“Much and Nothing”: Notes from the Normal School #7, January

In this column of "Much and Nothing," a recipe from the past is recreated!

By Nicole O’Connell

Nicole looks into history right here at Worcester State. She deciphers old class diaries to explore the lives of students from the early days of Worcester State, back when it was known as the Worcester Normal School. “Much and Nothing” refers to how one diarist summed up a day’s happenings in 1877 and, more aptly, a multitude of days.

The class diaries are part of the Apprenticeship Materials in the WSU Archives.  

On April 5, 1879 “A Recipe for Graham Bread” was recorded in a class diary. Almost 140 years later, I was joined by fellow New Worcester Spy writer Rachael Berthiaume as we tackled the slightly unclear directions to this antique treat.

Though the highlighted entry in this installment is not from a wintry month, because baking is so common around this time, it still feels suitable to the season. However, because the Normal School students do not write much about baking or cooking in the class diaries, this entry also feels a bit of an outlier.

The first ingredient inked into the page was, “1 pt of sour milk.” Now, I am not very knowledgeable when it comes to anything culinary, but my first reaction was to not use sour milk. While, a cursory internet search shows that this substance can in fact be used for baking, we decided to use un-soured milk.

The next two ingredients listed were, “1 egg” and “2 tablespoonfulls of sugar.” Easy and simple enough, but the next requirement proved to be a bit trickier.

“1 teaspoonful of salaratus” threw me off a bit the first time I read the entry, but with information accessible right at our fingertips, it was not a mystery for long. “Salaratus” should be saleratus, which was a kind of baking powder or baking soda. We used baking soda in our recipe.

The final ingredient listed was “A little salt.” A vague amount, but an amount of some small value was added into the bowl along with the rest of the ingredients. Though the list of ingredients was over, it seemed that something vital was missing; the graham part of the graham bread.

As the written recipe transitioned from the ingredients to the instructions, the vital ingredient was discovered. Once all the other components were combined, the next step was to “Mix with unsifted graham flour.” We did not have graham flour and could not find it at a store, so we substituted whole wheat flour along with a bunch of crushed-up graham crackers. The inclusion of graham flour in the recipe was also recorded without a particular quantity, so we just kept adding more into the bowl until the mixture grew extraordinarily thick and we realized that we may have added too much.

After the inclusion of our “graham flour,” the next step was to mix it “until it is as thick as plain cake.” Yet again unsure of the specifics of this direction, we used our best judgement as to when to stop. Our version of the recipe was becoming less authentic by the step as we utilized the modern convenience of an electric mixer which I am sure would have amazed the students of the 1870s.

The last step in the recipe involved another piece of technology which has greatly evolved over the last 140 years. It read, “Bake in a quick oven.” Checking out an amalgam of modern graham bread recipes online, we decided to set the oven to 375 degrees. The mixture was poured into three loaf-shaped pans and into the oven it went.

After constant checking and some time, of which the exact amount I do not recall, the loaves finally seemed ready to be taken out. The final passage of the recipe read, “this bread is good hot, or cold.” The moment of truth was nearing closer. Would the recipe diarist be proud of what we accomplished or severely disappointed in the monstrosity we took out of the newfangled oven?

I truly thought the recipe would turn out to be a disaster. The differences in ingredients and technology seemed to me that the breads had deviated too far from the standard to which we aspired. But the loaves looked edible. And they tasted delicious! I was expecting a kind of cakey texture, but it was truly, more of a bread-like delicacy. Over the next few days, every person I convinced to taste the bland-looking loaf was also surprised at how well the recipe turned out. The bread was truly good, hot or cold, just as the diarist proclaimed.

Unfortunately, due to my lack of faith in this endeavor, I did not make note of some of the quantities and times that were utilized in baking these breads, so replicating the recipe exactly seems an unlikely task.

If you are deciphering an old family recipe this season, or even if you attempt this one (which you really should!), know that it might not turn out for the worst. Just be sure to write down the particulars of the recipe, or else students might write about your vagueness when they attempt to recreate the recipe 140 years in the future.

The graham bread loaves right out of the oven

This is the recipe as recorded in the diary:

A Recipe for Graham Bread

1 pt of sour milk
1 egg
2 tablespoonfulls of sugar
1 teaspoonful of salaratus
A little salt

Mix with unsifted graham flour until it is as thick as plain cake. Bake in a quick oven. This bread is good hot, or cold.

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