Gustave Flaubert and George Sand: Potato and Gruyère Galette

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When asked “What famous writer would you invite to a dinner party?” famous wits like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain definitely come to mind. But even the fictional dinner cast of my dreams pales in comparison to a real-life guest list: George Sand’s house parties in Nohant, France, in the 1860s and 70s. Balzac, Dumas, Delacroix and Chopin were a few of the mouths at Sand’s table. But one of her favorite guests was not only another giant of the arts, but her de facto gym buddy: Gustave Flaubert.

Although Sand loved to cook, she found herself with regular digestive problems, and kept trying different eating regimens in an attempt to find what would make her feel her best—an “elimination diet,” before they were cool. This included cutting out red meat, and occasionally trying vegetarianism. “In giving up trying to eat REAL MEAT, I have found again a strong stomach,” she wrote Flaubert. Her approach to cutting out alcohol was more moderate: “I drink cider with enthusiasm, no more champagne! … I live on sour wine and galette.”

Flaubert followed his friend’s lead; after all, a diet’s always easier when someone else is suffering with you. Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert’s protege, observed, “Almost never did he eat meat; only eggs, vegetables, a piece of cheese, fruit and a cup of cold chocolate … finding that too much nourishment made him heavy and unfit for work.” Flaubert and Sand would collaborate on their meal planning through their correspondence, sharing tips with each other. “I lunch on two eggs made into an omelet or shirred, and a cup of coffee,” Sand wrote.

Not only did the two writers share diet strategies, they also encouraged each others’ fitness habits. “I have followed your counsel, dear master, I have EXERCISED!!! Am I not splendid; eh?” Flaubert bragged in a letter to Sand—the 19th-century equivalent of posting your daily step count on Fitbit.

Despite living 300 kilometers apart, Flaubert and Sand would visit each others’ cities specifically to eat together. “I shall make a great effort and shall leave at eight o’clock Sunday, so as to lunch with you,” Sand would write. “When you arrive in Paris, give me a rendezvous. And at that we shall make another to dine informally tete-a-tete,” Flaubert encouraged.

“I don’t like to eat alone. I have to associate the idea of someone with the things that please me. But this someone is rare. … What is certain is that I experience a particular sentiment for you and I cannot define it.”The best thing about getting healthy with friends is that, even if your weight never budges, you’ve still spent many hours sharing meals with someone you love.

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Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

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Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

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Laura Ingalls Wilder: Gingerbread Cake with Chocolate Icing

Wilder Gingerbread Cupcakes

There’s an old story in my family, one of those anecdotes that gets told to every dinner guest, about a Thanksgiving 25 years ago. A sleepy three-year-old me burst into tears in front of my dessert plate. When asked what was wrong, I sobbed: “I can’t decided whether to eat my pie or my ice cream first.”

I don’t cry about it anymore, but the weight of dessert decisions still bears heavy on my mind, especially when faced with the cornucopia of the holidays. It’s a feeling that might sound familiar to Almanzo in Farmer Boythe second installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. “When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.” Do you eat your pumpkin pie or your custard pie first? It’s an impossible question.

My mom read the Little House series to me until I was old enough to dive into them myself, and (as many have noted) the food scenes still stand out—for good reason. Wilder was writing from her experience as a seasoned cook on her own farm, the basis for her books. “All the work of the farm centers in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen,” she wrote in an early column for The Missouri Ruralist, essays that germinated the idea for the children’s series. “[It] must be more than merely a kitchen. It is the place where house and barn meet, often in pitched battle.”

Wilder’s kitchen was a flurry of activity: “I skim milk, make butter, and cook bran mashes for the chickens and potato pairings for the hogs in mine,” she wrote. It also had to accommodate a variety of non-cooking uses. When re-doing the kitchen, her plans included storage for chicken feed buckets and pigs’ swill. The entire budget for her kitchen renovation? $49.84. HGTV would have a heart attack.

On the farm, multiple dessert options wasn’t a problem—it was a necessity, in order to make it through a physically-demanding workday. Rose, Laura’s daughter, described her father’s typical breakfast: “Here are bowls of oatmeal, with whole pints of cream, large dishes of baked apples, the big blue platter full of sizzling ham, with many eggs disposed upon it; here are hot cakes piled by the tens and dozens, with melting butter and brown sugar between them, and hashed brown potatoes, Graham bread and white bread, fresh butter, honey, jam, milk and the steaming pot of coffee. Here are doughnuts or gingerbread to accompany the coffee cups’ second filling.”

One way to solve the problem of what to have for dessert is simply to have it at all times of day;on the prairie, instead of being seen as a sweet, gingerbread served year-round alongside the main meal, like a side of cornbread, as an aid to digestion. But Almonzo Wilder went a step further, embracing the idea of dessert for breakfast with “just one medium-size wedge of apple pie to top off the meal and finish the foundation for a good day’s work.” At this time of year, we’re all Farmer Boys at heart; when we begin to eat pie, there’s no stopping us.

