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Saving Sylvester Manor, social justice, U.S. foods: Did baking powder do all that?


When food historian Linda Civitello, author of “Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People,” tells the story of baking powder, as she did at a recent Friday Night Dialogue at the library, she starts by describing the state of bread baking in this country before baking powder existed. An America unrecognizable to this reporter; a place without chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes.

Another way to look at the effect of baking powder is to imagine America if Eben Horsford, lord of Sylvester Manor in the 19th century, hadn’t developed it, Shelter Island would look very different too. Instead of acres of woods, farmland, gardens, barns and a Manor House up a lane from the IGA, there would likely be two hundred 5,000 square-foot homes on one-acre lots.

Most of what we think of as real American cooking owes its existence to baking powder, Ms. Civitello said recently in an interview. She cited the baking powder biscuit as one of America’s finest contributions to culinary history. “Cornbread, graham crackers, blueberry pancakes, these are ours,” she said. “We invented them, they came from American women in their kitchens.”

In the early chapters of her book, Ms. Civitello notes that in the time before chemical leaveners, the first step in creating bread was to make yeast. That’s why early cookbooks, including Catherine Beecher’s “Domestic Receipt Book,” published in 1858, had pages of recipes for making yeast for bread. These instructions were helpful in New England, where literacy rates among women were close to 100 percent, but less so in the American South, where universal schooling for girls was only mandated after the Civil War and many women, especially enslaved ones, did not read.

Liberation comes to the kitchen

In an effort to better understand what was involved in making bread in the 1850s, Ms. Civitello described her attempt to mix a dough similar to one that a woman in the kitchen at Sylvester Manor might have made. It involved 8 quarts of flour, salt, 2 quarts of water and a pint of homemade yeast. It made pounds and pounds of dough, and kneading and mixing it required a physical effort she could barely summon, and hoped never to have to repeat.

The first widely-used chemical leavener was bicarbonate of soda, which when mixed with an acid, briefly produces gas bubbles. A 19th century baker could add vinegar, or cream of tartar, derived from grapes, or another acid to the dough to get a rise. But bitter tastes, and uneven rising were common problems.

This was the sad state of American bread making when Mr. Horsford was appointed Rumford Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, and a year later married Mary Gardiner, whose family owned Sylvester Manor. Mr. Horsford “married up,” and his pursuit of Mary Gardiner motivated his academic and business aspirations.

His 1861 treatise, “The Theory and Art of Bread Making,” described how awful the other methods of bread making with chemical leaveners were. “He had tasted bread made with cream of tartar,” Ms. Civitello said, “And he was seeking a remedy.”

She described the debate that raged in American universities between the theoretical and the practical. Harvard, where Mr. Horsford was a professor, came down on the side of the theoretical. “But Horsford had trained at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer, and his approach to teaching Harvard students was to take them on factory tours,” Ms. Civitello said. Once he figured out how to make money from his reformulation of baking powder, Horsford quit Harvard.

Advertisement for Eben Horsford’s acid phosphate, a key ingredient in the formulation of Rumford baking powder.
Advertisement for Eben Horsford’s Acid Phosphate, a key ingredient in the formulation of Rumford baking powder.

Doing well by doing good

With his partner, George Wilson, he formed the Rumford company specifically to make baking and medicinal products. Their goals were to do good, while also doing well for themselves.

It’s not an overstatement that if Mr. Horsford had not made so much money from his Rumford brand of baking powder, Sylvester Manor might have passed out of the family a century ago. Profits from the sale of Rumford baking powder produced the wherewithal for the family to hold onto it, and make a gift of it to the public in 2012.

Ms. Civitello said that Horsford was also notable because of policies he instituted at the Rumford company for women employees. With five daughters from two beloved wives — the Gardiner sisters, Mary and Phoebe — Mr. Horsford understood that supporting women in their work, whether at home or in his factory, helped the business and improved society. (Of course, his own family had servants to make their daily bread.)

If baking powder hadn’t fomented a revolution in American baking, the stakes for companies such as Royal and Rumford would not have been so high. American women voted for baking powder with their dollars. Ms. Civitello documents the profound change by examining period cookbooks, in which recipes for baking powder breads and cakes soon outnumbered recipes using yeast.

The marketing war between rival baking powder manufacturers is the core of another book by Ms. Civiletto, “The Baking Powder Wars,” chronicling one of the ugliest business scandals in American history, but one Mr. Horsford did not get to see. “He died before the down and dirty part took place,” Ms. Civitello said.

Unintended consequences?
He was however, a target of attack by other baking powder companies, especially the Royal company that denigrated calcium phosphate, a component of Horsford’s baking powder derived from animal bones, as “bone dust.”

The invention of baking powder also had unintended negative consequences on American’s health and nutrition, which Ms. Civitello speaks to this in her book. Not only did baking powder lead to an explosion of packaged cookies, cakes and crackers of questionable nutritional value in the 20th century, but it made possible the rise of fry bread among native Americans who switched almost overnight from traditional corn-based breads to fried baking powder and wheat flour fritters.

In the past few weeks, a national dialogue has broken out about the good and the evil done by historical figures. Did Mr. Horsford do more good than bad? Ms. Civitello’s fascinating book sets the stage for the debate. But before you vilify chemical leaveners as poisonous junk food enablers, think of the Ritz Cracker you held aloft last week for eclipse-viewing. It would have no tiny pin-holes without baking powder.

Would #sheetcaking be a thing in a world without baking powder? No, not so much as a gleam in Tina Fey’s eye.