History is best understood when it’s reheated and served for dinner, according to writer and food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey.
“Food becomes a platform from which we can see so many things about the way people lived. It gives us insights into culture, commerce, lifestyles — when we taste the things people ate, we learn a lot more about them,” she says. Eighmey has written numerous food history books, including “Potluck Paradise,” a compendium of 1950s recipes from community cookbooks, and “Food Will Win the War,” an examination of the ways Minnesotans cooked and grew food to aid the war effort during World War I.
Her latest book, “Soda Shop Salvation: Recipes and Stories From the Sweeter Side of Prohibition” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), is a fascinating look at the way Americans ate, drank, socialized, and spent their time changed once alcohol was taken out of the picture. When people couldn’t drink alcohol, they drank soda and ate ice cream. When they couldn’t sit in a saloon, they listened to the radio at the soda fountain, or went to the movies, and spent time with their families. When the saloons that dominated every corner in America closed, the land was sold to a new business looking for prime real estate: Gas stations, fueling the rise of the automobile.
Prohibition may have been a failed legislative experiment, but it was a fantastic success for the food and beverage industries, and ultimately brought about a number of positive social changes. Eighmey’s book is part history, part recipe book, as she includes instructions to make the most popular drinks of the era so that today’s readers can literally taste the past.
MinnPost: We know now that Prohibition didn’t work out so well. But your book points out that things weren’t so great before Prohibition, either, and maybe our country needed a reset.
RKE: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Things were pretty bad. Americans drank nearly three times as much as they do today, and there was terrible violence, illness and poverty. And women and children bore the brunt of these problems. Men spent their time and paychecks in saloons while their families literally starved. Women’s frustration with the saloon culture that dominated society at the turn of the century helped bring about the right to vote and the expansion of women’s rights during these years — that was a huge side effect.
MP: Why don’t we credit Prohibition with these positive changes?
RKE: Maybe because there’s just so much to study in history, and certain things get lost. When I was a kid, “The Untouchables” was on TV, and that great mythologizing of the gangster element of Prohibition dominated the story. Gangsters became shorthand for Prohibition, and we don’t usually go deeper into understanding the way alcohol affected our culture before 1919. All these amazing changes happened when alcohol was taken out of the picture, but we largely take them for granted now.
It’s something I talk about in “Food Will Win the War.” World War I completely lost our attention because of World War II. People tend to skip over it, but that’s when the U.S. truly became a world power, and that war was truly fought by everyone, not just soldiers. Every person at home fought the war, in their kitchens and their gardens. Being able to feed ourselves and our soldiers was a huge thing, especially when the Germans couldn’t even feed themselves. But other things happen, and these stories get lost. Researching food history helps to see a bigger picture of the past.
MP: Once American culture wasn’t dominated by saloons, you write, all these other pastimes and industries developed, including ice cream and soda.
RKE: Yes, you could say Prohibition literally sweetened U.S. culture. When you look at the soda fountain trade journals, you see this great sense of optimism as business looks as Prohibition as an opportunity to make the best of it. So we get a huge explosion of really creative soda drinks and ice cream flavors, which are just fun. Soda became a part of our diet, and a whole generation of children grew up eating ice cream. And life changed, as men, instead of going to the saloon alone, and sitting in a dark, dirty room full of spittoons, would take their families out to these soda fountains.
MP: That was the beginning of women and children eating out instead of being hidden away at home — a huge change.
RKE: Yes, society became much more inclusive. Women and families took part in public society to a much greater extent. Even during Prohibition, women started to participate in drinking as they had not been able to before; they were a part of the speakeasy scene. And lunch changed! Saloons typically offered men free sandwiches for lunch, but when they closed, and there was no more free lunch, the soda fountains became lunch counters, and charged for the food, and other new businesses came in too.
MP: And the changes weren’t just about food, you explain. Radio, movies, and car culture rose during this time.
RKE: Yes, I thought it was totally charming that at first, no one knew how to operate radios, so the soda fountains had them, and people went there to listen. And they loved it, so suddenly everyone had to have a radio, which fundamentally changed how we communicate.
MP: How did you become a food historian?
RKE: I started by accident. I cooked and baked since I was 10, because I liked to do it. My writing career started in advertising and PR, but one day I was working as a volunteer for a historic home, and was developing docent material that would bring the house and the family to life. In the family notebook I found a recipe for “Jumbles” and it was written in that incomplete and offhand manner people write recipes they know really well. It turned out jumbles are a kind of tea cake cookie, and they are really, really good. So I started thinking about historic foods, and trying a lot of things at home, and one day my husband uttered those fateful words, “You should write a cookbook.”
MP: You’ve spent a lot of time recreating historic recipes for your books. So what’s your home cooking like?
RKE: Well, when I’m working on material, we tend to eat what I’m researching. This holiday season, I did make some things from this book, like syrups and an ice cream topping I make all the time. I don’t use a lot of salt or butter, and tend to keep things simple.
MP: So have you developed a 19th-century palate?
RKE: Possibly! It’s just the flavor platform we prefer. Today, there’s so much layering of flavors, and people are eating things with lots of ingredients, a lot going on. I think that’s gilding the lily, and you’re not letting the flavors shine.
MP: You have another book coming out. Tell me about “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen.” (Out Feb. 4 on Smithsonian Books.)
RKE: Oh, I’m a Lincoln enthusiast — that’s one way to put it. I just think, if he’s not our greatest president, he’s a very interesting, very well-considered president. It’s fascinating to see how he grew up in a life of deprivation on the Indiana frontier, and from there built a flatboat to explore the Mississippi River. And in the 1820s, the Mississippi was a river of food, carrying oysters, citrus, apples, corn and hogs. He watched a very sophisticated food trade evolve. And then he goes to Washington, where he was exposed to very fine cuisine. And his wife brought in southern food traditions, and French, from boarding school. But still, you could walk into the White House any given morning and find him eating a plate of baked beans for breakfast. I think that’s fascinating, and tells you so much about the person, and the times.
MP: Do you have another book planned?
RKE: Well, I have three boxes full of material, and they all have potential. I’m doing a lot of reading, recipe testing, thinking. But nothing is Jell-O yet. There are just a lot of pots on the stove right now.
- Lynden’s Soda Fountain, one of the few soda shops left in the Twin Cities, is currently serving the Ginger Drake, Klondike Fizz and Tasty Toasty Sundae recipes from the book. 490 Hamline Ave. South, St. Paul.
- The Minnesota Historical Society is currently showing American Spirits, an exhibit about Prohibition.