Gingerbread cupcake recipe

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Jack Kerouac: Crêpes Suzette

Jack Kerouac Crepes Suzette Recipe

When was the last time you memorized a phone number? It’s been years since I learned a new one—just as I haven’t made much of an effort to brush up on multiplication tables, important historical dates, or birthdays (sorry, friends). But despite relying on my phone/the internet/Facebook for the bulk of my knowledge, I still memorize recipes. Having few great dishes tucked away in the back of your mind is, to me, far more useful than remembering how many pounds are in a kilo. These are the meals that come through in a pinch: the pasta that can save any failed dinner party, or that soup that you swear can cure a friend’s post-breakup broken heart.

Because they’re often so simple, our back-pocket dishes don’t get a lot of attention. A lot has been written about Kerouac and apple pie for instance—the bulk of it by Kerouac himself in the semi-autobiographical On the Road. “That’s practically all I ate all the way across the country … I knew it was nutritious.” But when it was his turn to cook, you wouldn’t see Kerouac rolling out a pie crust. Instead, he fell back on an old family favorite: crêpes.

While he might seem like an author as American as, well, apple pie, Kerouac was raised in a French-Canadian family; he was more comfortable speaking French than English up until high school. He was also more comfortable eating French, delighting in his mother’s Breton specialties. Kerouac later bragged about his mother’s signature French-American cooking, decadent even during the Depression: “crêpes with maple syrup, sausage and chocolate milk; pork meatball stew with onions, carrots and potatoes.”

These were the dishes that Kerouac filed away in his mental recipe box, to draw upon upon when the situation called for a homemade meal. And what better situation than a sexy one? “Dark Eyes came to my house tonight,” Kerouac wrote in a 1947 diary entry. “We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. … I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.” A writer who cooks dinner and watches the royal wedding? I’m melting over here.

Kerouac used food to impress the ladies, but he also knew its healing potential. One of the founding members of the Beat movement, Helen Hinkle, remembers a fight breaking out between Neal Cassidy and William Burroughs. “Jack busied himself, started immediately to fill the vacuum … He asked to make crêpes suzettes. He had a recipe. Nothing was happening to he had to start saying something. he said, ‘Do you have flour and eggs?’.'” Clearly, Kerouac recognized the value of those back-pocket recipes. You never know when you’ll need to diffuse tension … through the power of French cooking.

Crepes Suzette recipe

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John Keats: Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Dressing

John Keats - Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Cream

Although many of John Keats’ most famous poems—Hyperion, Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes—include descriptions of lavish meals and crave-worthy feasts, the man who penned them is better known for eating nothing at all. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 24, Keats was prescribed a meager diet of bread, milk and anchovies; “the chief part of his disease,” his doctor wrote, “seems seated in his stomach.”

It was an especially grim sentence for a man who, only two years before, had an appetite that might kindly described as healthy, verging on hedonistic. “I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me,” Keats wrote in a letter from 1818, before he had taken ill. “I take a whole string of Pork sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s gingers.” Roast beef was a particular favorite; he once praised a dinner host for “carv[ing] some beef exactly to suit my appetite, as if I had been measured for it.”

Keats’ letters preserve his contributions to literary history, but they also contain a surprising moment in culinary history: one of the first mentions of a roast beef sandwich in print. On a walking tour of the U.K. in 1818, Keats worked up such a hunger that he fantasized about food. “[I] long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfry … and give me—a dozen or two capital roast-beef Sandwiches,” he wrote—perhaps the only Romantic poet to privilege lunch over lust.

While the first appearance of sandwiches in print dates back to 1762, they were often made with ham; it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that roast beef sandwiches were popular enough to be referenced by cookbooks. By the turn of the century, the dish had firmly established its place in the lunchtime pantheon; Keats’ fantasy meal was well ahead of its time.

By the end of his life, however, roast beef was be exactly that: a fantasy. “The distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving,” observed Keats’ Joseph Severn, who was tasked with monitoring the poet’s food intake. Severn himself was not so deprived. Imagine Keats’ agony if he could hear what his friend was eating just steps away: “I have 1st dish macarona [macaroni] … made of Flour with butter &c—very good—my 2nd dish is fish—and then comes Roast Beef or Mutton … every good thing—and very well cooked.”

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Pearl S. Buck: Brown Bean Shrimp with Garlic Green Beans

Pearl S. Buck: Stir-Fried Shrimp and Garlic Green Beans

There’s an old familiar standard by which so many of our meals are measured: Is it as good as mom used to make? We tend to praise dishes that conjure up where we’ve come from—but what about the ones that take us where we’ve never been? If we don’t have any immediate plans to go floating down the Mekong or tooling around in Tuscany, food can be our quickest ticket: a sensory trip through another culture without the jet lag (or constantly needing to disturb the person in the aisle seat when you need to pee).

