At Duke University, A Bizarre Tour Through American History And Palates
Eighteen doughnuts, toasted Brazil nuts, a can of deviled ham, an avocado "pear," and Worcestershire sauce: No, this list doesn't comprise an especially malicious ingredient basket for competitors on the Food Network's Chopped.
Instead, they are the makings for the "Goblin sandwich," a Halloween recipe published in a donut-maker's 1946 cooking pamphlet. The donuts are sliced like bread, and the other ingredients are mixed into a highly seasoned spread.
That theoretically edible but unpalatable recipe will long live in infamy at Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Books & Manuscript Library. Jacqueline Reid Wachholz, who directs the library's John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, made the dish, and wrote in a blog post that, frankly, the ham was "not unlike dog food." She gave it to her husband and a particularly daring colleague to try, but most of her library mates declined.
Wachholz's memorable cooking adventure was part of the Rubenstein Test Kitchen, a project in which the staff re-creates historical recipes from the thousands of cookbooks, manuscripts and other materials from the library's collections. The librarians often share the food with each other, and have even had a Thanksgiving-like showcase of many of the dishes. They also published their own zine in 2014.
The Rubenstein Test Kitchen doesn't have a physical cooking space on campus, despite its name, but does have a very popular blog on the school's website. The goal is to get people thinking about just how central food is to culture, says Rubenstein Research Services Director Elizabeth Dunn.
"Looking at foodways helps you understand exploration, trade, social developments, race, medicine, gender and history," Dunn says. "Just think about how the potato was important, or how abolitionists boycotted sugar because you couldn't make it without enslaved labor in the Caribbean."
Dunn also points out how technology like refrigerators, microwaves and yogurt makers have changed the American home. "Cookbooks in the 1970s tell women how to cook more quickly because they're in the work force."
Dunn herself has contributed a soldiers' soup from World War II. The "kitchen-sink" concoction was made by French people whose crops and farm machinery were repeatedly razed by Germans.
The Rubenstein Test Kitchen was loosely modeled after a University of Pennsylvania project called "Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchen." The Duke test kitchen, now a few years old, picks up chronologically where that project leaves off — with the earliest recipes dating from around the Revolutionary War and stretching into the late 20th century.
The project makes for an often bizarre tour through American history and palates. Recipes are chosen for a variety of reasons: level of difficulty; interest in regional cuisine; how they represent a slice of U.S. life; or quirk factor.
The intrepid cooks have resurrected a "sherif cake," a boozy nut cake that pre-dates the U.S. Constitution. A 1920s prune soufflé also made an appearance; it was designed to help a pudgy fictional weight-loss guide/cookbook character named Phyllis stay "regular" and achieve that notoriously slim flapper figure. Then there was the tomato soup cake, a mid-20th century monstrosity that signaled the rise of canned, processed goods in U.S. diets.
Duke history graduate student Ashley Young studies Creole foodways of New Orleans and is a former Rubenstein intern. Though she's made hundreds of gumbos ("gumbo's not just regional, but unique person-by-person," she says), she chose two gumbo recipes.
But Young says it's not about re-creating an exact replica of forgotten food.
"That's a futile endeavor because our ingredients are different now; it's taken years to create the most transportable bell pepper or to change the size of the onion," she says. "For me, this is about challenging this very skewed, exotic narrative that names Creole food as 'other,' and that focuses on connections to France and Spain, but ignores the cuisine's grounding in West Africa."
Associate University Archivist Amy McDonald recently chose to re-create cherries jubilee from a university cookbook; her second Test Kitchen stint is one of the few in which the experimental cook already knows much about the person who originally contributed the recipe.
McDonald chose cherries jubilee because it was a specialty of William "Big Bill" Jones, a longtime employee of the university dining hall. Big Bill ran much of the university's catering services, and he trotted out his famous cherry dessert — and the obligatory pyrotechnics — for generations of bigwigs and undergraduates from the 1940s to the 1960s. Jones, an African American on campus at a time when there were no or few black faculty or students, coached law students' wives on how to gracefully fire up and present the dessert.
For her part, McDonald was less concerned about having a silver urn — Jones' recommended impression-making vessel — than she was about making sure her home kitchen didn't erupt in flames. She invited co-workers over to man the fire and document her observations.
"I was very afraid of trying to film and set it on fire at the same time. All three of us gasped when it actually caught on fire," she says.
But even with a historical paper trail, there were still things she and her colleagues couldn't figure out. When they cranked up the heat on the cherries, "it wasn't a mushroom cloud or fireball. But we didn't quite know whether to let it burn or not." Her mise en place included a fire extinguisher.
Recipes can seem so straightforward and simple, but it turns out they can also be inscrutable, tricksters even. What they don't say can ultimately determine failure or success. It's also difficult to know what success looks like when there are unclear instructions, old-school measuring terms (what's a gill?), and modern appliances and taste buds. Test kitchen volunteers are still trying to figure out what a "meatbox" from the 1911 Kitchen Encyclopedia should literally look like. And substitutions for hard-to-find or "extinct" ingredients are essential.
As is a humorous tolerance for the mild culinary disaster. Many a Jell-O dish has been attempted, and many have failed, including McDonald's Jell-O pie that turned out to be strawberry soup in a crust.
The line between one person's delectable and another's disgusting is a thin one, with Dunn eschewing the Velveeta corn ring that quickly disappeared at a test kitchen event. Even so, few of the volunteers — other than the gumbo-loving Young — expect that they will ever make or consume their dish again. In fact, there's a certain charm in oddball recipes that have a high gross-out factor. Young is waiting for a pioneering soul to attempt an aspic because "I don't have enough courage to try it, and there's a pleasure in experiencing the strange and the unfamiliar."
Doubly so if a dish's taste profile says something about its time period or pedigree. Says one participant of a luridly orange-colored pie of Jell-O, orange sherbet and crushed pineapple: "This tastes exactly like what I imagine the 1970s to have been like."
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, writer and senior editor at Rewire. Her work has appeared in American Prospect, Bon Appetit, Gravy and Longreads, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.