By Eilene Lyon
Combing through archives is fun and fascinating – at least until the third day, when exhaustion starts to set in. In November 2017, I put the fabulous librarians at the California State Library in Sacramento through their paces, requesting manuscript boxes, books, periodicals, and more. One of their many treasures is a copy of Kezia Benton Curtis’ handwritten “receipt” book (her term for recipes).
In addition to recipes for food and beverage items (including spruce beer), household cleaning supplies and personal grooming potions, are remedies for a variety of maladies that plagued citizens in the 19th century, such as diphtheria, smallpox, and fevers.
I highly value what we can learn from our ancestors, and progress comes from an accumulation of knowledge over time, but oh! how I wish I could go back and offer our forebears the understanding of microbes and the gift of penicillin.
(Seriously, my great-great grandfather died of infection after hitting his thumb with a hammer!)
Kezia Benton married her first cousin, Bradner Curtis, in September 1850 and in December, they set out for California where two of her brothers were already mining. The Curtises sailed around the Horn and arrived in San Francisco in July 1851. While Bradner worked in the southern mines (from Jackson in the north to Mariposa in the south), Kezia ran a tent store which featured her popular pies. Apparently her little booklet was a recipe for success.
Because medical professionals weren’t always close at hand, it was important to have remedies that could be applied quickly – as she states “an infalliable cure if speedily applied.” She must have done a good job as a nurse, too. Her four children all survived childhood. And Kezia herself lived over 101 years!
One remedy in her booklet is crossed out and one has to wonder if it either didn’t work, or possibly bad consequences ensued from using arsenic to cure ague.
Here is a sample of Kezia’s recipes:
Beat up the yolk of a fresh egg and pour on a half a pint of boiling water. A little wine, salt, and sugar may be added. This is highly nutritious and generaly [sic] sets easy on the Stomach.
To clean black Silk
½ gallon Soft Soap
2 ounces Honey
1 pint – Gin
Cover the pan with a good paste [pastry?], spread it with a layer of butter half a cup of sugar slice the orang [sic] two table spoons full of vinegar a sprinkle of flour the remainder of the cup of sugar another layer of butter now ready for the cover.