if you have it. If you use part lard instead of butter, add a little salt. Not put in till the fat is very hot. The more fat they are fried in, the less they will soak fat.
Before you rush out to make these stop and figure out what you are using for leavening. What exactly is "pearlash"? And how do "emptings" (whatever they are) replace eggs. Oddly, I wasn't the first to highlight this particular recipe out of the hundreds in this book. It looks deceptively simple until you decipher it all. Once you realize that "pearlash" is a leavening made from lye, you need to think about this again. I thought a bit too hard it seems and the results are dubious
No rainbows and unicorns here!
Or continuity it seems! Here is a tidbit from the very first page to get us started. I have not edited this at all. It just all spills out just as I show you here:
Children can very early be taught to take all the care of their own clothes.
They can knit garters, suspenders, and stockings; they can make patchwork and braid straw; they can make mats for the table, and mats for the floor; they can weed the garden, and pick cranberries from the meadow, to be carried to market.
So I tried updating the doughnut recipe. I didn't have the special hardwood to burn to make the lye for pearlash. However, since I learned everything important in life from Louisa May Alcott, I knew that just a decade or two after our Frugal Housewife wrote her instructions, folks started using baking soda (baking powder didn't come until a bit later). Louisa also taught me that soda (and this can be said about pearlash too) gets its leavening powers from combining with acid. So I chose the orange and the bit of sour cream to activate the soda. I have no idea what Lydia Childs was using for that. I think Louisa could have taught Lydia a thing or two. Anyway, the result suffered less because the leaven didn't leaven (it did!) and more because I am not adept at deep fat frying. I ran out of steam after the first 5 doughnuts and spread the rest into a pan for a nice quick coffee cake. I go into detail about the process here in the next post, if you are interested.
Would I make these again? I doubt it. Unless at some point someone can teach me to make real doughnuts and how to fry them just right. Then maybe.