Q&A with Linda Civitello, author of “Baking Powder Wars”

civitelloLinda Civitello teaches food history in southern California. She is the author of Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, winner of the Gourmand Award for Best Food History Book in the World in English (U.S.). She recently answered some questions about her book Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking.

Q: How did you first stumble upon the fascinating history behind baking powder?

Linda Civitello: When I was teaching at a culinary school in Southern California, a colleague made an off-hand remark about “when baking powder was invented.” It stopped me in my tracks. I bake all the time, but I had never thought about baking powder at all, much less about somebody going to the trouble to invent it. I started looking into it, figuring I wouldn’t find much. First I looked at cookbooks, and was surprised at all the different leaveners women experimented with, and how difficult baking was before baking powder. Then I came across an article by the celebrity muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. It was about corruption, using the baking powder business bribery of a state legislature as an example. That led to court cases—yes, about baking powder!—and advertising in magazines and trade cards and cookbooks, and government documents, and company records, and comic strips and cartoons. I knew I had hit the mother lode—every writer’s dream.

Q: You mention that food history has long been ignored by philosophers, historians, and anthropologists. Why is food history important?

Civitello: Food history is important because anything that is in the culture is in the food: who is allowed to cook or even touch which food, to eat it, in what circumstances, etc. Americans routinely eat baking powder-leavened cakes, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and other sweet things for breakfast, while many places in the world eat soup. Men and women eat together, with or without children. Races eat together. Cookbooks are an extremely valuable source of information about a culture.  Who writes them and who reads them is an indication of literacy, which is why early cookbooks were ALL written by men. Is the cookbook raising money for a church? In the U.S., churches are not supported by the government, so they need to raise money, and women discovered this way to do it. Who is left out of cookbooks is also important, like the African American cooks who were not given credit for the food they created. That is why I included cookbooks and recipes from Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others, to show how baking powder was part of the assimilation process, of learning to become American by learning to “eat American,” either voluntarily or forcibly.

Q: What does baking powder specifically illuminate about food history?

Civitello: Baking Powder Wars is the story of American Exceptionalism and industrialization. Baking powder did not begin and catch on like wildfire in the United States by accident. Women and men both wanted this product because of conditions specific to America, such as baking in the home instead of having commercial bakeries controlled by guilds, as they did in Europe. Americans were more open to new things and willing to experiment. We also had the technology and infrastructure, especially communications and transportation, to create baking powder and ship it across the country and the world, and to educate people about how to use it. Americans used baking powder to make cake and donuts and so many other foods uniquely ours, even if they originated elsewhere in a different form. Baking powder biscuits are America’s bread: white, light, and fluffy; easy to make and quick to bake. They are the versatile little black dress of baked goods. They can be dropped onto a cookie sheet and baked, or rolled out and cut into shapes. They can be sweet or savory, with gravy, as dumplings on top of soup, the topping on cobbler, the shortcake in strawberry shortcake, or just sliced and stuffed as a slider.

Q: How is food history connected to women’s history?

Civitello: American women were the motive force behind the drive for chemical leaveners. Spending one full day each week making bread for large families that consumed approximately 1 pound of bread per person per day was backbreaking labor, and women wanted shortcuts. Also, the tremendous moral pressures on women in the 19th century, from the medical profession, academia, and ministers like Sylvester Graham, are still with us. At my speaking engagements, the first thing I ask the audience is how many people bake bread. One or two hands go up. Then I ask how many people feel guilty because they do not bake bread, and almost every woman in the room raises her hand. These ridiculous pressures are still with us.

Baking Powder Wars also shows how resilient women are. Two hundred years ago, women found time to share recipes and teach each other about new technology like baking powder, just the way they wrote to each other and campaigned to get the vote. They invented an entirely new kind of American cookbook, the community cookbook. These are the cookbooks where everyone contributes a recipe, and the proceeds go to charity. It really warms my heart to see that women are doing the same things now on the internet: sharing life tips/hacks and recipes, telling personal stories, helping each other. The messages haven’t changed, just the medium.

Q: Baking powder seems like it is connected to everything—nationalism, morality, gender, literacy, technology, business. What is the single most interesting fact you learned while researching and writing this book?

Civitello: Baking powder IS connected to everything:  the Indianapolis 500, gingerbread, Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winners, biscotti, the Wizard of Oz, fry bread, Good Housekeeping magazine, the U. S. Supreme Court, birthday cakes, the Missouri Legislature, pancakes and waffles, the Home Economics Association, and cupcakes, among other things. The cutthroat business of baking powder a century ago really highlighted for me how corporate greed can masquerade as enlightened public policy, and how easily intelligent people can be bamboozled. Constant vigilance is needed.

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