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Reading Recipe Books as Autobiography: Ellen Hall Crosman

Reading Recipe Books as Autobiography: Ellen Hall Crosman

Like most nineteenth-century women, Ellen Hall Crosman left behind little written material. Census records provide the basic structure of her life; she was born in Bedford, Pennsylvania in 1847. She married James Heron Crosman in Allegheny City on April 25, 1872 and moved with her new husband to New York where he worked as a stockbroker. According to the census and social directories, the family lived in New York City and the surrounding suburbs, including New Rochelle and Tarryton. Ellen raised four children, served as the vice-president general of the New York chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), founded the National Society Patriotic Women of America, and occasionally appeared in the society pages of New York newspapers.

Ellen Hall Crosman’s recipe book fills in her life story. Ellen collected recipes for cakes, pickles, punch, sauces, candies, and other dishes. Since she recorded more information than ingredients and cooking time, her recipe book serves as an autobiography, providing information about her travels, friend and kinship networks, club work, and her efforts to nurture her family. Most of Ellen’s recipes are not only attributed to an individual source, she also provides the location and date. For instance, in November 1899 Ellen attended the D.A.R. Slate Conference in Lancaster, PA (likely with her sister, Mary Jordan, who lived nearby in Harrisburg) where she was served Devil’s Food Cake. Recipes for Devil’s Food Cake, a rich, intensely chocolate flavored cake, proliferated in the early twentieth century. The first printed references to Devil’s Food appear in the early 1900s and it’s unsurprising that Ellen Crosman, noted society hostess, would have been eager to add this recipe to her collection when she encountered it at the D.A.R. conference.

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