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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Nov. 2, 2007

A Sesquicentennial look back

Inside Mrs. Welch's kitchen

by Anne Krapfl

It's a sesquicentennial labor of love that has demanded large amounts of both. Last winter, Stewart Burger, who coordinates special events for President Gregory Geoffroy, decided to try to serve dessert items from Mary Welch's Mrs. Welch's Cookbook at sesquicentennial-year events at the Knoll.

The wife of Iowa State's first president, Mrs. Welch organized and headed the college's first "department of domestic economy" from 1875 to 1883. She also published a cookbook in 1884, which was reprinted in 1985 by the Iowa chapter of the Victorian Society in America.

"This is a labor you work on. It requires a little of what I'd call historic interpretation," Burger said. "You're trying to make something true to life when you haven't ever seen the finished product or, in some cases, the ingredients listed."

And, of course, the measures and weights of 1884 have provided Burger with many a puzzle. Quick, how much is a gill of brandy? Or a tumbler of egg whites? And was their tablespoon akin to our tablespoon?

"It's a slow process, but it's just fascinating," Burger said. He contacted a long-standing chocolate company to inquire about what "One bar of chocolate" might mean to a 19th-century baker. What kind of chocolate was the norm back then? What size was a bar? He experiments up to a half dozen times with a recipe before he's satisfied -- or moves on.

"There's always the question of how far to vary from the original and still call it historical," he noted. Preferences also change over time. For example, was it admirable for your cake to be moist? Heavy? Light? Elastic?

He has enjoyed some success with a chocolate cake (first used at the YWCA's Taste of Chocolate reception in March) and a chocolate fudge frosting. Numerous efforts this summer on a "Ladies Cake" (delicate white cake) didn't produce a dessert he deemed worth serving, so he shelved that one.

He has arrived at a hot chocolate beverage he will serve this winter, and work is under way on a holiday-style fruit cake recipe he hopes to use this season.

"When I started this, I had hoped to find some recipes from 100-plus years ago we would enjoy and keep in our files for a long time," he said. "I'm not sure that has happened, but it's been a lot of fun."

If you're at a Knoll event that includes an item or two from Mrs. Welch's Cookbook, you'll know it. Burger provides recipe cards for these specialties that guests may take with them.


Mary Welch.Photo courtesy of University Archives, ISU Library.

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Sesqui series

Inside is celebrating the sesquicentennial with a yearlong series of photos and articles that look back at Iowa State traditions, people and places.