Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

Our Daily Bread - Scarcity and Ingenuity in Culinary Manuscripts

Date posted: Fri, Apr. 24, 2020

Have you found yourself doing more cooking and baking during the Coronavirus pandemic? You’re not alone! Orders to work from home have led to a surge in home baking, and many consumers are finding their local stores unable to keep up with the demand for items like sugar, flour and yeast. 

Homemakers throughout history have dealt with shortages and isolation, and some of the recipes and stories in our culinary collection reflect their efforts to create delicious food under difficult circumstances. Manuscript recipe books and household management guides often included directions helpful to homemakers and bakers during times where certain products were unavailable. 

Commercial leavening became widely accessible in the 1800s, with combinations of chemicals creating a rise in baked goods, but before that most baked goods were raised mechanically by incorporating air into the dough (sometimes with beaten egg whites) or biologically by the fermentation of yeast. 

Mary Leadbeater’s Barm – MSS 04067  

Barm, a leavening agent, was also known as Ale Yeast and Baker’s Yeast. The word describes both the wort or fermenting liquid in which yeast develops, and the thick creamy froth found on top of fermenting beers and ales. This natural byproduct of the brewing process could be purchased from brewers by members of the public. Ask your local brewery for some barm with your next order, and see what they say!

The 18th century Irish culinary manuscript belonging to Mary Leadbeater collects several ways of making barm from several different sources in her circle, the first using flour and the second using potatoes as a base for the starter. Both require access to made barm in order to complete the recipe. 

Leadbeater’s manuscript also includes a recipe for making flour out of potatoes.

“It answers for bread and cakes, but not for drink.”

MSS 01284 – Bread without yeast

Catharine Parr Traill discusses homemakers making, borrowing, and trading this important commodity in her 1854 Female Emigrant’s Guide, and she includes several recipes for homemade yeast, including hop yeast and sugar yeast. 

Chemical leaveners grew in popularity and availability in the nineteenth century.  This image from a nineteenth century culinary and medicinal recipe book held at the Fisher shows a recipe for bread without yeast, which raises the bread with a combination of a base of Sodium Carbonate (soda ash) and muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid) to create gas and raise the loaf. The safety of muriatic acid was discussed during an 1855 investigation into the adulteration of British food products, as it often contained arsenic as an impurity and could create a fatal loaf.

Our culinary manuscript collection is full of examples of homemakers and household managers recording and saving diverse and creative solutions for the expected and unexpected shortages that might befall them. Click on the call numbers above to access the full scans of these culinary manuscripts, and explore some of our other digitized manuscripts to learn more about how homemakers managed to make much out of little. 

Links to our digitized culinary manuscripts: