Sunday, May 12, 2013

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Kittie and Minnie's Sugar Cookies

In honor of Mother's Day, I decided to write this post about Grandma Minnie and her mother:

Kittie Van Slyke mid-1880s
Great-grandma Kittie Van Slyke Fineour gave birth to her daughter Minnie on Christmas Eve in 1890. The family would soon move from Mindenville along the Erie Canal to Lockville on the eastern edge of the village of Fort Plain. It was there that Great-grandpa Fred Fineour would manage a grocery and feed store over the next decade.

Keeping house along the canal, Kittie must have tried out recipes from her volume of household hints and cookery entitled Queen of the Household. But tucked in at the end of this voluminous tome, she also inserted a few pages of handwritten recipes that she must have collected from friends and relatives, as homemakers have done over the ages.

Imagine if you will, sacks of flour and sugar delivered to Fred's Erie Canal store, along with tins of coffee, tea, oatmeal, and other foodstuffs. Kittie would make use of many of these ingredients, along with local fruit, milk, and eggs, to concoct the cakes and jams that she taught her daughter to make. Sure enough, as I might have guessed, when Minnie grew up and married, her mother passed some of these family favorites along to her. Seventeen of Kittie's recipes are repeated in Minnie's handwritten notebook; among these are cakes, cookies, and jams. Some that I have tried out already are: raspberry cake, cherry cake, ginger pears, and oatmeal cookies.

Grandma Minnie 1908 (high school graduation photo)

I was intrigued to find two different recipes for sugar cookies in Minnie's handwritten book. This is the one she copied from Kittie's pages:

The other recipe calls for "shortening" rather than "lard"; sour milk rather than sweet; baking powder rather than cream of tartar. Strangely, neither recipe mentions flour. Perhaps the notation "mix soft" in the second recipe is an indication to the experienced baker to add whatever amount of flour would yield a pliable cookie dough. Other more modern recipes that I consulted for the purpose of comparison varied between 2 1/2 to 3 cups of flour for an amount of sugar and shortening comparable to that in Minnie's recipes.

The recipe that calls for cream of tartar is the one that Minnie copied from her mother; it is thus the earlier of the two recipes. I wondered then what was the composition and function of this white powder that I surmise Great-grandpa Fred also sold in his Erie Canal grocery store:

Antique cream of tartar tin from Albany, NY

I learned that one of its culinary functions is as a chemical leavening agent in baking. As the cream of tartar is acidic, it will react with baking soda, which is alkaline, when a liquid is added, creating gas bubbles which make the batter rise. This system of leavening was used before the development of baking powder, which contains both an alkaline compound and an acid salt, thus eliminating the need for the cream of tartar.

Here is my modern adaptation of Great-grandma Kittie's recipe:

Kittie's Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

- 3 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cream of tartar (If you don't have cream of tartar, use 2 teaspoons of baking powder in place of the baking soda and cream of tartar.)
- 1 cup margarine or low-fat baking stick
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon almond flavoring (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium bowl, sift together dry ingredients.
In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and sugar. Beat in the eggs, milk, and vanilla.
Stir in the dry ingredients gradually.

And now you have a decision to make: Should you chill the dough, roll it out and cut it into fancy shapes with cookie cutters, or simply drop the dough onto the cookie sheet in tablespoon-size balls and flatten them a bit before baking? It's your choice!

In fact, Minnie had a third recipe for sugar cookies that she got from a certain Emma, who says, "Vanilla or lemon and pat'em for God's sake!" That's my choice as well  --  rather than rolling out the dough, I find it much simpler to chill the dough a bit, drop the little dough balls onto the ungreased cookie sheet, and pat them down slightly with the bottom of a glass. You can leave them plain or sprinkle with multicolored sprinkles to give the cookies a festive look.

Whether you roll'em or pat'em, I hope you enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for sugar cookies.

Minnie and Kittie wading in the creek at a 1908 picnic - dressed like mother like daughter in the latest fashion!

Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers! I hope someone bakes some sugar cookies for you!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Penny (Postcard) For Your Thoughts

Before there was Facebook or Twitter, before email or telephones, people kept in touch with friends and family with postcards. A hundred years ago, my grandparents were no exception. During their courtship and the early years of their marriage, they kept the postal service busy with cards that went back and forth between Fort Plain, where Minnie lived, and Schenectady, where Will was employed during the week at the General Electric plant.

This correspondence appears to have begun the year after Minnie graduated from high school; Minnie and Will had already known each other for a year or two. Will had apparently been laid off from the milk processing plant in Fort Plain where he was employed, and heard of openings at GE.

1910 postcard - Schenectady, NY
In May of 1910, Will sent Minnie a card with a photo of the historic First Reformed Church of Schenectady, with a terse message scrawled on the back: "Got a job, Good bay, Will."  (His penmanship was impeccable, but his spelling was not always accurate, as English was a second language for him.)

Soon the penny postcards were flying back and forth on a weekly basis. Will took the train home to Fort Plain almost every weekend, and when he arrived back in Schenectady on Sunday evening, he would drop a card in the mail to let Minnie know that he had arrived safely.

Here, a bird's-eye view of Schenectady from the top of a hill, on which Will wrote facetiously, "We are having fine weather down here, nothing but rain."

Bird's eye view of Schenectady - 1910

Some scenes of Schenectady are virtually unchanged since the last century:

Nott Memorial, Union College - 1910

But some are very different, such as this photo of some of the 15,000 employees leaving the plant and offices of the General Electric Company:

Workers leaving GE plant at the end of the workday - 1910

And in contrast, a quiet scene on Church Street in the historic Stockade district:

Church Street, Schenectady, NY - 1910

Minnie replied with typical pictures of the village of Fort Plain.

Old Fort Plain Band - 1913

Minnie sent the above card when she and Will had been married for about a year. She recounts an amusing detail on the other side:

Minnie's message - January 1913

The Universalist Church, 1920:

Universalist Church, Fort Plain - 1920

A card from 1922 shows the high school from which Minnie graduated (she graduated in 1908):

High school, Fort Plain - 1922

By 1922, Minnie and Will had three daughters and a son. On the back of this card, Minnie begins, "My dear husband," and tells Will that she is sewing a suit for Bill; that's my Dad, who was a two-year-old at the time. She signs, "with love from Kiddies and Mother."

A photo from the summer of 1922 shows a peaceful Main Street in Fort Plain:

Main Street, Fort Plain - 1922

On the back of this card, Minnie tells again about one of her sewing projects and her washing and ironing chores, and recounts how little Bill says, "I am going to tell my daddy," every time anything happens to him. 

Lastly, here we see the Farmers and Mechanics Bank in 1922; the building has seen a number of different uses since that era, but the town clock still chimes every hour on the hour to this day:

Historic building with clock tower - 1922

I still enjoy buying postcards anytime I go on a trip, and I enjoy receiving them as well. This week is National Postcard Week: Send a friend or loved one a card, won't you?