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Books We Write: Historic Recipes and Stories from the Gilded Age

Becky Diamond’s main job title at Rutgers University Libraries-New Brunswick is Business Librarian. She brings invaluable skills from her experience previously working for companies including Dow Jones, Korn/Ferry International, Johnson & Johnson and InfoDesk. We at Books We read are also lucky to have her as the co-owner of our blog roll, who published over 30 posts, many of which are related to food and cookbooks, one way or another.

According to her profile, she has also been writing and blogging about food since 2008, parlaying her passion for food and history into the publication of two books, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School and The Thousand Dollar Dinner. Following up on our previous interview on choosing food history as topic and how to research it, today we are delighted to talk with Becky about the success of her project, which resulted in her third book, The Gilded Age Cookbook, was published by Globe Pequot in August 2023.

BWR: First of all, congratulations on your third book, it looks awesome! With its aesthetically pleasing design from cover to cover, literally, The Gilded Age Cookbook stands out in the crowd of mass publications. But, as we believe in the harmony of format and content in some cultures, it goes without saying that a historical cookbook placed in the Gilded Age is expected to match its title, if the author aims for authentic experience. Why did you choose the Gilded Age as the time period for this book?

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, Philadephia

BLD: Thank you so much! I had accumulated a number of historic recipes that I had reconstructed and revised for modern ingredients and methods while working on my first two books. I had put many of these on my blog, or on the blog for the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, Philadelphia’s only authentically restored Victorian house/museum, where I serve as a historic food consultant. I began to really focus on nineteenth century food, particularly the Victorian and Gilded Age timeframes and thought, why not put all the recipes into a cookbook? And the introduction of the Julian Fellowes Gilded Age TV show on HBO made me realize there is a revived interest in this era.

BWR: You have written two historical cookbooks before. This book is also filled with recipes, elegantly presented, as well as well-researched accompanying texts on topics such as railroad dining, cooking schools, food marketing, innovations, picnic and dinner parties, social clubs and club luncheons, banquet dinners, and more. What was the research process like for this one? How was it different or similar to your previous projects?

BLD: My first two books were more non-fiction narratives about food (not cookbooks like this one), so doing the Gilded Age historical sidebars and stories were actually very similar to the research and writing I had done in the past. Luckily Google Books has fully scanned a large number of period books (and keeps adding to their repository all the time), so I was able to look up a great deal of information this way. I also used, Newsbank and for articles and advertisements from the era. In addition, I have a pretty sizable personal collection of historic cookbooks and other books that focus on culinary history, so I referred to this quite a bit. Working at Rutgers was also very helpful in giving me access to databases containing vast repositories of historical data as well as books that I requested from the university’s collection and via ILL.

BWR: Food seems to have become a major status symbol at that time. The pictures and recipes both attest to the fact that these dishes required a lot of finesse, time, resources, and new technologies. What were the main innovations that shaped Gilded Age cuisine?

19th century kitchen ware, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

BLD: Many ingredients and kitchen conveniences that we take for granted today were either invented or became popular during the Gilded Age, a time of significant technological advances and innovation. For example, chocolate is now such a staple treat in our culture that it is hard to imagine a time when chocolate desserts such as cookies, cake, and ice cream weren’t so common or available. But it wasn’t until the latter part of the nineteenth century that chocolate confections really started appearing in cookbooks as chocolate was difficult to process.  Another important kitchen convenience introduced during the Gilded Age was the rotary eggbeater. By the 1880s, there were many different types of eggbeaters on the market, with new design tweaks launched constantly, such as a side-mounted gear wheel that rotated wire wings to beat the eggs more efficiently, a wire whip, and a spiral eggbeater. All of these would have been a revelation to cooks who previously had to beat eggs by hand, a tedious and tiring process that could take an hour or more and was often delegated to a servant. And although introduced in the early part of the nineteenth century, the availability of canned goods such as soups, fruits, vegetables, milk, seafood, and meats really grew in the Gilded Age due to advancements such as the pressure cooker and factory processing.

BWR: The photography in the book is astonishing! Where were the amazing pictures taken? And who cooked and baked all these mouth-watering dishes? Where did the period-style props, such as serving ware, that allow the authentic feel to the photos come from?

BLD: Thank you – I had a fantastic photographer, Heather Raub of FrontRoom Images and food stylist, Dan Macey of Dantastic food. The photos were styled and photographed at a number of locations: Heather’s Studio in Pennington, NJ; Dan’s house in Chestnut Hill, PA; the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Philadelphia and The Madison Hotel in Morristown, NJ, which has two fully restored Pullman Dining Cars. We were so fortunate to be able to use the latter two locations, as both evoked the Gilded Age settings and authenticity I wanted to provide. Dan made many of the recipes, although I made some too. Most were made ahead (at least to a point) and finished on site and garnished with the various period props we had brought. These “props” were mine and Dan’s, as well as some that were loaned to us by Heather Raub’s friends Dick and MaryBeth Currie. Many of the dishes I brought were family heirlooms, which made them even more special. Dan had a huge collection from his prior work as a food stylist. Again, we were fortunate to incorporate these into the photos for that authentic Gilded Age experience.

