Apple Pandowdy: 1869

It’s very hard to sum up America in the 19th century. Every day I lament to myself: why, oh why, can’t America in the 19th century be summed up more easily? But that’s just the way it is.

Where were its skyscrapers, malls and subways? Its millions of tourists flocking to see shows on Broadway and the sights of the Grand Canyon? Where were its property tycoons rigging up chains of luxury hotels before inexplicably becoming president? And, for the love of God, just what was going on with the flag?! (There were over 20 incarnations of it during the 19th century alone as more and more states were admitted to the Union.)

From the 1810 census we are told there were just over 7 million people living in America, with most of them listed as living in the Northern and Southern Eastern states such as New York and South Carolina. However, it’s best not to take everything the 1810 census says at face value; until 1830 there was no standardised method of acquiring and presenting information, some states’ census returns got lost or altered over the years and, pretty crucially, it didn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains to the West. It’s also pretty inaccurate in that it categorises the free white settlers into groups (males under the age of ten, females aged 26-44 etc), but then allowed slave owners to record a single lump sum for the number of slaves they owned, so detailed records of the demographics of an entire 1.5 million people are absent.

Flawed as it was, the 1810 census did provide some context to how much America changed in the 100 years of the 19th century to become more like the America we know today. As the 1890 census attests, the population (including Native Americans this time) had increased to just under 63 million and because slavery had been abolished in 1865, no slaves are listed either. That didn’t mean the problems of slavery had vanished; the reconstruction of the south following the American Civil War (1861-1865) had been messy and many ex-slaves found their lives had changed not a jot and in some cases worsened as they were left to fend for themselves in communities that made it clear they were still slaves in all but name, despite the then President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts at promoting civil rights.

Ulysses S Grant, American president 1869 – 1877. Also half alien, apparently.

Who were the Americans?

As well as political changes, the people of America were changing their perceptions of what it meant to be American. Was it that you had to have been born in the country, or was ‘American’ a state of mind? This was the century to find out.

In the first half of the 19th century there were some very dull land exchanges which men with big beards sitting in wood panelled rooms tend to get very excited about, but your average 15 year old always switches off for when it comes round to that part of the GCSE course. Essentially, in 1803, the Americans experienced their first major foray into capitalism when they bought 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River off the French for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the size of America but the problem was the Americans didn’t quite know what to do with all this land. In 1819, one particularly excited beardy man called Major Stephen Long was sent on a mission to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River and came back to tell the government that, in a spectacular example of ‘Buyer Beware’, the lands the government had paid so much for were:

“…wholly unfit for cultivation and farmers cannot hope to live on this land. Occasionally there are large areas of fertile land but the shortage of wood and water will mean settling in the country is impossible.”

Major Long, 1819

Yikes. So inhospitable and barren did the American people believe the West to be that they called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ (thereby proving that the American talent for self promotion has grown over time, or at the very least that PR and advertising has changed dramatically.)

The government tried to promote the idea of moving westwards for expansion as much as it could until in 1845 John L O’Sullivan, founder of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review coined the term ‘Manifest Destiny’. He argued that since God had given Americans all this land, they had a duty – nay, a destiny – to take it, cultivate it and control it. Never mind that there were already people living on the Great Plains, the government said. Were they white? No? Christian? No? They didn’t count. This slant was very popular, (and helped by the discovery of gold in 1849), and from the 1840’s onwards America’s population boomed as migrants from the East and immigrants from other countries flocked West to take their share of the land and its resources.

Conflict and tension between settlers and the Native Americans of the Great Plains increased sharply in the 1860’s as more and more Native Americans fought against the settlers for the land they had lived on for generations. Stories of brutality were common on both sides, although it’s worth remembering that one of those sides was made up of people with non mechanical weapons and the other side was made up of organised armies backed up with guns and profoundly racist passions: “…It is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” John Chivington, a pastor-turned-colonel (yes, really), said in 1864 before the Sand Creek Massacre.

Ironically, there was now a sense that the land, which had seemed too enormous and unending only a few decades ago, was suddenly at risk of overcrowding and of natural resources drying up. As settlers fought to take over the land and Native Americans fought to stop them, it might seem to some that this was a fight about more than just space; this was a fight about national identity and ideals. By the 1890’s it seemed that being a true American meant having a fighting spirit, a devotion to God and a belief that the right thing to do was to make use of all the resources available in order to better oneself, whatever the cost. That doesn’t mean that all people of the 1890’s were heartless, not at all. Just that they mostly operated, as with everyone else, within the parameters of their time and society.

Are you going to talk about food soon?

That’s a pretty long and surprisingly impassioned preamble to what is essentially a recipe for dry apple crumble, sorry. I’m struggling not having a class in front of me so you, poor reader, have become a bit of a stand in – I hope you were taking notes, there will be a test.

