Crowd-Sourcing Private Life, plus free recipe for Biskit Pudin (with Suckit!)

“I never travel without my diary.  One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”                            — Oscar Wilde

A handdrawn illustration from an Iowa cookbook. But what is that under the table — a platypus?

Even better than one’s own diaries are other people’s diaries.  So when I found out that the University of Iowa needs us all to spend a little time poking through other people’s diaries, I said Sign me up!  That is, I said it to myself, since you don’t actually have to say it to the University of Iowa.  You just go to the website and start poking through a bewildering line-up of fascinating documents.  And here’s the thing — it’s not nosiness, it’s scholarship.  Disguising nosiness as scholarship — my modus operandi!

It works like this: archives with piles of unedited material post the photos online, and civilians like you and me do the transcription.  To give it its official description, the transcription is crowd-sourced.  The page is open before you on the site, and you just type your transcription into a little box undernearth.  You do as little or as much as you want.  Someone will come along later and check your transcription — or you can spend some time checking someone else’s.

The University of Iowa library’s “DIY History” site is bulging at the seams with documents to be transcribed: diaries, letters, and cookbooks.  Or you can go for pictures and tag historical photos.

They have a whole collection of Civil War diaries waiting to be transcribed.  Among the other diaries is a set called the Iowa Byington Reed diaries.  Here the “Iowa” is misleading — the author of the diaries was named Iowa.  This leads me to think of all kinds of lame jokes, but thankfully I’ll move on to a description.  Iowa Byington was a housewife, teacher, and seamstress who married a farmer named Will Reed.  She left eight boxes of diaries — 2.25 linear feet — covering her courtship, wedding preparations, news, family, wars, celebrations, and everything in between, from 1879 to 1936.  She’s not a particularly elegant or effusive writer, but somehow her ordinariness speaks volumes.  As you can imagine, you could easily get resolve only to peek into a page or two and end up getting lost for an afternoon.

The cover of Iowa Byington Reed’s diary

The part I’ve been transcribing comes from 1920, when Iowa (the person, not the state) was 69.  She appears to be living with her daughter.  What was there to do in the long winter months?  No television, of course, and apparently no radio.  Visitors drop by, she goes on visits, and she spends much of her time making coverlets and writing letters to her sister Hattie.  She doesn’t seem to note Valentine’s Day.  But her late husband Will is never far from her mind.  She writes:

Thursday February 12 1920. Fourteen months today and same day of the week since we put Dear Will away. I looked over our papers and crocheted.

Friday February 13 1920. A cold day.  Read my papers in forenoon and worked on Venes spread in afternoon and evening.

Saturday February 14 1920. A very cold unpleasant day.  Lora went to Peoria. I crocheted some. Wrote Hattie and sent papers to Aunt Sarah. Vene and Edith busy with the work.

Sunday February 15 1920. Still cold. I read the papers some. Wrote … Lawrence. We had our dinner in the kitchen.  Lora went to church.

Monday February 16 1920. I was home all day.  I kept busy with my crochet work.  It was 19 years ago today since Will and I moved to Coralville, to make the house that he loved so well and now I have neither him or that house. 

Browsing around in her earlier life provided some flashier spots, but somehow I found the sameness of her later life quite moving.  Similarly moving was the Civil War diary I transcribed.  In the part I tackled, the man hadn’t yet left home; he was a bachelor doing farm chores, rising at dawn, to bed at nine o’clock.  He didn’t know that soon he would be off to war and that the hard round of farm chores would soon seem paradisical.

The handwritten cookbooks are equally fascinating.  From an American cookbook of 1850-1870: “Pickled oysters.  Take a hundred and fifty-five large oysters…”  A cookbook from the 1920s features Divinity Pie and Butterscotch Pie.

