Jumbles: Digital Tools and Historical Recipe Reconstruction
Though COVID-19 has forced many to adapt to digital tools, food historians seem to be seasoned citizens in the world of technology. Long before 2020, there were food history websites, blogs, podcasts and Youtube channels created by history enthusiasts and professionals alike, all with dedicated followers. And now that virtual gatherings are necessary, food scholars have embraced those too: The Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, one of the largest and longest-running food studies conferences, met virtually this year for the first time in their almost 40-year history. The Sifter was also launched there, a massive database of resources for food historians intended to continue growing collaboratively through community contribution and editing.
My research, which focuses on digitized English cookbooks in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, depends on the swiftly growing number of online primary sources and the work of the archivists and librarians who digitize them. It also relies on the integration of knowledge from various academic disciplines to understand the context of the cookbooks and the experience of cooks and historical reenactors who have tested out old techniques and recipes through trial and error. Access to this expertise is made possible through the collaborative possibilities of technology, which food historians have embraced to share their knowledge. The procedure of historic recipe reconstruction, in particular, is one that demonstrates the network of scholars whose collective body of experience I can draw on through technology to better contextualize a document. Below I outline the steps I take while reconstructing a historical recipe.
- I start my recipe recreation by identifying which recipe to resurrect. This particular recipe comes from an anonymous 19th-century manuscript cookbook held, digitized and made available by the University of Iowa. Recipes for Jumbles (also known as Jumballs, Jumbils, Jambals, Jemelloes or Iombils), a type of cookie, have appeared again and again in my study of English-settler cookbooks. Their earliest mention lies in a 16th-century cookbook from Britain— these Jumbles, however, were prepared somewhat differently than a 19th-century Jumble, and are covered very well by another blog here (Yseijn 2017; Wall 2016, 74). The Jumble jumped from the ‘old’ world to the ‘new’ with settler culture in the 17th century, where they transformed from something durable enough to “keep them all year”, into a buttery soft forebearer of the modern sugar cookie (May 1685, 275). While writing this blog post, a detailed look at the evolution of the Jumble in American culture was published by Dr. Emily Arendt, which I highly recommend (2020). To make a long story short, by 1850 (the earliest circa date for this recipe) the Jumble made frequent appearances in both manuscript and printed cookbooks, having fallen in and out of favour throughout America’s tumultuous formative years. Arendt also addresses the concept of authenticity in historic recipe recreation. While I lack the space to engage with that compelling topic here, I will mention that I sought to get as close as possible (within the limits of my modern equipment, ingredients and setting) to what someone making this specific recipe in the 1850s would have made, rather than any illusions of this being the authentic American Jumble recipe. I also have not delved into historical wheat, chicken or cow varieties, nor churned my own butter— an even more detailed recreation route to follow.
- My second step is checking to see whether someone else has already tried the recipe, as this may save me grief when it comes to cooking times, temperatures, vocabulary or techniques. Though I found many recreations of the early-modern English style of Jumble, there were fewer tackling the American version. Several modernized recipes were published in cookbooks, such as Anne Byrn’s American Cookie (2018), Nancy Carter Crump’s Hearthside Cooking (2008), or the 1878 recipe updated and re-published in The Essential New York Times Cookbook (2010). A modernization of a roughly contemporary Jumble recipe is available on The Food Timeline, a fantastic resource that also provides a brief history of the pastry.
- The third step is research: Using the blogs as a starting point, I look for more information on the ingredients available at the time versus those available to myself.
- Rose Water: The go-to flavour in British cuisine for centuries (and in Arabic cuisine for centuries before that), rose water was used in much the same way that vanilla is today, with a teaspoon or two tossed into nearly every sweet or fruity dish (Lohman 2016, xi; Oliver 2005, 55). Though our author does not offer a quantity, leaving it to the cook’s preference, a similar recipe written by Prudence Dorsey (c.1830) specifies using two tablespoons. Luckily rose water is still popular today (though less so in North America) and is widely available.
- Eggs: During the 19th century, there were no standard egg sizes in the U.S., and most recipes don’t specify one either (Olver 2015a). The Food Timeline says “think small or medium” when shopping for eggs to recreate recipes, and this volume adjustment is echoed by Sandra Louise Oliver in Food in Colonial and Federal America (2005), who suggests using three modern eggs for every four in a historic recipe (Oliver 2005, 55; Olver 2015a). The free-range medium brown eggs I found at the supermarket should suffice.
- Sugar: Regular white granulated sugar seems appropriate here- cooks are often instructed to “beat [sugar] very fine” regardless (Carr Family Cookbook, 1741-1753, 78). Commercially available granulated sugar also saw growing popularity in America from the 1820s onwards as refining technology improved (Olver 2015b).
- Cinnamon: Like other spices, cinnamon was often sold ‘whole’ and ground by the cook herself. Spice graters, sometimes known as ‘nutmeg graters’ due to that spices’ popularity in colonial America, were used to break the spices down into usable powder (Oliver 2005, 74). Handheld versions produced today (see photo above) look almost identical to the same tool made in the 18th or 19th century.
- Butter: The butter was likely salted, as this was (and remains) a standard method of butter preparation, primarily due to its preservative properties. Though some recipes specify “new” or “fresh” butter, this one does not, further suggesting it was salted.
- Flour: Although milling technology was improving during the 19th century, the “roller-milling revolution” wouldn’t kick off until the 1870s, and the flour likely would have been stone-milled and certainly unbleached (as this treatment practice wouldn’t be adopted until after 1900)(Perren 1990, 423; Davidson 1999, 309; Mariani 1999, 129; Olver 2015c). This flour comes from an Ontario miller and is freshly stone ground, unbleached and otherwise untreated, which is as close as I could hope to come to what was available in the mid-19th century.
