The Icing on the Cake - Quite a Lot of Pain and Suffering

The Icing on the Cake - Quite a Lot of Pain and Suffering

Recently I acquired a cookbook that is over 130 years old. Dated 1879, Housekeeping in Old Virginia, sounds like it would cover all of what it means to be domestic, but is really just a cookbook.

The recipes are so interesting since processed food was in its early stages at that time. Sugar was available as was white flour and canned vegetables. But other than that, food was really what it had been since creation. Milk was not even being pasteurized yet. That didn't happen until the early 1900s.

Anyway, since I am bringing a dessert to Bible study tonight, the thought came to me to look at what sweets were like back then. My eye landed on a recipe for icing. After reading it I realized that sweets were probably served very rarely. See if you don't come tp the same conclusion:
1 1/2 pounds of sugar
1/2 pint water
Boil until it ropes. Have ready the whites of seven eggs well beaten, pour the syrup into a bowl, and beat until milk warm. Then pour in the eggs, and beat for an hour.
Of course, before you even started slaving in the kitchen, you had to gather the eggs.  

And if that wasn't enough work, you then had to milk the cow. Although there is no milk in the recipe, how can you have cake without a glass of milk? This lady had her work cut out for her. Every time her husband or children asked for this sweet treat, she was off and running!

And just look how simple the recipe is laid out. Only three ingredients and just three sentences of instructions. That's it! Simple, right? I find this so interesting. The sugar and water must be boiled until the mixture "ropes". The only time I've ever done this is when I've made candy (that's a thing of the past), and it takes quite a lot of time and stirring over a hot stove.

Then you beat this mixture, boiling hot off the stove until it is "milk warm". That term "milk warm" has to refer to the temperature of milk, fresh from the cow, when the milk is still the body temperature of the cow. So to beat it for that long must have been exhausting. 

But the real "icing on the cake" is the last step in this recipe..."beat for an hour"! Whoa!!! Now you well know that the homemaker of 1879 did not have an electric mixer. This was done with the old rotary beater at best or with another utensil of equal labor-intensity. What a lot of pain and suffering just to have something sweet to eat! 

And don't forget that this homemaker had most likely already baked the cake that this icing would go on. So, depending on her recipe and resources, she may have had a lot more work cut out for her in order to do the baking, such as grinding wheat berries into flour and churning butter.

My guess is that the homemaker, if she were like me, hardly ever served iced cake, since it was such a monumental labor of love. But then, another woman may have had a fixation with physical exercise, in which case she may have served cake with icing several times a week to keep her arms slim and trim. And then, of course, the more cake she ate, the more she would want to exercise again by beating the icing for an eternity to burn off the fat that was accumulating around her middle from eating what she made during her workout. Obviously, all this physical exertion was really just an exercise in futility since we know now how detrimental sugar is to our health.

I wouldn't know where or how to start beating the eggs 
with this contraption. It looks dangerous to me.

As for me, had I wanted to exercise back then, I would have gone outside to the garden, grabbed a shovel or hoe and some sunshine and been happy (and sore) with that, like I am now.

But there is a bit of culinary wisdom that we can borrow from this recipe. Currently sweets are so easy to get hold of and, in fact, there is hardly a processed food that does not contain moderate to large amounts of sugars. And then in nearly every one of those processed foods, one of the sugars used is high fructose corn syrup, the most damaging form of sugar.

Nowadays our pain and suffering are not in preparing sweet treats, but in eating them so frequently (every day, all day long). Sugar's effect is killing us. Keeping in mind the huge numbers of people who develop Diabetes 2, as well as many other degenerative diseases as a result of eating sugar-saturated foods, it is wise to really limit our sugar intake. Here are some ways to do that:

1. Do not eat store-bought sweets. Rather, commit to making your own at home from the best ingredients possible.

A team of cake-makers after having made the cake with icing. 
Notice the splattered frosting on their clothing. 

2. Buy the best forms of unrefined sugar available - granulated palm sugar, raw honey, organic maple syrup, Rapadura, blackstrap molasses, stevia. These are expensive but this is an advantage. If you are on a budget, you will not make sweets often because you simply won't be able to afford it.

3. This suggestion is only for those of you who are really serious about cutting way down on sugar. Find and use labor-intensive recipes for sweets, like the one above. Of course, with the homemaker's modern conveniences, the labor will be cut down dramatically.

4. Instead of a sweet treat, eat a salty treat like buttered popcorn, popped in coconut oil. Or try a very lightly sweetened treat like peanut butter mixed with a little raw honey and coconut oil, then spread on celery.

Do you have any old dessert recipes that feature labor-intensive methods? How do you discipline yourself to limit your intake of sweets?


  1. Oh my! We would never have frosting if I had to make it that way! But when folks did get an opportunity to eat frosting back then, no doubt they truly appreciated the work of love that went into to making it!

  2. Absolutely loved this...not only useful info, but entertaining!


  3. Thank you for this encouragement today. I know the sugar thing may seem mundane but when we contemplate the magnitude of it's effect on our lives it becomes quite serious. Just this past week my husband and I were prompted to embark on a "sugar fast", so to speak. We are even taking our kids along with us! For 120 days (yes, THROUGH the holidays!) we are eliminating as many additions of sugar as we can from our diet at home. We will allow some moderate substitutions such as honey or maple syrup for homemade dressings, bread, etc. However, if we should happen to be guests in someone's home we will allow a treat to be eaten in the spirit of accepting an offering of hospitality. We will also joyously partake of sweetness on four holiday DAYS (not seasons!) during this time. This is all in an effort not to erradicate this ever-present companion but to put it in it's proper place. Our hope and prayer is that it will then remain so, long after the initial fast.

  4. I know that this comment comes a year and a half after the fact, but nonetheless, here it is:
    We eat ONLY sweets that I make at home, and I only use regular ingredients (meaning no non-fat, low-fat, artificial anything). When done in this way, I find that you need only a tiny slice of chocolate cake or a small biscuit for strawberry shortcake. In America, our food portions are out of control, and I try to use portions like we had growing up! My cakes are completely from scratch (no box mixes!), my pies are rolled from dough I made (not from the Pillsbury Dough-Guy, as my daughter calls him). And I make them to have on Sabbath, after church. It makes a 'treat' special, especially served on Sabbath!


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Sharon Kaufman
Jesus Christ has been my Savior since 1975. Robert, the wonderful man that God provided to love me has been my husband for 48 of those years. We have five grown children, with children of their own. Of course, that means that we have grandchildren - ten to be exact, and nine great-grandchildren with another one on the way. I have been a stay-at-home mom, sometimes helping to supplement the income from within the home. Now I am a stay-at-home grandmother. Jesus Christ has been my guide and keeper and I have found, in all the trials, heartbreaks and good times that He just keeps getting sweeter and sweeter as the years roll by. My future is secure and I look forward to eternity in the presence of my Creator, Redeemer and King.
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