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Wow. This is fascinating. (Ok I have a Ph.D. in history, so I'm biased; I love unusual sources of historical information). Cooking these two recipes in a school class, or to hand out, would be a great way to illustrate the differences between then and now. It's hard for any of us, but especially someone who is 14 or 19, to relate to the scarcity of the 1930s. But here is an example you can taste.

I believe that there were butter shortages by WWII, at least in the USA, so your point about stretching an expensive, luxury item might be bang-on. If you have student help, maybe have them go read a women's magazine or a newspaper, on microfilm, from the 1930s and see if there are ads for the prices of these ingredients.

It's probably worth suggesting the possibility that the reason the "2012" recipe recommends six times more cheese is that it's a recipe to promote a Kraft Cheese product. The point with respect to butter/shortening is well taken, though. But I wonder if the net effect of the lower-fat biscuits wouldn't be that the consumer would eat more of them; fat tends to be more satiating than the carbohydrates that dominate the 1930 recipe.

Here's an old tea biscuit recipe to compare:


(sorry, to lazy to stick in the a tag).

^ That recipe, when scaled to those above, has 47.5g of butter, or about 3.35 tblsp, but no cheese. So it has perhaps a slightly higher fat content than the 1930s recipe.

Division fail: 57.5g, and 4 tblsp.

The equivalent recipe today:


Slightly less flour, double the fats, a little less milk.

I wonder what people liked to do with their biscuits in 1930? Did they prefer to slather on the butter afterward (preferably while still hot)? Were the tea biscuits a medium to showcase for the households jams and preserves? Were they used to soak up gravy and mop the dinner plate? In these cases maybe the plainer, drier biscuit would have been preferable to the richer biscuits. No point in wasting expensive fats on biscuits destined to be drenched in butter and jam or soaked in gravy. Better to save it for the pie crusts.

Mmmm. Pie.

Patrick, thanks so much for the link to the historical recipe. Two thoughts - they don't actually reproduce the original recipe, and they've obviously updated it a little bit (e.g. adding the metric amounts), so they might have upped the butter a bit too. Another thought is that the price of flour relative to the price of butter might have been higher in 1885 than in 1930. The ultimate use of the biscuits is another consideration. From what I've read, some people ate a lot of plum jam, plums being easy to grow in back yards in much of Canada.


At least in Scottish households (and on Air Canada today, in my experience) a very common approach would be to have biscuits alongside cheeses. So the net amount of cheese may not have varied so much.

Recipe/good housekeeping books from 1930s/1940s Scotland tell a lot about how Scotland has come to be the most unhealthy part of the UK: the emphasis is on maximising the amount and variety of fat/protein consumed; this didn't lead to obseity in the 1930s/1940s because of (a) people's incomes and (b) the fact that living temperatures were such that a housekeeping book could solemnly advise that, ideally, "The temperature in a baby's bedroom should not drop below 0 degrees celsius."

On this subject, if you have a chance, check out the UK TV series Victorian Farm. It's a very interesting way to show what life was like for people in rural England in the Victorian era. They show some contemporary recipes, and it was remarkable how rich the food was.

Andrew F - I take your point - it's harder to get much richer than traditional Devonshire clotted cream, for example. And we don't know what the relative price of flour and fat was then. I'm wondering to what extent the very low fat content of that earlier recipe might have reflected wartime rationing.

On the other hand, if you read Larkrise to Candleford (similar era) the food described is very basic - lots of boiled vegetables with a little bit of meat from the family pig thrown in. People in that era (as now) tended not to write down recipes for traditional everyday food ("Mom, where's the recipe for mashed potatoes?" "There isn't one. I make them the way Granny showed me.")

Also: one of the changes in our diets has been the change of "treat" foods like chocolate into "everyday" foods. We party on Mardi Gras and feast on Easter, but we forget about the 40 days of fasting in between.

"A lot of Canadians struggle to keep their weight under control, and it's hard. One reason why is that the fat and sugar content of everyday foods keeps on creeping up - because it tastes good, and we can afford it."