The reason for that not very relevant history is that for 19th century America, a recipe wasn’t just a chance to show off wealth or skill. It was often a mark of who you were – what your brand was. At a time when people were making the most of the new opportunities available to them and fighting for a sense of identity and belonging, no one published anything, not even cookbooks, without wanting to say something bigger about themselves than just ‘I make a good pound cake.’

The recipe for Apple Pandowdy comes from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 and although the origin of the word ‘pandowdy’ isn’t clear, some historians believe it came about because of the dish’s appearance as being a bit boring, or ‘dowdy’, and having been baked in a pan.

For Charlotte Winslow, the 1800’s were the perfect opportunity to make her fame and fortune. A paedriatric nurse, she rose to prominence in the 1840’s as the face of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup – a cure all for ‘fussy babies’ that was manufactured by her son in law and his partner for sale in America and Britain. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was sold as a remedy for babies who were teething or had dysentery, because obviously those two things are very similar. It was hugely popular and in 1868, more than 1.5 million bottles were sold. The secret? Morphine.

“Would baby like his syrup inhaled or injected?”

One teaspoon had enough morphine in it to kill the average child. Just to make sure that non-average, already morphine-addicted children didn’t miss out, it also contained alcohol. Unsurprisingly, parents began to notice the adverse affects (to put it mildly) of giving the syrup to their children and the medicine quickly gained the nickname ‘Baby Killer.’ Despite this sales continued to do well and it wasn’t until 1906 that morphine was removed from the ingredient list (although the alcohol remained) and 1930 when it was finally removed from the market completely.

Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 proudly advertised itself as a book, or pamphlet, which could help women cook meals for their families as well as cure them with home made treatments. If the remedies inside the pages couldn’t help, then the adverts on the front of the book for Mrs. Winslow’s ready-made cough and cold remedies could be purchased at nearby pharmacies (or maybe street corners, given the contents of such treatments.)

What better recipe book to cook a meal for my family – including a young child – than from the manufacturer of the ‘Baby Killer’ herself?

It was a surprisingly easy recipe to follow and only used five basic ingredients. (Un?)Fortunately none of them was morphine.

First, I sliced three apples and laid a layer of them in a buttered dish. On top of this I scattered a tablespoon of brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, sprinkled on a pinch of lemon zest and dotted some blobs of cold butter on top. I then repeated the process another two times until I had almost reached the top of the dish and the whole thing looked very ‘dowdy’ indeedy.

Mrs. Winslow added to the bottom of her recipe a note stating that “a little cider improves this very much” which was unnerving because a) she was basically telling me that this wasn’t worth eating without alcohol and b) given the proliferation of alcohol in her medicines I wasn’t sure what counted as ‘a little’ by her measurements. Also c) we didn’t have any in. We did have boring old apple juice, though, so I tipped 1/2 a cup full in. No baby killers here, thank you very much.

It baked for just over 30 minutes until the apple slices were soft enough to pierce with a fork and then I served it with some ice cream (which actually wasn’t anachronistic at all given that the first hand cranked ice cream freezers were introduced to America in the 1840’s.)

I don’t think I need to tell you that it was pretty dry. Perhaps my cup was too small, but it seemed as though I’d not added any liquid at all. I was thankful for the ice cream, which when melted into the dowdy made it much more like an apple crumble and less like slices of dehydrated apple under bits of toast. I also think that in my lockdown induced panic to make food last I’d been a bit stingy with my butter blobs, so that probably contributed to the dryness a bit too.

It smelled lovely, though, like sweet bread and other than the fact it sucked all the moisture out of my head it tasted pretty good too – faintly citrusy and not overly sweet. For an 1860’s family trying to save all the money they had in order to pay for the long journey westwards, it did a good job of acting like a sweet treat. Plus, it was handy for using up bread that had gone a bit stale and also didn’t need to use any eggs, like other recipes for stale bread did.

A recipe that used simple ingredients, was quick and easy to make and – bonus – didn’t kill any children: I think that’s as close to the American Dream as I could hope to achieve.

E x

Apple Pandowdy

3 large cooking apples
4 or 5 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
4 or 5 tablespoons of brown sugar
Grated lemon rind
Butter
150ml of apple juice or cider (or more if you want a bit of a sauce.)

  1. Peel and slice the applies thinly. Spread a layer of them into a buttered dish.
  2. Sprinkle some grated lemon rind onto the apples.
  3. Sprinkle over the apples a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar and a table spoon and a half of breadcrumbs.
  4. Dot five or six chunks of cold butter onto the breadcrumb and sugar.
  5. Repeat the whole process twice more.
  6. Bake in the oven at 190 degrees for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.

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