Cookies from Banning's history

I had fun researching and writing this article published in the Record-Gazette on Dec. 24, 2010:

Christmas Cookies from Banning's History
Mrs. Gilman's Recipe

Sarah Morris Gilman and French Gilman,

When women baked Christmas cookies in 1900, it wasn't all that easy.

Consider a cookie recipe from Sarah Morris Gilman. But first, consider Gilman. She was up to the challenge.

She came as a grammar schoolteacher from Missouri in 1888 to teach at the federal government’s Indian day school at Morongo Reservation.

Her first schoolhouse was a dilapidated building. It took some doing to teach her young charges reading, writing and arithmetic; some began their lessons knowing only their Native American languages such as Cahuilla and Serrano.

But she must have prevailed because Morongo schoolchildren eventually gained a reputation as top-notch spellers. In 1891 when President Harrison came through Banning, Miss Morris and her Indian students greeted him, carrying armloads of

The schoolteacher parted Morongo when she married the eldest Gilman son, French, in 1899. They didn’t live on the family ranch that is now a historic park and wagon museum off Wilson Street in Banning; their home in later years was on Eighth Street. But they visited often.

Although the ranch may be best known today as a stagecoach stop, French’s father, James Marshall Gilman, raised cattle, horses, and hogs. He grew raisin grapes, oranges, figs, almonds, prunes, apricots and peaches. He sold his most famous product, olives, throughout California. (More than a century later, olives on the ranch’s surviving trees are currently ripe.)

Sarah Morris Gilman’s cookie recipe features raisins and walnuts. It’s easy to imagine she didn’t have to look too far for these. (Yes, she’d have to shell the walnuts herself. While raisins dried under the sun in San Gorgonio Pass wouldn’t look as tidy as those in today’s supermarket, one can guess they tasted delicious.)

Kitchen tools from 1890 at Gilman (Pat Murkland Photo)

The other recipe ingredients are:

• One cup butter. To get butter, you needed first to milk a cow. Then you’d collect some cream floating atop the milk can. Using either a large or hand-held churn, you’d make your butter. Paddles and molds helped shape it. Banning residents also could buy milk and cream from the milk-delivery wagon. To keep items chilled in the age before refrigerators and electricity, one relied on another delivery service: the wagon from Union Ice Company, which began around 1900.

• Two eggs. Surely the hens would cooperate.

• Two cups sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon soda in 1 cup sour milk. If you wanted to substitute honey for sugar, Banning was buzzing with beekeepers. But in the late 1800s-early 1900s shopping was limited to less than a handful of general stores. The downtown commerce area initially was centered near the now-long-gone Southern Pacific Railroad station near Livingston Street and San Gorgonio Avenue. At Hathaway’s general goodsstore one could buy enamelware bowls, sifters and other tools needed for baking.

• Two cups rolled oats, 3 cups flour. Early maps of Banning and Beaumont show many fields of grain. When Riverside County formed in 1893, a business directory boasted that the town exported hay, grain, wool, honey and fruits. Almonds also were one of the biggest exported crops.

Once ingredients are assembled, the recipe directs: “Cream together the
butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk. Add raisins and nuts. Drop from teaspoon onto greased pan. Bake.”

Here’s where all can fail.

The 1890s wood and coal stove at Gilman (Pat Murkland Photo)

“Hungry for History,” the 1990s cookbook compiled by Pat Lauder for the Gilman Ranch Hands, instructs those trying Mrs. Gilman’s recipe: “Bake at 375 degrees.” But there was no electric oven for Sarah Morris Gilman in 1900. She had a wood stove with a fire inside. Since the oven lacked a thermometer, knowledge alone guided the cookies’ baking time.

While we have oven windows that can guide a prudent decision to remove an item, the wood stove again offered no clues, except when it was too late. But with practice, the cookies could be a homemade treat featuring Banning’s finest products.

If you try to replicate Mrs. Gilman’s recipe, you still will miss one key component: In old-time memories, the smells of a wood stove in a Christmas kitchen blend with the smells of the baking treats, until it is impossible to separate them.


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