Even without the festive march of holidays this time of year, these colder (and, here in the US Pacific Northwest, wetter) months put me in a baking frame of mind. Short days, wool socks, and an overtaxed heater seem to call out for some family traditionals — nisu and an orange-chocolate-chip bread that’s practically cake — and sends me looking for newcomers like these peppermint cream squares. I could joyously do without the barrage of “Little Drummer Boy” covers, but tolerate even the most saccharine of Christmas tunes for the sake of winter cakes, pies, pastries, and cookies.
As delicious and satisfying as these winter sweets are, I actually enjoy the process of sifting through family recipes, baking (alone and with friends & family), and discovering new foods even more. Foods, flavors, preparations, and oddly titled recipes seem to tie people together in ways nothing else can. Cardamom, for example, always reminds me of growing up in New England and my times-removed Finnish background; it reminds me of family. And baking old recipes gives me a feeling of continuity with the past, akin to visiting a historic site or perusing primary sources in an archive. The ingredients used or omitted say a great deal about the time of its creation, and food preparations that seem odd today often stemmed from past necessities. (Consider, for example, any pickled, fermented, or otherwise intentionally rotten food in the world — weird, maybe a little gross, but ridiculously tasty.)
Chef David Chang said you can’t really understand Japan or its history without its food, and I’d argue the same is true everywhere. Food and its preparation provide an especially sensory window on the past. Pies, pastries, and other similar sweets, for example, offer a unique perspective on, of all things, gender, class, and religion during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century.
The years following the American Revolution witnessed an explosion of evangelical churches and religious groups. Many of these groups focused on revivals and their power to reawaken piety as the path to conversion and salvation. So many revivals took place that religious publications at the time simply stopped trying to count them. In places like New York, which people came to call the “Burned Over District” because so many revivals had “scorched” the area, these evangelical movements countered the hierarchical and less emotional Calvinism of prior generations.
The very emotion and energy of the Second Great Awakening movements contributed to one of its other characteristics: moral action. Many evangelical groups felt bound to help cure social ills like poverty, prostitution, and crime. Their activism laid the groundwork for the social and moral reform societies of the mid-to-late 1800s.
The spiritual changes and energy of the Second Great Awakening challenged older social and gender hierarchies. And, as is often the case, some people weren’t happy with the changes and called for a return to a supposedly simpler, more orderly, often strictly patriarchal, “traditional” time. This sense of lost order led some people to new religious movements that saw themselves as a restoration of primitive Christianity; a return to Hebraic roots. Two such movements, one that eventually thrived and another that quickly disintegrated, included Joseph Smith’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the Mormons) and the Kingdom of Matthias, founded by Robert Matthews, who came to call himself Prophet Matthias after a series of revelatory visions.
But what does this have to do with baked sweets?
Members of the Kingdom of Matthias followed a strict set of rules that condemned a wide set of behaviors, including:
- “All who drink wine in bowls”
- “All who eat passover [sic] in a lower room”
- “All women who do not keep at home”
- “All who preach to women without their husbands”
- “All merchant tailors who hire women at 4s. per week”
- “All merchandisers, particularly those who buy and sell land”
- “All clergymen, doctors, and lawyers”
- “All men who wear spectacles”
- And the eating of pork, any roasted food, puddings, pies, pastries, sauces, jellies, spices, and compotes
This list comes from The Kingdom of Matthias by historians Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, an engaging history of the religious sect. Johnson and Wilentz explain that, while these prohibitions seem scattered, the unifying thread was an impassioned opposition to economic and social changes.
Many of these rules, such as Matthias’ bans on roasting and on puddings, pies, and such foods, grew out of his scorn for the spread of a middle-class lifestyle introduced by the market revolution. In the early 1800s, only a few expensive houses had brick ovens built into the kitchen hearths. This meant that baking and oven roasting was largely impossible for most people. Starting in the 1820s, though, the market revolution introduced Caribbean sugar, local eggs, white flour, and cast-iron stoves to more households. By 1830, then, oven-roasted meat and fancy baked foods signaled a more wealthy, middle-class status and stood for other values — such as women’s greater domestic influence — that people like Matthias opposed.
Puddings, pies, pastries, and spiced foods symbolized modest class shifts and even more conservative changes to gender expectations. In Matthias’ ideal world, cities would give way to a pastoral countryside governed by patriarchs supported by cheerfully obedient wives and dutiful children: “There would be no market, no money, no buying and selling, no wage system with its insidious domination of one father over another, no economic oppression of any kind.”
Social mobility (both up and down), greater interaction between agricultural and commercial centers, and economic change all fed this longing for a return to imagined traditional, better times. And even though Matthias and his Kingdom seem today like only a strange moment in a bygone era, this response to change that includes restrictive definitions of gender and women’s roles is by no means relegated to the past. A little something to think about as you’re baking up a storm or enjoying the results of another’s cooking. As you puzzle over those old recipes that call for inordinate amounts of butter and eggs, consider the social and cultural world in which that food existed.
 Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 96.
Featured image: A pie cooked using an 18th-century recipe found through Colonial Williamsburg’ Historic Foodways project.
It occurs to me that the quantities of spices used in North Africa and India required groups of women to sit grinding them with large mortars and pestles.
fascinating read! this was stuck in my inbox since before Christmas. I’m glad I opened it and gave it a read.