I wonder if a more immediate reason is not also that there is more competition in the market. In the 1930s, Mummy's cooking and baking was often a monopolistic source of yumminess for kids and dads; in the best case scenario, there may have be an oligopoy, with granny and the neighbour constituting the only realistically available alternative suppliers. Theory tells us that such a situation limits product differentiation. By comparison, nowadays, kids, dads and mums have access to a large variety of potential suppliers of cookies, cakes and other fattening products, which compete on the basis of price and desirable features, i.e. sugar and fat in this case.

Guillaume - lovely observation!

Frances, when you reproduced the recipe you left out the lard. Lard would have been cheaper than butter but less flavourful so using a mix of butter and lard would have been the way to get flavour and economy. When travelling in the Southern States I was interested to learn that the reason buttermilk biscuits were so popular was that making buttermilk was a way to preserve milk without refrigeration. Recipes tell us much about how we live.

Rachel Goddyn,

"Recipes tell us much about how we live."

Very true. Different diets also have had a profound effect on the history of sciences like medicine: some of the most fascinating stories in the history science, like the story of Joseph Goldberger, begin with a regional idiosyncract in diet-


Had the Southern US diet been different, it could have taken decades longer to discover the cause of pellagra.

A truly delightful post. It's also very instructional as to how the presentation of the recipe data sparks such a far ranging series of thoughtful responses. It would be good fun to look at the economic performance of countries that are shifting from their traditional diet to more processed foods. Maybe its time to go and check the Big Mac Index http://bigmacindex.org/2012-big-mac-index.html at the Economist and see how it's doing with the financial crisis, but I hope they list the individual countries in the Euro zone rather than lumping them together.

As a baker, comparing cheese biscuits to tea biscuits is a bit of apples and oranges. There are recipes for both from both times, and cheese biscuits have always been a richer biscuit because of the cheese.

Knowing the dining habits of my family, back to be great-grandparents who were born at the turn of the 20th Century, yes, people did slather on butter and reached for it when eating biscuits without a second thought.

Second, wheat was higher in price in 1885. The Prairies had not yet come into full production and we didn't have modern wheat varieties. Modern Canadian wheats are essentially descendents of Marquis Wheat, which wasn't developed until 1905. Before then it was Red Fife, which doesn't mature fast enough to avoid frost damage on the Prairies.

Very good post and responses. And since we are talking about the diet and the history, I am linking a very fascinating post for a very good blog that turned my attention to this phenomenon: http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/2010/09/neolithic-counter-revolution-in-diet.html

Rachel, yup, I cut the recipe in half and combined the butter and lard into 1 tbsp butter/shortening (as you can see, this post is the basis for a student assignment, so I wanted to avoid having to explain what lard is, and make it easy to compare the amount of butter/lard across the recipes.) As a practical matter, I wonder if people would have used bacon grease for lard then? That would up the flavour a fair bit. Really interesting factoid about buttermilk biscuits, I never knew that.

Determinant, thanks for the observation on wheat prices.

JR, JV, thanks for the links.

I would hypothesize that the difference is in the marketing. The 2012 recipe exists to sell Kraft products. While both cheeses are clearly defined as being Kraft brands, butter is likely also expected to be a Kraft brand (since they own so many).

The '30s era recipe exists to sell baking powder. Since proportions of baking powder are fixed for chemical reasons, they instead set themselves a larger batch size, and don't care how this plays out for the other products in the recipe.

Neil - brilliant explanation!

If you are ever in the Québec City area, push another hundred km east on the south shore through the Côtes-du-Sud area and go to the Musée de la mémoire vivante (Museum of the living memory) in St-Jean-Port-Joli, a museum dedicated to the very nature of this post.


W.Peden: if the Southern diet had been different,there would have beeen no pellagra...(well at least in the South)

Jacques René Giguère,

There would have been much less, but still some especially among the very poor. Consequently, there would have been both fewer samples to study & no clear regional diet differences to study.

W. Peden : Absolutely right. A sick population is the epidemiologist's paradise. Sad is sometimes the work of a scientist...

