Friday, June 22, 2012

Lydia Pinkham's Applesauce Cake

by Sheila Connolly

Once again I found myself wandering through our town antiques emporium, and since I can't control myself, I emerged with a few interesting old cookbooks.  More like pamphlets, actually—all were promotional giveaways, for spices, the glories of cooking with gas, or Lydia Pinkham.

Lydia Pinkham is by now forgotten, save for a few sniggers here and there.  Why?  Because she made a very popular medicinal tonic for "female problems."  (It's all right, guy readers—I won't go into details.)  She was born in 1819 to the Quaker Estes family in Lynn, Massachusetts and was a strong supporter of the Anti-Slavery movement there.  She married local shoe manufacturer Isaac Pinkham in 1843.

Unfortunately Isaac was not the best of businessmen, and he went bust in the Panic of 1873.  That's when Lydia stepped in, with the help of her offspring, with the production and marketing of her Vegetable Compound, which became one of the best known patent medicines of the 19th century.  In her advertising copy, women were urged to write directly to her, and they received answers (from staff members)—including long after her death.

The original formula contained pleurisy root, life root, fenugreek, unicorn root, and black cohosh (no, I don't recognize all those lovely roots).  Later motherwort, Jamaican dogwood, licorice, gentian and dandelion were added. 

And the original formula contained 18% alcohol.  No wonder so many women felt better after taking it!

The pamphlet I acquired is titled Practical Cooking Recipes (no date, but ca. 1920-25), and the pages contain more or less equal parts recipes and heartfelt endorsements from satisfied customers. It makes most entertaining reading.

Lydia Pinkham's Applesauce Cake

The original version is a little strange.  If you're wondering, "saleratus" is baking soda.  I did a bit of tinkering to make the recipe work today.

1 cup sugar
½ cup shortening
½ tsp each: salt, cloves, cinnamon, allspice
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 cups flour
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a cake pan (I measured mine: it holds four cups.  You can use any shape pan that holds at least that much).

Sift together sugar, flour and seasonings.  Mix in shortening.

Add the baking soda to the applesauce and stir until it foams. (I don't know why this was important, but it was fun to watch!)

Mix all ingredients together.  Stir in raisins last.

Bake slowly for about 40 minutes.

The result is a dense, moist cake which surprised me with its flavor.  And note that there are no eggs or butter in it, so it's good for you!


  1. I just saw the episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Aunt Bea got some tonic- which was 85% alcohol! lol I do love those old recipe brochures. I'd like to try this recipe, but I'll substitute craisins for the raisins.

  2. My Mother made me take some of that when I was a teen for "female" problems. It was the most awful tasting stuff ever!!! The cake looks o.k. though.

  3. Sheila, this woman cracks me up. I loved that episode of The Andy Griffith Show. I might have to make this cake just to watch the applesauce foam.

    ~ Krista

  4. I love old recipe books. That looks pretty good to me!

  5. Sheila, I admire your commitment to history. Wonderful! And no eggs and no butter? Wow. Got to try this one.

    ~Avery aka Daryl

  6. I will try this. I just got applesauce and raisins in, so this is perfect. Also, this makes me wonder why I've never tried recipes from my Grandmother's cookbooks.