Language is such a powerful tool. You can learn so much about the writer, about a different culture, or about a past time just through the words the writer chooses. As a history teacher, I end up thinking about this a lot, especially when we’re looking at primary sources in class. Of course, it’s hard to get my students to appreciate this; they spend most of their time wondering why Thomas Jefferson didn’t capitalize his letters and what the word “scission” means.* But all that unconventional spelling, those weird word choices, they help you imagine the time period in a way that other tools just can’t.
One of my favorite historical novels, A Northern Light, tells the story of Mattie, a girl growing up in the Adirondacks in 1906. She wants to be a writer, but it’s hard to stand up for what she wants when she’s expected to look after her sisters. The author, Jennifer Donnelly, puts you immediately in Mattie’s shoes with strong, vivid words:
“When Mamma was alive, she could make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa’s trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering, and roll out a piecrust. All at the same time and without ever raising her voice. I’m lucky if I can keep the mush from burning and Lou and Beth from slaughtering each other.”
Trousers. Mamma and Pa. Dinner pails. Clabbering. You don’t just know it’s 1906, you feel it with those words.
But really, what the heck is “clabbering,” anyway?
“Clabbering” means curdling milk. Cooks would use “clabber,” or curdled milk, the same way we use buttermilk today: to create a tender crumb in baking or to lend a tangy taste. Back in the day when people got their milk fresh from cows instead of fresh from the supermarket, raw milk would naturally curdle when left out. You can still do that today, of course, but most of us can only access pasteurized milk, which will only sour when left out.
So if you’re, say, reading an old recipe for pancakes from colonial Williamsburg, and it happens to call for clabber, you’re more than welcome to substitute some buttermilk. You’ll still get the same light texture, and you won’t have to worry about germs.
And that’s what I mean about language: not only do the words themselves provide a window into a different time, but the meaning behind them also shows you the daily rituals of the past. Cooking techniques used for centuries by women who had to milk the cow if they wanted to bake for their families. Techniques that we’ve mostly forgotten about thanks to the magic of mass-produced meals, pasteurization, and industrially modified food.
The pancakes, by the way? Delicious. Tender, tangy, and just substantial enough thanks to the addition of cornmeal. Since there’s no sweetener in the cakes themselves, they’re more versatile than modern-day pancakes: equally excellent with a salad for dinner or with maple syrup for breakfast.
Old Virginia Batter Cakes
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)
2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour, plus more if needed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
butter for the pan
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs until frothy. Add the buttermilk and water and whisk to combine; whisk in the cornmeal, flour, and salt. Let stand. Meanwhile, brush a griddle or frying pan with butter and set over medium heat. Just before you start cooking the pancakes, stir the baking soda into the batter. If the mixture is too thin, add flour by tablespoons until thick enough.
Working in batches, fry the pancakes in the heated pan, using about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. When the pancakes have set and bubbles have formed in the middle (about 1 1/2 minutes), flip and cook another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Serve with savory or sweets according to your fancy.
* True story: I had this conversation today with my 9th graders.