And here for your delectation is a recipe from the euphoniously named Penelope Pemberton, dating from 1716.  I’ve added punctuation, but this is otherwise a faithful transcription.  You can tell how Penelope pronounces her words by her phonetic spelling, e.g. “crame” for “cream.”  “Orring” must be an orange.    A “pudin” is of course a British pudding, i.e. a dessert, not the creamy American kind of pudding.  I wonder if biskits/biscuits refers to American-style baking-powder biscuits or British-style cookie-like objects? “Sack” is wine.  But — what is suckit?  Or have I transcribed it wrong?  Suggestions? (The original is down below, atop the rest of the transcription.)  The suckit doesn’t actually seem to figure in the recipe, so perhaps you have to bring your own suckit to the feast.

Biskit Pudin with Suckit.

Penelope Pemberton’s recipe for Biskit Pudin — with Suckit!

Take 1/2 pound of savi biskits, poiver [?] one gill [?], a quart of crame boyld, when coldd masht too gether. 

Beat 8 eggs, lave out 4 whits, mix with yr biskits, sweeten it to yr tast. yr have rady cut in thin short slises 2 ounses of canded Lemmon, 2 of orring. Stir it with yr outher things. If it be too thick, ad some spoonefolls of crame more too stir it up, when yll put it in yr dish which must be butterd and past laydd a bout. Be quick with it into oven when it is stord up, 1/2 an ouer or 3 quarter will bake it.  Sarve it with sack, butter & suger.  If yll plase yll may make 1/2 pudin and put in 3 ounses of all Lemon or 3 ounses of all orringe or 3 ounses of sittron.

Those spare minutes and hours spent noodling around on the internet can now gratify your nosiness be both entertaining and helpful!  As you eat yr Biskit Pudin, wander over to the University of Iowa “DIY History” project and have yrself a look.

10 thoughts on “Crowd-Sourcing Private Life, plus free recipe for Biskit Pudin (with Suckit!)

      • I’ve been having a terrible day at work and,… um… using a technique my…um,.. friends and I call…. um….”Marthamethoding” all day by taking a few minutes here and there to research this.;-)

  1. Possibly you are to powder one gill (1/2 cup) of the biscuits. This resembles techniques from other recipes of the time. See:

    The London art of cookery, and housekeeper’s complete assistant, on a new plan, by John Farley. London, Scatcherd and Letterman [etc.] 1792. “Lemon Pudding” page 195-196.
    “Lemon Pudding.
    • CUT the rind very thin off three lemons, and boil
    hem in three quarts of water till they be tender.
    Then pound them very fine in a mortar, and have
    ready ready a quarter of a pound of Naples biscuits, boiled
    up in a quart of milk or cream. Mix them and the le-
    mon rind with it, and beat up twelve yolks and fix
    whites of eggs very fine. Melt a quarter of a pound
    of fresh butter, and put in half a pound of sugar, and
    a little orange flower water. Mix all well together,
    put it over the stove, keep it stirring till it be thick,
    and then squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Put
    puss paste round your dish, as before directed, then
    pour in your pudding, cut some candied sweetmeats
    and strew over it, and bake it three quarters of an
    hour. Or you may make it in this manner : Blanch and
    beat eight ounces of Jordan almonds with orange flower
    water, and add to them half a pound of cold butter,
    the yolks of ten eggs, the juice of a large lemon, and
    half the rind grated fine. Work them in a marble
    mortar till they look white and light, then put the puff
    paste on your dish, pour in your pudding, and bake k
    half an hour.”

    • I would add all this great extra information to the main body of the post if it weren’t for the fact that WordPress keeps trying merely to duplicate the post (meaning posting two nearly identical posts) rather than edit it. This has to be their bad design and not my ineptitude, right? Right? Anyway, it is getting more and more tempting to make this recipe with all this great new detail. And then people in a hundred years can read our diaries: “Today I triumphed and discovered the real meaning of ‘suckit.'” I hope those future folks annotate the entries correctly.

  2. The word you’re transcribing as “gill” on the second line looks to me more like “y” superscript “m”. Is “ym” an abbreviation that would make sense here? It would be stylistically consistent with the author’s use of the abbreviation “yr” several places for “your”.

    And, in the first line, could it be “power” rather than “poiver”? Maybe the author left out a “d” and really meant “powder”?

  3. Enu beat me too it. I was going to say ladyfingers based on a) the recipie, and b) my exposure to reading old recipies/cookbook/books about ye old historical foodways.

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