Know-Nothing Breakfast Cake – Art and Politics Mixed!

Surely this name has your attention. It certainly got mine. This recipe is from my newest vintage cookbook, Bucks the Artists’ County Cooks: A Gourmet’s Guide to Estimable Comestibles with Pictures, 1950. The book was published by the Woman’s Auxiliary of Trinity Chapel in Solebury, PA.  The cookbook is filled with unusual recipes. Besides the above named cake, there are things like Pretense Pie, Neptune’s Eyes, Trilbys and Boter Koekjes.

But for some reason Know-Nothing Breakfast Cake called to me, and I had to try making it. The recipe’s descriptive history says: “This cake was supposed to be orginated by Mrs. H. C. Ferger, mother of Mrs. Mary F. Maxwell. She names it “Know-nothing Cake” for the American Political Party, which came into prominence in 1853, a secret, oath-bound fraternity which professed ignorance in regard to it. So the members received the name of Know-nothings.”   So does the recipe date back that far? And who are Mrs. Ferger and Mrs. Maxwell? And what about Letitia M. Ely who submitted the recipe?

First, I could find no reference to any other food named for the Know-nothing party so I assume this was a very localized family recipe. Thanks to however, I have unraveled who all the women in the story are and how they are related. The recipe was handed down from Mary Ferger (Mrs. H.C. Ferger, b. 1821) to her daughter Mary Ferger Maxwell (b. 1860) to her daughter Letitia Maxwell Ely. Letitia submitted the recipe to the cookbook.

Reading up on the No-nothing party, the secretive political group came into being due to fear and hatred of immigrant groups coming into America at the time, especially Catholics from Germany and Italy. The party seemed to be strong in Pennsylvania where the Fegers lived.  I could find no evidence that the Ferger family were involved in the No-nothing party, but one would assume they were.

But my research didn’t end there. I learned a fair amount more about Letitia Ely. I wrongly assumed she was just a Bucks County housewife, probably married to a farmer. She did  indeed marry a farmer, Rueben Ely in 1885, but she also had a career as an artist.

While I’m not sure when she accomplished her studies, she did attend the famous Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she studied art with well-known painters Elliott Daingerfield and Daniel Garber.

Daingerfield landscape

She exhibited her work at the Phillips Mill Art Association in Bucks County, as well as with the Washington (DC) Watercolor Club, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Society of Washington Artists. Which makes me wonder if she didn’t live for a time in Washington DC.

Here’s a lovely painting by Letitia (below).

OK – so what about the Breakfast Cake. I took lots of chances with this because the recipe was vague. But it came out a moist cake with an indescribable flavor. I can only guess it’s from the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Here’s the recipe:

  • 4 c. flour (yes, this makes a lot of cake!)
  • 3/4 c. shortening (I used softened butter)
  • 1 tbs. cinnamon
  • 1 tbs. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. cloves
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 2 1/2 c. sugar (they suggest using part brown sugar which I did. I used half a cup)
  • 2 1/2 c. thick milk (I used half and half)

Dissolve the baking soda in 1 cup of milk

Mix flour with the shortening (I cut the shortening in using a pastry cutter until I had sandy flour)

Add the remaining dry ingredients to the flour

Add the milk/soda mixture along with the rest of the milk and stir

Add either raisins, nuts, citron or marmalade (I added raisins and walnuts in big handfuls)

A thick batter

Press into 3 small greased pans (I used 9″ cake pans)

Bake in a 350 degree oven (they said a moderate oven which I know means 350)

Since they gave no baking time, I guessed 25 minutes which was perfect

This is a rich cake that is perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Despite the fact that I don’t approve of the  beliefs of the Know-nothing party, I do approve of this cake! Thanks Letitia and I hope someday to see your paintings in person. (By the way, Letitia died in 1968 and is buried in the Friends’ Burial Ground in Solebury).




4 Responses to “Know-Nothing Breakfast Cake – Art and Politics Mixed!”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. What a fascinating story! You must have had fun researching this. Thanks for sharing – Jenny x

  2. Lisa says:

    Thanks Jenny! I love the research as much as the cooking. Visited your site and love it. Will give it a shout out on my FB page. Always fun to find “sisters in vintage cooking.” – Lisa

  3. kara mae says:

    I just came across a recipe for “A Know Nothing Cake” in a handwritten 1850 cookbook at Maryland Historical Society.
    Unfortunately the recipe is nothing like the one above!
    “1 tea cup of butter, 2 of sugar, 1/2 teacup of sponge and 2 eggs as much flour as will make a thick batter put it in the pans to rise that you intend baking it in.”

    • Lisa says:

      Kara – that’s really neat that you found a recipe with the same name. Will love to know if you learn any more about the derivation of the name and the cake itself. By the way, the current curator of collections at MD Historical Society used to work for me in Glens Falls NY at a small regional history museum. Best of luck with your research.


Leave A Comment...