BWR: You provide some tips on ingredients and techniques in the book. How difficult is it to recreate the recipes in the book?

Crown Roast of Lamb

BLD: Reconstructing older recipes requires tweaking ingredients and measurements, as many are now different today. For example, eggs were smaller then. Baking powder and other rising agents didn’t come on the scene in full force until the mid-1800s. Measurements were not precise – they often used terms such as wineglass or dessertspoon. It was helpful to find a recipe to start with from a historical or manuscript cookbook and then see how it has evolved over time. Sometimes it changes a lot, sometimes now so much at all. In addition, there is the realization that the final result may not be what was expected, and that’s ok. I tried to include recipes that were not so difficult to make or source ingredients so readers could make them in their own kitchens. One tweak we made was the decision to include a Crown Roast of Lamb instead of a Saddle of Lamb (which was a popular presentation at the time) since it is easier to find today.

BWR: What is your favorite recipe in the book? Why?

Charlotte Russe

BLD: It’s so hard to choose just one! But, the Simply Scallops is definitely up there since I adore scallops and it is such a simple, elegant recipe – scallops sautéed with a little butter and sprinkled with salt, pepper and parsley. The flavor of the scallops really shines through. I also have a sweet tooth, so several of the desserts are favorites, including Chocolate Puffs (a meringue cookie reminiscent of chocolate mousse), Sponge Cake, and Charlotte Russe (a luscious, chilled dessert of vanilla Bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfingers).

BWR: What is the easiest recipe in the book that you’d recommend for the novice to start with if your readers want to test their culinary skills?

BLD: The Herbed Tomatoes and Dutch Cucumbers are both easy salads to put together and delicious options, especially for summer picnics and other gatherings. The Blueberry Cake is another that is really pretty simple. All showcase garden-fresh ingredients. I have had great feedback from folks that have tried these dishes and added them to their recipe rotation.

BWR: What was the most challenging recipe that tested your patience?

BLD: Probably the apple pudding. I tried several different versions with various types of apples and combinations of milk, eggs, sugar and flavorings before settling on the version I included in the book, which was often called Birds Nest Pudding, since the apples resembled eggs in a nest after baking.

BWR: Your author events seem to be very different from the usual ones with sequence of book talk-Q&A-book signing. The images on social media suggest that not only do you bring home-made Gilded Age cookies while sharing stories and recipes from the same time period, but some of these events provide the whole experience. How did the participants like these events?

BLD: Yes, the events vary from author talks and book signings to luncheons and other events where I work with a chef, restaurant or historic group to give folks a taste of the Gilded Age. This has included going back to both of the historic sites where we took photographs, which really added to the experience. For example, I did a “Fine Dining on the Rails” event at the Madison Hotel where I gave a talk and then we all had lunch in one of the Railroad Parlor Cars. Everyone just loved stepping back in time and imaging what it would have been like in the Gilded Age. And there was an event I did recently at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion where I spoke about the Gilded Age and we had a taste of some tea-time foods from the era. I always try to bring some kind of treat to all my events to whet the audience’s appetite for what is featured in the book. Again, people have seemed to appreciate being able to taste these foods.

BWR: Those who follow you on social media already know about some more fun too, including your instructional and demo videos. How did you come up with this amazing promotional idea? What’s the feedback?

BLD: I have been working with my photographer Heather to do some videos that we have uploaded to YouTube and used in talks to demonstrate some of the cooking techniques. Heather also got me started on a professional Instagram account which I have been using to make reels and other posts. I am learning all the time with this! She also did a refresh of my website, which looks stunning and has been helpful in getting folks engaged to sign up for my newsletter and book events.

BWR: Publishing is a very competitive field. You are a frequent speaker in libraries, a guest in podcasts, your book was widely reviewed in the media, and even featured in the Hollywood Reporter. How does this success make you feel about your career as a food writer?

BLD: I am honestly thrilled with any positive media coverage the book and my writing garners. Having it listed in a larger publication such as the Hollywood Reporter is great and hopefully will lead to other coverage. I just keep plugging away at promoting it, hoping for a breakthrough.

BWR: In the previous interview you mentioned how you got interested in food and cooking as a young adult, having your mom, aunts, and grandmother with similar interests and background around. How are you passing on the family tradition and your passion for food history to the next generation, other than these books?

BLD: My daughter has become quite the cook and I love sharing and cooking recipes with her. We have similar food philosophies that we discuss back and forth. She is so much more talented than me at baking artistry – cakes, cookies, etc. Her designs are stunning and I have given her the job of decorating our gingerbread house every year. I love that we have this interest that we can do together!

BWR: Thank you for your time and this wonderful book!

Interviews in the series