History Detective

“History Detective – For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made.”

Using a Family Treasure

For this challenge, I turned to my personal hoard collection of cookbooks. I chose the one that is the nearest and dearest to my heart – the handwritten cookbook of my Great-Grandma Olive. It is written in a journal dated 1914 on the cover.

greatgrandma olive

My Great-Grandma Olive was born in Albion, Michigan in 1880. In 1898, at the age of 18, she married my Great-Grandpa Jud Hoyt, and they were the parents of my maternal grandfather Daryl, the youngest of five children. Olive and Jud were farmers in rural Michigan where they had a self-sustaining farm on land that was homesteaded by Jud’s father, Lewis Hoyt. Their home received electricity in 1944, they did not have running water, and the outhouse was in use as the only means of relief until the mid 1970s. My Great-Grandpa Jud raised draft horses with which they did the majority of their farming. The picture above was taken in the late to mid 1930s.

Within the pages of Great-Grandma Olive’s collection of recipes I discovered a recipe that was very vague – a perfect recipe to use in this Historical Food Fortnightly challenge.

Soldier Cake

The recipe was for Soldier Cake, and it was simply a list of ingredients along with the dates 1917-1919 written next to the title. This meant it was directly from the time of the United States’ involvement in World War 1.

The United States officially declared war upon the German Empire on April 6, 1917. On August 10, 1917, the U.S. Food Administration was established under the direction of Herbert Hoover to manage wartime supply, conservation, distribution and transportation of food. This was largely a voluntary program that relied on Americans’ compassion and sense of patriotism to support the larger war effort.

This included voluntary restriction on meat, wheat and sugar. Individuals were encouraged to participate by modifying eating habits to increase the amount of food that could be shipped to US troops stationed in Europe as well as the people from the Allies who had already been at war for three years. The promotion encouraged eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which would be harder to ship overseas, as well as limiting wheat, another fairly easy commodity to send overseas. As a result of these conservation efforts, food shipments to Europe doubled within a year and consumption in the United States dropped by 15 percent.

Part of the war propaganda included demonization of the German population. I found evidence of a statement or oath that my great-grandmother had included within the pages of her recipes:

the oath

the oath 2

It appears that my great-grandmother did her part with the use of Soldier Cake.

soldier cake

She appears to have written it only to remind herself of some of the key ingredients. There is no time or temperature for baking, there is no mention of flour and there is only the word “Spices”. Another notation that is under each of her recipes it that of “All” underlined and circled. I asked my mom if she knew what that stood for, and she had no idea. So if any of you dear readers have a theory, I would love to hear it!

I began my investigation of Soldier Cake by looking for other recipes called that. I found references online to cakes that were sort of similar, but nothing with the same ingredients. So, then I made an online search with the words “cake, molasses, sour cream, egg” in the search field. That took me to a site that had a recipe for “President Harrison Spiced Molasses Cake” edited by Peggy Trowbridge Fillippone (homecooking.about.com) She states that molasses cake was a particular favorite of President William Henry Harrison, who was the foodie of his day. The recipe source was from The Spice Cookbook by Lillie Stuckey and Avanelle Day, published in 1964.

In the end, I called upon my personal experience and spice imagination to determine what needed to be done with this recipe. I assembled the known ingredients, then raided my spice rack for the rest.

I knew I needed some salt, which was not in the original and I knew I needed flour to get the batter to a cake consistency.

I mixed the known ingredients together, which was a very thin tasteless consistency. From there, I added a little of this spice and that spice. I continued tasting until I had a combination that really hit. At that point I added 1 cup of flour, which was just perfect in turning the thin liquid into a cake batter consistency. The batter filled one 9″ baking pan and I decided to bake it at 350F for 25 minutes. My toothpick came out clean and after some cooling, I turned the cake out into a glass pan.

This was amazing! It was very moist, dense and rich with flavor. In fact as a couple of days passed, it only became more flavorful as it mellowed. I could totally envision my Great-grandma Olive baking this cake as a midday treat, and as firm as it was, it would be a perfect accompaniment to a lunch taken to the field.

The Recipe: My Great-Grandma Olive’s personal recipe collection written in her hand in a 1914 journal, from my personal hoard collection.

The Date/Year and Region: 1917-1919 World War 1 era, made in Michigan (Midwest), however I am not sure the origin of this recipe. I’m guessing Great-Grandma Olive may have heard it from a neighbor or friend.

How I Made It: See above.

Time to Complete: 40 minutes, including spice tasting and baking time.

Total Cost: For me, nothing. I had all ingredients at hand. I would estimate a minimal cost of $5.00-$7.00.

How Successful Was It? Total success! I will definitely make this recipe again. The only thing I would add would be whipped cream, or possibly ice cream.

How Accurate Is it? I used a hand mixer and it was baked in an electric oven. I will say that this just goes to show that molasses was a very good substitute for sugar. I would like to hope that Great-Grandma Olive would approve!


Next up – Sweets for the Sweet!

I’ll be cooking for you soon!


3 thoughts on “History Detective

  1. I have two theories regarding the “ALL”. One is, “mix all together” in a one-bowl variety. Possibly whisk dry ingredients together, add wet ingredients, mix it all together and bam.

    Another, is that “all” of the members of the family liked it. My mother’s and grandmother’s cookbooks are littered with comments like “John likes this” “the girls don’t like this”. (I wish my great grandmother kept a cookbook! My grandmother laments not learning all of her mother’s recipes before she died.)

    But that cake looks DELICIOUS.


  2. Aww! I used some of my grandmother’s recipes but they’re mostly from after the 1960s. This soldier’s cake is probably a variant of “war cake” or “Depression cake” common during and between the world wars when milk, butter, eggs and sometimes other foods were scarce. If you’re interested in war time cooking, check out my exhibit “Rhode Islanders, Food and the World Wars” at http://rifoodwars.tumblr.com . I didn’t try war cake but I made some molasses cakes/muffins from WWI and applesauce muffins.


  3. I wonder if your great-grandmother Olive used “All” as a nickname (perhaps not liking “Ol” as people might use a hard O as in Old), and that was her signature on her recipes… So neat to have her handwritten recipes!


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