Today, a recipe for KTOO-FM. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Interesting email yesterday:
Radio station KTOO-FM, in Juneau, Alaska, is
thinking about doing a cookbook with recipes
supplied by its on-air people. They honored me by
asking me to supply one.
The only beings in my household who regard me as
any kind of chef are two dogs and two cats. (Lay a
base of one handful dry dog food; liberally garnish
with four chunks canned meat. Well, that might do
up in Iditarod country, but I need something for
So I turn to the source my mother used for food on
special occasions. It was her 1899 edition of the
White House Cook Book. The first
edition had come out during the presidency of
grossly-overweight Grover Cleveland. My mother's
edition was published during the presidency of
William McKinley, who was also quite portly.
To my friends in Juneau, I offer the White
House Cook Book recipe for pound cake from
that bygone epoch of America -- something my mother
would prepare when she really wanted to give us all
a treat. There are several forms. The American and
British pound cakes are similar. I'm not certain
which my mother made. I'll give you the somewhat
fancier British recipe.
It's called pound cake because the recipes
do things by the pound. Begin with a pound
of butter, which you stir until it takes on a
creamy consistency. Then mix in a pound of
sugar. Next separate the yolks of nine eggs from
their whites. (In the American version, that
becomes a dozen eggs.) Beat the yolks and
stir them in. (Be still, my arteries; we've only
As my mother then mixes in a pound and a half of
flour, my sister and I lurk -- hoping that her
attention will falter long enough for us to get our
fingers into the mix.
Now the trimmings: Add a pound of currants, two
ounces of candied peel that've been cut into neat
slices, a half-ounce of citron, and a half-ounce of
sweet almonds, blanched and chopped. Toss in just a
little pounded mace.
When all is thoroughly mixed, you go off to the
side and whisk the egg whites. Mix them in
thoroughly and beat the resulting batter for twenty
minutes. The recipe says you might throw in a glass
of wine -- although, it points out, you hardly need
At this point my sister and I are practically
standing at attention. Our moment has come. My
mother lines the sides and bottom of a round tin
with strips of buttered paper and pours the
heart-stopping ambrosia in. The mixing bowl and the
spoon are ours. My sister and I haggle over an
equitable disposition: who licks the spoon, who
licks the bowl. Meanwhile the tin goes into a
well-heated oven to bake between two to
two-and-a-half hours, no temperature specified. My
mother simply knew how hot it should be.
Those tastes and smells now come back from
sixty-five years ago. If any of you good people in
Juneau want to challenge your cardiac system with
one of these, let us know. It'd be worth the trip
just to smell the odors wafting from your kitchen.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
H. Ziemann, and Mrs. S. L. Gillette, White House
Cook Book: Cyclopedia of Information for the Home
Containing Cooking, Toilet, and Household Recipes
... , Chicago: Warner Co. 1899.
I am grateful to James Lienhard for digging out the
old family recipe book and finding that wonderful
old pound cake for me.
The dedication in the original 1887 edition of
the White House Cook Book reads as follows:
To the WIVES OF OUR PRESIDENTS, Those Noble Women
Who Have Graced the White House, And Whose Names and
Memories are Dear to All Americans, This Volume is
Affectionately Dedicated by the Author.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.