Jacques Rene - what a wonderful initiative - is it mostly oral history, or are there things like books and journals? I couldn't find much on the web page.


Haven't you just contradicted yourself with your lard comment? The reason many people don't know what it is is because we don't use it nearly as much in cooking anymore. It's still sold, but at my local No Frills it sits in the baking section and there is one label available. Three for shortening.

Further, fats aren't equal when it comes to the "smoke point", the temperature at which they burn. The order from low to high is butter, margarine, lard and shortening. The higher/longer you want to bake an item, the more your baked good has to use a higher-temperature fat.

In Canada, margarine was illegal until 1949, it was barred from sale by the Federal Government under the Criminal Code, all as a sop to dairy farmers. The "Margarine Case" in 1949 legalized margarine and expressed limits to the Federal Government's Criminal Law power, one of its really strong and almost unlimited powers. As a result it is impossible to talk about constitutional limits to Federal power in Canada without talking about margarine.

Determinant - I'm not sure which lard comment you're referring too. The disappearance of lard is more evidence of the way that our diet is shaped by economic factors, which is precisely the point I'm trying to make here.

I would never deny that the choice of butter v. lard is of relevance for baking - anyone who has ever tried rolling out pastry made with butter v. pastry made with lard or a butter/lard blend can testify to that. It's not just the smoke points that are different, there is something about the their chemical properties, the way they combine with flour, that's different, and I don't quite know what it is.

I'm not sure lard was dropped due to expense but because of cheaper alternatives and a general attempt to move to "healthier eating".

"Economic factors" would be greater product variety rather than a choice of price points.

Frances: the Musée de la mémoire vivante is very young, barely four years. They are still collecting oral and other material. They have a collaboration with the Historia channel (the Québec one, not the french)


for the collection of home movies. They have a small research library of archives that is still growing and of course there is always the inter-library system.

I visited it during my last week of summer vacation. Still small but good potential, And the natural site, in an old seigneurerie overlooking the St-Laurent is breathtaking.

The things we learn on this blog....

I can't help but notice a really different sensibility in this blog and its responses; that of almost gentle, genuine sharing of sources, perspectives and hypotheses, with virtually none of the polemic responses that taint so many economics blogs. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but if a few papers on biscuitological economics were to be published, I fear we would soon see the emergence of a BSGE school (Baking Soda General Equilibrium) and a lot of stuff would come out of the LSE camp (Lard Stimulation Ergodicity). Add the respective industries funding a few chairs at prestigious universities to bolster their positions vis a vis markets and regulation, and we'd be right back to the same tenor of debate as the current macro wars. Sadly, none of this would end up really improving the taste of the biscuits.....

JR - thanks for those gentle, genuine comments.

One quibble though - I always thought that LSE stood for Let's See Europe ;-)

Thanks for your kind response. Regarding Determinant's comments on margarine, we can blame the whole thing on Napoleon III, which I wrote about some years ago and have now posted on my blog at: http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=690

Here's the introductory paragraph: "Napoleon III had a huge effect on agriculture, product branding, lobbying and indeed, on the health of West Marin’s dairies. In 1869 he offered a prize for developing a butter substitute for his army, while appeasing the lower classes (as they were described at the time) with a low-cost spread. By clarifying animal fat and extracting the liquid portion under pressure, letting it solidify, then combining it with water and esters of butyric acid (naturally present in butter) French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés produced a gray substance that spread and tasted somewhat like butter. He likened the color to pearls, using the Greek word for pearl, margaris, and came up with the name oleomargarine."

And fore more sharing: Napoleon III's uncle, THE Napoléon, fostered the invention of canning for the purpose of feeding his army. He was a master logistician who coined the phrases "An army marches on its belly" and "Amateurs talk strategy, professionnals talk logistics."
Napoleon III, sometimes nicknamed Napoleon the Little by his opponents, was keenly interested in the welfare of the working class. ALmost a social-democrat, by the day's standards.