4. For the preparation, the author has, unfortunately, not supplied any details. Many early recipes, Jumbles included, skipped listing a procedure if the average cook could be expected to know it already. Only particularly complicated, unusual or ‘exotic’ dishes were explained, and then just briefly. Of the eight 19th to early 20th-century American-style Jumble recipes I consulted, just three had instructions of any kind. Of those, two described shaping, and only one included any mention of the duration or temperature to bake them at. This was the latest Jumble recipe, in the 1909 cookbook Mrs. Beeton’s Every-Day Cookery, which reads “Bake in a quick oven. Time to bake, about 10 minutes”(1,623). The modernized recipes mentioned above suggested a temperature of 350-375℃. Peggy Roll, a historical reenactor at Genesee Country Village in Rochester, NY, describes a “quick” oven to be about 425℃. Unfortunately, after just eight minutes, my Jumbles were dark and crunchy on the edges, which seems unlikely to be what the recipe’s author was going for. Finally, I compromised at 390℃ for nine minutes, which was still slightly brown but much less so than the previous attempt. For shaping, I preferred Mrs. Beeton’s method, who recommends rolling out and cutting them, rather than the traditional rolled and ringed style suggested by Prudence Dorsey (though I did try both).
The end results of my experimentation are cookies, which are quite rich, sweet, and rosey. Having made an educated guess on cinnamon and rose water proportions, the cinnamon is not quite as strong as hoped, but still pleasant. However, more than their current desirability, the universality of rose water and spices (like cinnamon) in recipes from this period suggests these flavours in a cookie would have been very popular with mid-19th century taste buds, even if modern audiences are somewhat underwhelmed. Nonetheless, a direct line from the past to the present is tied with each recipe recreation, allowing us to experience something that could have sat on a kitchen table in North America 170 years ago. This historical recreation was enabled by the collaborative technologies and resources which have already been established by food historians- the digitization of primary source materials by institutions such as the University of Iowa (and their library staff), which granted me access to hundreds of printed and manuscript recipes to conduct my summer research with, as well as spaces where historians share their knowledge, like blogs, videos, and resources such as the Sifter. Thanks to the ever-expanding number of people choosing to share their research or food history experiences online, and the growing number of digital resources surrounding the subject, I was able to piece together the likeliest ingredients used in the original recipe and, hopefully, got as close as I was able to those original Jumbles and their anonymous author.
Thanks to the wonderful Sherman Centre staff and the Summer 2020 Residency cohort for their insight, feedback, and resilience through an unusual residency.
Arendt, Emily. 2020. “All Jumbled up: Authenticity in American Culinary History,” Food and Foodways 28, no. 3: 153–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710.2020.1783810.
Bertelson, Cynthia. 2019. A Hastiness of Cooks: A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks…. Gainesville: Turquoise Moon Press.
Davidson, Alan. 1999. Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lohman, Sarah. 2016. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mariani, John. 1999. Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. New York: Lebhar-Friedman.
Oliver, Sandra Louise. 2005. Food in Colonial and Federal America. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Olver, Lynne. 2015a. “Egg Sizes in the USA”. The Food Timeline, 6 January 2015. http://foodtimeline.org/foodeggs.html#eggsizes.
Olver, Lynne. 2015b. “History Notes: Candy”. The Food Timeline, 9 January 2015. http://foodtimeline.org/foodcandy.html#granulated.
Olver, Lynne. 2015c “White Bread”. The Food Timeline, 15 January 2015. http://foodtimeline.org/foodbreads.html#whitebread.
Perren, Richard. 1990. “Structural Change and Market Growth in the Food Industry: Flour Milling in Britain, Europe, and America, 1850-1914,” The Economic History Review 43, no. 3. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2596941.
Townsends. 2016. “Making Bread From Beer At Genesee Country Village”, 24 Oct 2016. Video, 8:40. https://youtu.be/4egYfaTxR3k?t=520.
Villesvik, Miranda. 2016 “The First Cookie: Jumbles Perfected at Waverly Mansion in Howard County”, Preservation Maryland, 20 August 2016, https://www.preservationmaryland.org/historical-recipe-jumbles-cookies/
Wall, Wendy. 2016. Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Yseijn, Regula. 2017. “Jumbles on the Battlefield”. Blog, Miss Foodwise. April 20, 2017. http://www.missfoodwise.com/2017/04/jumbles-boiled-biscuits.html/
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- Anonymous, The Cook Not Mad; Or, Rational Cookery, Kingston, U.C. [Ont.]: J. Macfarlane, (1831), 38 (#115). The University of Alberta.
- Dorsey, Prudence. Recipe, Maryland USA (c.1833). As quoted in Miranda Villesvik’s “The First Cookie: Jumbles Perfected at Waverly Mansion in Howard County”, Preservation Maryland, 8 August 2016.
- Beeton, Isabella Mary. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, New Edition, London: Ward, Lock & Co. (1909), 1623 (#3903).
Anonymous. “To Make Whetstone Cakes”, Carr Family Cookbook, 1741-1753. University of Iowa Libraries: Szathmary Collection.
May, Robert. 1685. “Jamballs”, The Accomplist Cook: 5th Edition. London: Printed by R.W. for Nath. Brooke, at the sign of the Angel in Cornhill. Ann Arbor: Early English Books Online (Text Creation Partnership). http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A88977.0001.001