All this might help explain why my nervousness when I heard about Pearl S. Buck’s Oriental Cookbook: A Rich and Variety Collection of the Best Dishes from All of Asia. As a friend said when I showed her the cover: “I am going to guess this book is a masterpiece of political incorrectness.” Not really a trip she wanted to take.

Awkward “O word” aside (it was less outré in 1974 than it is now), a book summarizing an entire continent’s cuisine in 300 pages seemed destined to be a cursory summary at best, uncomfortable generalization at worst. On the first page, though, Buck addressed my fears head-on. “It would take many books to describe Asian cookery,” she begins. “Nothing could be more different … than China and Japan, geographically and demographically, or in their cuisines.”

The daughter of American missionaries, Buck was five months old when she arrived in Huai’an, in Eastern China. She grew up preferring local food to the stuff her parents made; she’d secretly eat with the servants before joining her family for dinner, too full to dig into her second meal. Through her travels—first with her family, later with her husband—she came to discover the regional specialties that would become some of her all-time favorite dishes, including deep-fried Szechuan duck and Shanghai-style fried noodles.

When The Good Earth was published in 1931, Buck’s novel became America’s default portrait of Chinese culture; the best-selling book in the U.S. two years in a row, it won the Nobel Prize for “rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life.” But her cookbook transports readers in an even more immersive way: through their kitchens.

Before you can explore a new place, of course, you have to get to know the layout; Buck continues her role of culinary ambassador through her instructions to American cooks, which range from chopstick etiquette (“They are not at all difficult to use after one has had a little practice.”) to the “seven items essential to housekeeping” (oil, fuel, soy sauce, vinegar, rice, salt and tea … although MSG also makes her shortlist). Can’t find MSG at your local grocer? There’s a handy mail-order guide in the back of the book.

But beyond these small adjustments, Buck comforts her readers that “the Western kitchen is more than adequately adapted to the preparation of Chinese meals.” Although her novels present a culture half a world away, her cookbook suggests that it’s closer than we might think. There will be different tastes, and new techniques, but soon those surprising dishes will become familiar, and even comforting—just like those ones mom used to make.

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J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt

JRR Tolkein: Marinated mushrooms salad with spiced yogurt

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit. 

My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?

But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.

You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.

Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.

Marinated mushroom salad with spiced yogurt recipe

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Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

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Laurie Colwin: Cornbread and Prosciutto Stuffing (and Giveaway)

Laurie Colwin: Prosciutto and Cornbread Stuffing

Let’s play a drinking game: Find a restaurant or cookbook review and take a shot every time these words come up: delicious, exquisite, velvety (for soups), pillowy (for gnocchi), complex, simple, seasonal. Drunk yet? Certain food words and phrases get more than their fair share of column space—so much so that, despite being guilty many times over, I still cringe when another squash soup is described as “autumn in a bowl.”

That’s why, although I’m usually focused on food in fiction (and the authors who ate it), I have a special respect for those writers who make food their lifelong subject. It’s easy to polish the perfect dinner party scene in a novel when there’s only one to write. But describing dish after dish, new “modern American small plates restaurant” after restaurant, and turning each into its own reason for being? That’s what separates the laymen from the legends. For many, that legend is M.F.K Fischer. For me, it’s Laurie Colwin.

A fiction writer herself (of both short stories and novels), Colwin’s essays on food for Gourmet are what gained her celeb status—and a passionately devoted readership. After her early death at 48, the magazine received hundreds of letters expressing their grief. When she took over as editor, Ruth Reichl remembered, “Every writer that came in said that he or she wanted to be the next Laurie Colwin.”

Colwin’s one-liners made her the Dorothy Parker of food (“Grilling is like sunbathing. Everyone knows it is bad for you but no one ever stops doing it.”) She would never call a soup velvety; instead, she’d describe the desultory chive sitting in it. But more than her wit, readers loved Laurie for ‘fessing up to all our guiltiest kitchen thoughts, without fear or shame. After throwing dozens of dinner parties in her tiny Manhattan apartment, she’d been there: from cooking five courses on a hot pot to secretly wishing your dinner guests shut up and just ate meat already. Every unglamorous food frustration you’ve had? Laurie understood.

Home Cooking, a collection of Colwin’s essays, was released in digital form for the first time this month and I’ve been revisiting them as preparation for the kind of big dinner that always comes this time of year. (Spoiler: I have a copy to give away!) As with any contemporary book of food essays, there are recipes, and they’re simple, seasonal and (yes, I’m saying it) delicious.

But it’s the moral support, the tableside pep talk, that makes it a kitchen essential. “No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present.” Colwin is one of those kitchen guardian angels, peering over your shoulder when your sauce splits or your soufflé falls flat, telling you not to worry—and gently reminding you that, in a pinch, there’s always takeout.Laurie Colwin: Cornbread Prosciutto Stuffing Recipecolwin5 colwin3

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

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-Booka 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.

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Maple popcorn peanut brittle recipe

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