"In the first half of the nineteenth century, a revolution occurred in the preparation of breadstuffs. Once they escaped the limitations of yeast, American women were free to experiment, innovate, and create new kinds of food, removed from religion. This culinary revolution started with cake." (The Baking Powder Wars, p. 17)
"What [Michael] Pollan sees as a positive reversal of industrialism is a burden the nineteenth-century women were elated that baking powder, industrialization, and corporate America had lifted from them." (p. 184)
|This spice cake, along with many similar cakes, originated in the 19th century.|
In the book Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking, author Linda Civitello shows how the popularity of such cakes was closely related to changes in household management, to expectations of how to be a good middle-class wife and mother, and to other social changes. Technology also enabled increasing availability and lower cost of high-quality wheat flour, which contributed to the ease of home-baking as well. Thus: an industrial revolution in the kitchen!
|Peanut butter cookies date to the early 1920s.|
|Cobbler with biscuit-dough topping: first made in the 19th century.|
|Cornbread. One of the earliest baking powder dishes.|
This and earlier photos are from my own kitchen.
"The Pancake Baker" by Adriaen Brouwer (WikiArt):
Pancakes were FLAT before baking powder!
Answer: Baking powder is responsible for their unique texture, flavor, and ease of baking. It's the "indispensable, invisible ingredient." (p. 187) Further, they are all in fact American food innovations.
We think of these items as home made and traditional, but in fact their history is not as old as all that. Baking powder is a 19th century invention, and so are all the recipes made with it. Linda Civitello tells this story, beginning with descriptions of the hard labor needed to make bread from yeast or to enable cakes and biscuits to rise by other means -- but nowhere near as quick and labor-saving as baking powder. Yes, you could beat eggs for an hour to get a nice fluffy cake. Yes, you could make "beaten" biscuits, which required someone in the kitchen to beat the dough with a rolling pin for hours. (Hint: these were a popular Southern food. The person doing the beating was often a slave, or after the Civil War, a very poorly paid black servant. Civitello is always highly aware of the role that slavery and later racism played in the development of American cuisine.)
Baking powder is made from baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and another rising agent, which varied during the time when the product was being developed; at first the two elements had to be added at different times in the mixing process, and timing was critical. Several chemists worked in laboratories and then invented industrial processes to deliver an easily usable product to home bakers and commercial bakers.
Big business always was responsible for baking powder. Several corporations with very colorful owners and promoters were rivals in an effort to corner the market for this profitable product. In the course of their rivalry, they engaged in some amazing antics. For example, one baking powder manufacturer bribed virtually every member of the Missouri legislature in the late 19th century to enable passage of a law prohibiting the key ingredient used in the products of other baking powder manufacturers. The "baking powder wars" involved early food and drug regulation, bribery, both national and state-level politicians, and many other fascinating machinations, made most vivid by Civitello's narrative.
The Baking Powder Wars is full of wonderful nuggets of food history and cookbook history, as well as industrial history. In the twentieth century, more and more cookbooks and recipes called for baking powder, which was not a standardized product until remarkably late. Civitello traces the way that baking powder took over most baking recipes in popular sources, especially The Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931 and revised many times into the 21st century. She also illustrates how the use of baking powder changed baking methods in other cultures, such as Hispanic cuisine in California and baking of traditional German biscuits that were previously raised with non-chemical leavening methods. And she lists how fast food makers use baking powder biscuits and similar foods -- just think of the Egg McMuffin!