How did chocolate taste 200 years ago? What about pancakes? Or beer?
Short of a culinary time machine, the best way to answer these questions is to follow the exact recipes people were using centuries ago.
Hundreds of these rare recipes, from as far back as the 1500s, can be found at the Wangensteen Historical Library at the University of Minnesota. The library's primary focus is on medicine and biology, but that's the quirk of historical recipe books: They contained advice on just about anything. "Recipe books" had everything from instructions on caring for your armor to curing your cow's cough. In between, you could learn how to bake a cake.
Lois Hendrickson, the curator of the Wangensteen Library, and Emily Beck, a Ph.D. candidate at the U, joined MPR News host Tom Weber to talk about their recipe research. They brought along two versions of "Portugal Cake" — a recipe from 1820 — to taste.
Baking instructions from hundreds of years ago aren't always straight-forward. For one thing, there's no recommended time or temperature, just the instruction to "bake."
Then there are the ingredients. The Portugal Cake called for some traditional ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs. But it also called for some not-so-traditional elements, like rose water and "sack," an old form of liquor, similar to fortified wine. Your corner store has likely been out of "sack" for 150 years. Hendrickson and Beck used sherry instead.
The Portugal Cake recipe also calls for currants, with the helpful note: If you don't put the currants in, the cake will last "up to six months."
Hendrickson and Beck couldn't speak to the cake's unusual longevity, but it did come out edible.
Bodies and Spirits: Health and the History of Fermentation and Distillation
The Wangensteen's current exhibit, Bodies and Spirits, focuses on the many uses of beer in historic times. Hendrickson admits that it might seem odd that a medical library has an exhibit on brewing, but the recipe books show how beer was once praised for its health benefits.
The exhibit is on display at the University of Minnesota until May 31.
For the full interview on historical recipes with Lois Hendrickson and Emily Beck, use the audio player above. Several recipes from the Wangensteen Library are included below, and more are available through the library's site. If you can decipher and locate the ingredients, you can throw yourself a historical feast.