by Gennie Truelock
2020 is finally coming to a close and while we don’t know what the ensuing years will bring, I do know that historians will debate the ramifications of this year for decades to come. In that vein, I decided to revisit an event from another ‘20s decade, the 1920s, and take a look at how Prohibition changed American society.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began there were many memes popping up on social media comparing 1920 to 2020. One that I often saw included this following joke:
Q: How is 2020 like 1920?
A: The government is closing down bars.
1920, much like the last 12 months, saw economic downturn, high unemployment, social and racial unrest, the effects of a horrendous death toll from a pandemic, and political strife, however, it began with the promise of “uplifting society.” At least that was the common refrain sung by many when states ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquor.” When Prohibition began on January 17, 1920, the powers that be were struggling to face a “new normal” in America. World War I brought many new technologies, but also an emotional, mental, and even physical toll on those involved and society at large. A global influenza outbreak that killed over 650,000 Americans and at least 50 million worldwide left many feeling uncertain about the future. Communities of color and women were fighting back against the laws that prevented them from being treated as equal citizens. Society was rapidly changing and people needed something tangible to blame for its “ills,” so the government prohibited the ability for most to buy a drink. Over the next 13 years, Americans became very creative in devising ways to work around the law. You can explore many of these methods and other surprising impacts of Prohibition in the Museum’s online exhibit Drying Out: Living with Prohibition in Los Angeles.
By now, you might be wondering to yourself, “But Gennie, don’t the From the Homestead Kitchen posts typically focus on historic recipes? What does cooking have to do with Prohibition?” I’ll answer that question with the following image:
Prohibition not only affected those who were consuming alcohol, it also greatly impacted the businesses (and their workers) who made it. This thin recipe pamphlet was created by the Los Angeles Brewing Company in 1928 as a way to reinvent themselves and their product line. As Ernest Miller wrote in an article for KCET about this pamphlet:
“Prohibition was the death knell for thousands of local and regional breweries across the U.S. Those companies that managed to survive the decade generally had to have some pretty clever management. George Zobelein, a German immigrant and veteran Los Angeles brewer who had purchased the Los Angeles Brewing Co. in 1907, was just such a manager.”
Looking for a way to survive the radical change to his business model, Zobelein, much like many business owners today, had to get pretty clever. In order to keep his brewery going and his employees working, Zobelein and his Eastside label began selling a near beer alternative, but his most inventive creation, in my opinion, was reframing the conversation around the ingredients used in his brewed products as is evidenced in the back panel of this pamphlet.
There it is in black and white, or blue and white, in this case. Although malt syrup is necessary to beer making along with hops, water, and yeast, it can be used as an ingredient in baked goods and other culinary dishes. However, there may have been some other motives at play as Ernest also stated in his article:
“It is true that malt syrup can be used in cooking and baking as a substitute for other sweeteners. Indeed, it was somewhat popular in early 20th century England as a nutritionally superior sugar (lots of vitamins as compared to simple sucrose). But when was the last time you saw liquid malt extract on the syrup shelves of your local grocery? Or came across a recipe on a food blog that called for malt syrup as an ingredient? Today, if you want liquid malt extract you have to go to your local homebrew supply store. And the malt extract sold there is for one purpose: to make beer at home.”
But was this Zobelein’s intention? Was he trying to encourage home brewing by selling his malt syrup? You can take a look at this pair of 1931 Los Angeles Times newspaper advertisements for Eastside Malt Syrup and make up your mind from there.
You might be wondering, like I was, “What about the recipes in the pamphlet? Are they any good?” The title of the booklet promises that they are “Tried and Tested,” so after scanning its offerings I took a look at the inside panel where a message “To the American Housewife” was written. I was curious to see how the company described their dishes and encouraged home cooks to use the product.
Reading through this section, two things jumped out at me. First, the company, like so many others during this era, tried to promote their product as a “health food.” Second, they singled out the butterscotch pie as the only sweet option in a sea of savory (and some entirely unappealing sounding) dishes. Since I like baking and making desserts, I decided to give the butterscotch pie a try. But first I needed to find some malt syrup.
On a closer reading of the pie recipe, I noticed that it called for “2 tablespoons plain malt syrup—light.” After some Googling, I settled on ordering a Pilsen malt extract from a brewery supply company since pilsner style beers were popular in the US before the onset of Prohibition. How does the syrup that I purchased compared to the Eastside Malt Syrup brand? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. It seems that the Los Angeles Brewing Company might have stopped selling the syrup when Prohibition came to an end in 1933, and the company was eventually bought out by Pabst in 1948. The brewery closed its doors in LA in the late 1970s, putting an end to the Eastside brand.
But what does a “malted” butterscotch pie taste like?
Pretty darn good. The malt syrup does help to cut the sweetness of the pie and adds a subtle flavor which makes the pie a bit unusual, which is something that I like. For me, this pie is up there with the Sunkist lemon cake pie and the Dutch banana cake as historic dishes that I could see making again.
A few tips
- To be honest, I didn’t make the crust that the recipe suggests. I am uncertain how you can obtain a flaky pie crust using a “liquid fat.” I instead used my favorite pie crust recipe and you can do the same, or use a store-bought one and bake it completely before filling with the butterscotch mixture.
- Since you are basically making a cooked pudding on the stovetop, strain your filling through a sieve as you put it into the pie crust. That will help get rid of any lumps in case you have any overcooked egg or undercooked bits of flour.
- Lastly, you do want to make sure that it is still warm when you place the meringue on top of the pie before you put it in the oven to brown. This will help seal the meringue to the filling and prevent a separation. Also spread the meringue to the crust of the pie to keep it from weeping.
If you give this pie a try, let us know what you think by dropping a comment below or tagging us on social media @homesteadmusem. Now I have to figure out what to do with the rest of the malt extract…maybe I’ll learn how to brew my own beer.