Recreating historical recipes

 Cherries jubilee

If you have ever leafed through an old cookbook, you've probably run across some recipes that sounded, well, less than appetizing. Antique books might have recipes for meats that you wouldn't consider eating, and mid-century tomes feature many questionable ingredients encased in gelatin and called a "salad." You probably wouldn't think twice about making such dishes, but at Duke University's Rubenstein Test Kitchen, it's all fair game. There, staff make historical recipes from cookbooks, manuscripts and other materials in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library

The test kitchen doesn't have a physical space; rather the librarians make the dishes off-site and share them with each other (and adventurous friends); then blog about the results.  The project was conceived as a follow-on to a similar venture at the University of Pennsylvania, which aimed to re-create historical recipes from the 1600s to 1800s. The Rubenstein Test Kitchen picks up where that project left off, beginning in the late 1700s and working its way into the late 20th century. 

Making these recipes is about more than just learning what dishes may have tasted like in times past, says Research Services Director Elizabeth Dunn. "Looking at foodways helps you understand exploration, trade, social developments, race, medicine, gender and history," she says. "Just think about how the potato was important, or how abolitionists boycotted sugar because you couldn't make it without enslaved labor in the Caribbean."

Many of the dishes are difficult to re-create because the recipes contain vague directions, imprecise measures, or ingredients that no longer exist. Finding substitutes is part of the adventure, as is trying foods that have a high "gross-out" factor. Along the way, the staff has tackled a variety of different dishes, including a "sherif cake," a boozy nut cake that dates to the late 1700s, a 1920s prune soufflé, and Cherries jubilee, a favorite of a former Duke University food services employee in the 1940s.  

Photo of Cherries jubilee from RecipeGirl by Lori Lange


  • mjes  on  9/25/2017 at 2:38 AM

    As a fan of historic cookbooks, I note that many of the "unappealing" meats have never disappeared from Asian cookbooks. They have also been making a solid comeback in the tail-to-snout contemporary movement ... think (a) Offal Good by Chris Cosentino (b) The Fifth Quarter by Anissa Helou or (c) America Charcuterie by Victoria Wise ... As for the snide remark regarding the 1950's cooking, remember this was the era in which refrigerators became common rather than a sign of luxury, that canned and frozen foods became broadly available . . . this is the era of cookbooks from authors such as Poppy Cannon who taught the home cook how to (over)use canned and frozen items. This was also the time period in which I learned to cook such historical oddities as carrot suet pudding, junket pudding, tomato aspic. And here I'd been thinking it would be great if the bookclub added a third volume each month ... one of historic relevance such as Tassajara Bread Book, Laurel's Kitchen, Craig Claibourne, Julia Childs, James Beard i.e. books that still have relevance to contemporary cooking rather than being solely of historic interest. P.S. Don't miss the recent New Art of Cookery: A Spanish Friar's Kitchen Notebook by Juan Altamiras.

  • eliza  on  9/26/2017 at 5:21 PM

    That's a great idea, mjes, to include an older, but still relevant cookbook to the book club each month!

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