Jacques, you just made me laugh. The French Revolutionary Army and Napoleonic Army knew nothing of logistics. They lived off the land during campaign and famously didn't carry supplies with them. Stealing, aka foraging, was the French Army's Official System of procuring food while on campaign.

The British Army, OTOH, famously did not allow its soldiers to steal food and provided them with rations from its own supply train. Pretty bad quality, most of the time, but that's what the rum ration was for.

This had a noticeable effect during the Peninsular War because Spanish farmers were noticeably more welcoming to the British as they knew their livestock and crops wouldn't be pilfered (much).

When Wellington advanced across the Pyrenees into France toward Toulouse, French farmers were scared stiff of the British, not for politics but fearing for the expected theft/foraging they expected from their own army. However the British Army paid for all local supplies in French gold francs. The francs were real gold but the coin was forged, the British Army, full of jailbirds, had no shortage of forgers available. Said French farmers then eagerly sold to the British. It was a major PR coup for Wellington. Sic Transit Napoleon.

Determinant: foraging was,until the 1870's and includiing the American Civil War, a large source of supply. And Napoleon was tired of it. Every army was tired of it. The Romans had evolved a very good supply chain including thransforming wheat into hardtack and storing huge amounts of salted beef. Soldiers receivong salary were the people who benefitesd from eating meat preserved with salis solidus (blocks of salt).
In fact, the Revolutionnry army was so aware of the problem that, from Wikipedia

"In 1795 the French military offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs for a new method to preserve food. Nicolas Appert suggested canning and the process was first proven in 1806 in test with the French navy and the prize awarded in 1809 or 1810. "

Full article on canning


With that system, the French army roamed to an extent surpassing even the Roman Army.

One of the reason that, two centuries later, despite that he was a corrupt murderous thug, Napoleaon remain popular in France, may be due to the fact, as he industrialized war, it meant that if you weren't one of the unlucky buggers who got drafted, war meant large purchasing orders, even for peasants.
And French peasants were very miffed that the British Army wouldn't be on the new level.(Ordinary soldiers were left to behave as any barbaric hordes while officers relied on private deliveries fron Fortnum & Mason...)

WCI needs to introduce a 'most diverting tangent' award for the most interesting and bizarre tangential threads in the comments section.

Sorry Jacques, but that's absolute nonsense. The French Army's strategy was to move fast in brigades unburdened by a supply train. The attack consisted of a column of conscripts formed into a rectangle charging at the enemy with fixed bayonets to the sound of the "Pas de Charge" or "Charge Step". It was a weight-of-numbers tactic that required very little thinking for conscripts. Not so much ammunition either, the inside of the column couldn't fire their muskets.

The British Army developed the reply to this in the form of rapid musketry in line, which they passed on to the Portuguese and the Spanish. British troops were trained to fire at least 3 rounds a minute and once the first three rounds were fired by the whole battalion in line would resolve into platoon fire by half-company, twenty platoons firing into a French column which made a wonderful target for tactic. The British Army was the only one to cause a majority of enemy casualties by musketfire.

That is what won the Peninsular War including Salamanca (1812) and Vittoria (1813) and won Waterloo. Napoleon reached the height of his power in 1810 and then started lose continuously. Salamanca and Moscow happened almost simultaneously in 1812. The Russian's Scorched Earth tactic worked so well because the French relied so heavily on foraging. The British in Spain, on the other hand, relied on regular supplies from Lisbon and later from Santander.

Canning had no effect on the Napoleonic Wars and your assertions for a non-existent French supply train need sources.

FWIW, Wikipedia confirms Determinant's story on the Pennisular War.


Hopefully closing off this tangent, at the same time as Napoleon was planning to invade Russia, the British conducted their own Scorched Earth operation in 1811. The British and Portuguese Armies retreated to a redoubt in a 50-mile radius from Lisbon, the Lines of Torres Vedras. The Lines were a system of trenches, bunkers and gun emplacement that foreshadowed WWI. Central Portugal was systematically stripped of every item of food and the whole population concentrated in the redoubt. The French Army under Marshal Soult was starved into retreat; it could not sustain itself at the end of Europe without a supply line.

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