One of the interesting things about reading Isabella’s books is the window they give us into how people lived between 1870 and 1920. From fashion to modes of travel, Isabella’s stories chronicle how different her daily life was from our modern lives today.
One noted difference is how people ate around the turn of the 20th Century. Back then meat, vegetables and potatoes were diet staples; and when one of those ingredients was lacking, people relied on affordable food, like johnny-cakes, to fill their stomachs. Sally Lunn cakes helped celebrate special occasions; but of all the foods that Isabella mentioned in her books, it was the humble doughnut that appeared on the menu most often.
Because they were small and easily transported, children took doughnuts to school for their noon meal. When Wayne Pierson took the job of teacher in a small town in By Way of the Wilderness, he toured the school-house and found it somewhat lacking:
He had taken in each dismal detail—the air of desolation, the hacked desks, the smoky walls, the grimy windows, and the indescribable odor adhering to an old schoolroom: odors made up of generations of lunches—bread-and-butter, and headcheese, pie, and doughnuts.
And in A New Graft on the Family Tree, a kind farmer’s wife fed wandering John Morgan breakfast, then gave him a pocket-full of doughnuts to take along on his journey.
Dusted with sugar, doughnuts were also served as a dessert.
In Christie’s Christmas, a generous farm family fed the passengers on the nearby stalled train with:
Bread and butter, piles of it; a soup-plate piled high with slices of ham, thin, and done to a crisp, and smelling, oh, so appetizing! Sheets of gingerbread, great squares of cheese, a bowl of doughnuts, another bowl of quince sauce, and a pail full of milk.
And in David Ransom’s Watch, Hannah Sterns served the neighborhood boys’ literary club “doughnuts, or cookies, or seed cakes, or the ever popular tea-cakes. Scarcely a meeting of the club that winter but some dainty was offered in Harlan’s name in the way of refreshment.”
At Ermina’s wedding in Household Puzzles, the family couldn’t afford to serve cake, but they had doughnuts and “delicious coffee to drink with them.”
Today we think of doughnuts as a breakfast food for the most part, but in Isabella’s time, doughnuts—from humble and plain to cake-like confections—were served with almost any meal.
You can read previous posts about other food items mentioned in Isabella’s books: