The following is a guest post by Meg Metcalf. Meg is the Women’s, Gender and LGBTQIA+ Studies Collection Specialist at the Library of Congress and a Reference Librarian in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room. They will be joining Headlines and Heroes as our newest blogger soon!
From the feared fruitcake to the mysterious figgy pudding, the winter holidays are a wonderful time to get creative in the kitchen. It may surprise you to learn that many familiar holiday recipes have traveled several centuries and continents from their origins to end up on our tables. Please enjoy these festive recipes from the past and find more to savor in historic newspapers on Chronicling America.*
Fruitcake, also known as Christmas cake, is a dessert with a global reputation. This cake has gone by many names and boasts many regional adaptations, but generally includes a cake or bread stuffed with dried and candied fruits and often soaked in rum or tea. Panettone is a variation of fruitcake of Italian origin that is enjoyed throughout Latin America and Europe. The bready Irish version of fruitcake Barmbrack is enjoyed both on Halloween and New Years and is used as part of fortune-telling games. Of all the recipes on this list, fruitcake has likely traveled the furthest, making it to space on several N.A.S.A. missions. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum collection includes fruitcake that went to the moon on Apollo 11 and which returned back to earth uneaten.
Thanks to the popular song, “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” many people have heard of figgy pudding, but have you ever wondered what it is? Originating in medieval England, figgy pudding has also been known as Christmas pudding and is often confused with plum pudding. Figgy pudding is thick and cake like, similar to the consistency of bread pudding. The most controversial ingredient in this dish is suet, which is animal fat. If you are feeling adventurous, give this suet pudding recipe a try.
The first cookbook published in the United States, “American Cookery,” had multiple recipes for gingerbread (pg. 36), but the tradition of building gingerbread houses dates back to 16th century Germany. The White House holiday decor has included an official gingerbread house annually since 1969. Gingerbread houses can range from simple to elaborate, with festivals and competitions dedicated to the art. One culinary artist was so proud of their creation, they chose to submit a photograph of their gingerbread house to the Copyright Office.
The exact origins of this many-layered dish is still being debated, but some of the earliest references to Baklava date back to the Ottoman Empire. Baklava has long marked special occasions for people of many faiths, and is eaten around the Muslim holiday of Ramadan as well as the Jewish holidays of Purim and Rosh Hashanah. Baklava is also enjoyed by many Christians during Passover and Easter. Baklava can be time consuming to construct, requiring many layers of buttery pastry dough sprinkled with a delicious nut filling. Try this 1958 Baklava recipe published in the Evening Star.
Buñuelos are popular throughout Spain, Latin America, parts of Africa and Asia and beyond. These discs of fried dough can be similar to beignets or donuts. Like the other desserts on this list, there are regional differences in how these sweets are prepared. Buñuelos are associated with several holidays, including Christmas, Lent, and Passover. To find recipes for the different variations of Buñuelos, use the Advanced Search on Chronicling America (link) to search using various spellings of Buñuelos or with additional keywords. For example, Buñuelos de Vinto or Buñuelos en Almibar.
Love it or hate it, eggnog has come to be associated with the winter holidays. The parent of eggnog is widely considered to be the British posset, also known as sack posset. While sack posset often included wine, eggnog is often made with rum. Coquito is another rum based drink consumed at Christmas that is referred to as Puerto Rican Eggnog, despite the lack of eggs in the recipe. Other creamy beverages to sip by the fire this winter include horchata, milk punch, or rompope.
Kagami mochi is displayed and then eaten during Japanese New Year or Oshogatsu celebrations. Kagami is Japanese for mirror and mochi is a rice cake, so Kagami mochi is a mirror rice cake. For the display, a smaller mochi is set on top of a larger mochi and a bitter orange (leaf attached) is placed on the top of both. Kagami mochi are an important and symbolic decoration which are traditionally eaten during a special ceremony called kagami biraki.
Around the world hot chocolate is enjoyed in many variations, especially during the winter months. This beloved beverage has its origins in Xocolatl, which was consumed in variations across Mesoamerica by the Olmec, Mayans and Aztecs. The next time you’re enjoying a cup of hot chocolate take a moment to ponder the origins of this 3,000+ year old beverage.
This list would be woefully incomplete without cookies. Looking for a new cookie to leave out for Santa this year? Try these sweet Alfajores or the spicy Pepparkakor. A quick tip for finding recipes in non-English newspapers, try searching using various spellings of the treat you’re trying to find. To find more alfajores try the following keywords alone or in combination: alfajor, alfajores, alfajor receta.
- Search Chronicling America to find more historic recipes from around the world.
- Read more recipe blog posts from Headlines and Heroes
- Read about the origins of hot chocolate in “Is Chocolate More American than Apple Pie?,” in the Library of Congress Blog 4 Corners of the World.
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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