What does history taste like? For Sarah Lohman, a New York City resident and self-described “historic gastronomist,” that question is key to understanding the past.
Lohman views cooking as a form of edible time travel. Guided by cookbooks instead of textbooks, she can tap into the experience of, say, a Lower East Side tenement family by creating a tangible (and often delicious) piece of daily life from a century ago.
An avid home cook, Lohman digs up such dishes as the roast bear served to Charles Dickens on a trip to the United States and an 1845 recipe for molasses-and-apple pancakes, then recreates them in her 21st-century kitchen before sharing the results on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. For New Yorkers, she also leads cooking demonstrations and throws historical dinner parties across the city.
With Culinate, Lohman talked about the importance of making history personal, her weeklong adventures with Jell-O, and which contemporary cookbooks she thinks will stand the test of time.
How did you get interested in food history?
In high school, I had a summer job at a living-history museum in Ohio called Hale Farm and Village, where I portrayed a character who lived in the early 19th century. Up until then, history had always just been about dates and who died in which battle, but I ended up working with people who were very passionate about sharing the personal aspects of history. I learned a tremendous amount from them.
In the historical house, we cooked every morning — foods made with flavors typical to 1840s America, like nutmeg, rosewater, mace, and marjoram. That is how I was introduced to the idea.
What are your goals for your blog?
I’m interested in reviving old dishes, primarily from 19th- and 20th-century America, and introducing them as foods that are interesting for us today. Historical food can feel unapproachable. We associate it with women standing over a hearth and complex two-page recipes that can be difficult to use.
I want to be the translator between those early recipes and a modern audience. If I do my job right, someone can take a recipe, recreate it on their gas stove at home, and enjoy the flavors and the history behind it.
How do you find new dishes to try?
There’s a gold mine of variety and provenance for dishes in the last 250 years. I do a lot of reading — books, articles, historical novels — and often find myself reading about a dish and wondering, “I wonder what that tasted like?
I have been researching taverns in New England and the Midwest in the early 19th century and discovering all of these old menus. For breakfast, sometimes they would serve steak; other times, cornbread with different preserves. And I want to know, what does cornbread with peach preserves taste like when I’ve spent the night in this tavern and am about to hop into a stagecoach and continue on my journey? To me, knowing that is central to understanding the rest of that person’s experiences.
How do you research dishes once you find them?
There is a wonderful website called Feeding America that has a searchable database of hundreds of historic cookbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries, all scanned and available online. For example, you can search for Baked Alaska and see the original recipe from Delmonico’s Restaurant and Fannie Farmer’s version side by side. My blog would not exist without this site. Sometimes I also get to spend an afternoon in the New York Public Library’s reading room, which is an equally enjoyable experience.
How do you know when you get a dish “right?”
I guess you don’t entirely, and that’s the interesting thing about social history. Each of us has a different memory of how events occurred. It can be incredibly difficult to figure out history’s unofficial side — the everyday activities that were so commonplace, no one thought to write them down.
I strive for 60 to 70 percent accuracy with most dishes. I’m not going to cook everything over a hearth or use all heirloom vegetables and stone-ground flour, but I want to understand what these flavors were like and put myself in someone else’s shoes to the best of my ability in my fourth-floor walkup in Queens.
What does it feel like to bite into one of the historical dishes you’ve made?
Sometimes it is horrifying! I recently focused on molded Jell-O recipes. Everyone has a story about the Jell-O creations their mom or grandmother would bring to family functions, so I figured it was worth exploring. But 90 percent of the recipes I made were just awful — think raw cabbage and corned beef and lemon Jell-O.
Sometimes, though, things turn out really tasty. I also made a dish that week called Poke Cake, where you take boxed cake mix, poke holes in the finished cake with a fork, and pour Jell-O over the top. It was delicious. I’ve honed my ability to pick out things that are likely to taste good, but I still make the things that I know won’t because I’m curious.
Many chefs and home cooks have started to incorporate “forgotten techniques” like butchering and pickling into their cooking. What are some other techniques or ingredients you have discovered that you think could enhance a home cook’s life?
Bring butter back! Chefs know this, but we in America are still very particular and anxious about our diets. Using simple ingredients like butter, cream, and eggs was once a given, and they imbue incredible amounts of substance and nuance to food. I think we lose out on a lot of flavor by denying ourselves them.
What is your favorite historical cookbook? And which contemporary cookbooks do you think will stand the test of time?
The historical cookbook I turn to the most is American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons. It is the first cookbook ever published in America by an American, in 1796, and it is incredible. I want to go through and cook everything in it.
As for today, whenever I am cooking something for the first time I either reference How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman, or — don’t laugh — Martha Stewart. Everyone shames me, but her cookie book is incredibly comprehensive.
Have you discovered a community of other historic gastronomists?
There are things that happen here and there. In Brooklyn, for example, there’s the Brooklyn Beefsteak, which is a revival of a 19th-century event where haughty Victorian gentlemen would sit around eating steaks slathered in butter and drinking beer until they burst. These guys in Brooklyn looked into the history of it and said, “Wow, this looks like fun. Let’s give it a try.” That’s exactly the same spirit I try to embrace in my work.
Leah Koenig is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.
We talk with people doing influential, important, or just plain unusual work in food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
The exuberant Israeli chef
Velvety, earthy, and confident
How to live like Julia Child
A bread for the upcoming holidays