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“Baking is therapy”*…

 

Royal Baking Powder Exhibit at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876. Note the “Absolutely Pure” tagline.

How much thought have you, over the course of your entire life, given to the subject of baking powder? Personally I can say perhaps 30 minutes—that is, until I noticed the existence of food historian Linda Civitello’s Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking. Sorry; come again?

This humble kitchen staple, not infrequently confused with baking soda and practically invisible, is apparently responsible for the fact you don’t have to spend all damn day making bread. Civitello argues that the invention of baking powder was a game-changer, a wildly labor-saving creation that frequently eliminated the necessity of maintaining your own little cache of yeast and made it possible to create all sorts of delicious goodies, from fluffy modern biscuits to birthday cake. Before baking powder, “You’re talking upwards of 12 hours of rising, usually more like 24 hours,” Jessica Carbone, a scholar in the National Museum of American History’s Food History Project, told Smithsonian magazine. Women spent the 19th century learning to use the stuff; cookbooks frequently offered recipes with and without.

But the market was also fiercely contested. Different companies had slightly different variations on a substance that did basically the same thing, leaving them to compete via other means. And they certainly did. Royal Baking Powder, which used cream of tartar, took the tagline “Absolutely Pure,” meant as an indictment of powders made with alum. The company played on consumer fears of adulterated food, Baking Powder Wars recounts, even lobbying to have alum varieties banned. And believe it or not, in Missouri, they succeeded—via bribery in the state Senate, according to the book. When the era’s muckrakers found out, it erupted into an enormous scandal…

The fascinating– and vicious– history of a kitchen staple: “Who Knew? The History of Baking Powder Is Incredibly Dramatic.”

* Paul Hollywood

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As we pop it into the oven, we might send finely-sifted birthday greetings to Oliver Evans; he was born on this date in 1755.  An inventor, engineer and businessman, he was one of the most prolific and influential inventors in the early years of the United States– a pioneer in the fields of automation, materials handling and steam power (for the lattermost of which, he is often referred to as “the American Watt”).

But before he turned to steam, Evans designed the first automatic flour mill.  He replaced labor-intensive grist mills with a mechanism in which grain moved automatically through a series of five machines to deliver flour packed in barrels at the end.

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Written by LW

September 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

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