Pity the forgotten siblings of famous writers. Doris Salinger? Forgotten. Ursula Hemingway? Blank stares. Imagine constantly being introduced as “the writer’s brother” and tell me you don’t feel for the Ursulas and Dorises of the world, the little-known brothers and sisters that history forgot.
But in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family, that sibling situation was reversed: It was Harriet who was known, for the first half of her life, as “the cook’s sister.” Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the advent of the Civil War, Catharine Beecher was the big name in the family—thanks, in part, to her expertise in the kitchen. At 16, after her mother died of tuberculosis, Catharine became the lady of the house and took on the task of preparing meals for her siblings, including Harriet, more than 10 years her junior.
It was Catharine, not Harriet, who became the family’s first famous female writer. A decade before the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, a collection of Catharine’s recipes and kitchen advice, was one of the best-selling cookbooks of the century. A vocal advocate for universal education, Catharine cofounded her own school for women (Harriet included), which taught subjects both academic (math, Latin) and domestic (cooking, baking).
Catharine’s concoctions were among Harriet’s favorite dishes: After watching her sister make her signature peanut brittle, Harriet would include the process in her books. “Mother would put on a couple of quarts of molasses to boil in the afternoon … the whole dark, smooth, ropy liquid was poured out from the kettle into a well-greased platter, and set out in a snow-bank to cool.”
But Catharine’s writing was also influenced by Harriet and her abolitionist views. Although her popular brittle recipe was officially titled “molasses candy,” Catharine advised against using the traditional cane sugar, a product of plantations’ slave labor. Instead she claims that, for true candy aficionados, Northern-made “maple is best.”
It looked as though Catharine was destined to be the sibling that history would remember—until her little sister wrote the book that would push the country to war. Now her contribution to writing—and cooking—has largely been forgotten. After all, the only conflict it provoked was at the dinner table, arguing over that last piece of candy.
In early recipes for brittle, peanuts and popcorn were used interchangeably to give candy texture and crunch. Fifty years later, Cracker Jack would blow minds (and fill stomachs) at the Chicago World’s Fair by using both—a strategy that Catharine endorsed early on. “Whole popped corn made into cakes with candy is excellent,” she writes in her cookbook. She also suggests adding saleratus (an early version of baking soda), which “makes it tender and crisp.”
This follows Catharine’s original recipe closely, and would have been similar to what Harriet would have sampled as a girl in her sister’s kitchen. It’s a perfect Halloween treat—after all, as Catharine writes, “all children are fond of this.” Adults too, in my experience.
(Loosely adapted from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book)
1/2 cup maple syrup (grade B preferred)
1/4 cup lightly salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1/8 cup kettle corn (popped), coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of sea salt
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, heat maple syrup over medium heat. Simmer, stirring constantly, until it reaches 300 degrees F on a candy thermometer.
3. Stir in peanuts, kettle corn, baking soda and salt, then immediately pour onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a spatula to spread into a thin layer
4. Let cool 30 minutes, then break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.