Diet Bread

I was surprised to see a recipe for "Diet Bread" in Amelia Simmons' American Cookery. After all, in the late eighteenth century, the term "diet" was used to talk about what you did eat, not to acknowledge to others that you were avoiding certain foods in order to lose weight. I grew up with a different definition of the term "diet." Living on the East Coast of the United States, two hundred years after Simmons published her book, I was surrounded by dieters and references to weight-loss diets. My father drank Diet Coke by the two-litre bottle; Snackwell's cookies and Crystal Light powdered drink mix were in every pantry in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. In the late 1990s, as I was going through puberty and becoming conscious of the ways in which my own body failed to meet the prescribed feminine ideal, diet trends were moving from fat-free to low-carb. My mother went off diet pills and started the Atkins diet, while my best friend's mother preferred The Zone. In high school, girls stopped eating in the leadup to prom or other events requiring sleek dresses; one friend ate only apples for a week or so in order to look as slim as possible. For my part, I was a vegetarian in high school, which allowed me to feel virtuous about the occasional supper of french fries or oatmeal cookies. After all, I was healthy simply by virtue of refusing meat -- never mind that my main sources of protein were peanut butter and pizza cheese. Whenever I had a "treat," I preferred to eat it alone in my room, away from the scrutiny of others and as quickly as possible.

For many women, the disordered eating patterns that we pick up from the women we look up to follow us into adulthood. This may mean that we're unable to eat a piece of cake in public without saying "Oh, I'm being so BAD today" or that we "forget" to eat all day, raiding the fridge only after everyone else has gone to bed. Since I was in high school, it has seemed to me that being worried about one's weight, and about what other people see us eating, is largely confined to women. This was confirmed for me in the popular culture of the day; entertainment for women, from Bridget Jones' Diary to Sex and the City, included plot lines centred on dieting and food intake. The refrain was everywhere; in order to be an attractive woman, it was necessary to diet.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that in Simmons' day, those who went on slimming regimes were men. Katharina Vester's article "Regime Change: Gender, Class and the Invention of Dieting in Post-Bellum America" reveals that obesity was seen as a problem in early 18th century Britain; she writes that being overweight was seen as "unhealthy, un-manly, and un-English." Vester goes on to explain that as men's dieting became more widespread throughout the 19th century, many women worried about how to gain weight. Dieting for women came into being as a form of empowerment; as late as 1912, Vester notes, some medical experts wrote that, unlike men, women were unable to change their weight or body shape. It wasn't until after World War I that dieting became socially common among middle class white women.

If the word "diet" wasn't in use for watching one's food intake in 1798, then, why was this cake called "diet bread"? I haven't found the answer to that yet. I do know, however, that for a woman who grew up in the American suburbs in the 1990s, the words "diet bread" brought to mind artificial sweeteners, nonstick spray and egg replacers -- something that would only be considered an "indulgence" by someone subsisting on salads with low-calorie dressing. The recipe from the 1790s, before any of those ingredients were invented, is as follows:
"One pound sugar, 9 eggs, beat for an hour, add to 14 ounces flour, spoonful rose water, one do. cinnamon or coriander, bake quick." 

The recipe contains no butter, lard, oil or other added fat, but the pound of sugar seems to negate any chance that this cake could be considered either "diet" or "bread." I followed Simmons' recipe almost exactly, although I reduced the number of eggs to six, thinking that my extra-large eggs were bigger than those she would have had access to in 1798.

Instead of beating the eggs and sugar together for an hour, I pulled out my hand mixer, which did most of the work for me.

I beat for around ten minutes, then added the flour, cinnamon, and rosewater (which has been sitting on my shelf unused since I made spinage tart), and lined my baking pan with parchment paper. The "bread" baked in about 25 minutes in my 400-degree oven. I was surprised by how well the recipe worked, with a crackly crust reminiscent of a French macaron.

If I were to make this again, I would beat the egg whites to stiff peaks separately, folding them into the batter at the last minute in order to give the cake more lift. I would also replace the rosewater with vanilla or almond extract. The cake keeps well in an airtight container; I had some three days after baking it, and thought it tasted better than the day I'd made it. On Monday, I served it to my fellow historical cooks with a riff on the raspberry cream Simmons describes: I beat crème fraîche with a squeeze of honey and a punnet of fresh raspberries. The cake itself is quite moist, so it doesn't really need an accompaniment, but I appreciated the tangy cream as a counterpoint to the sweetness of the cake.

I'm still learning where the balance is between enjoying what I eat and eating nutritiously; between accepting my body the way it is and making changes which will help me become healthier. Part of that, for me, is sharing what I cook, and slowing down my meals. I find that I eat more, and faster, when I eat on my own, than when I eat with others. While I don't recommend this recipe for those on a sugar-free, vegan, or gluten-free diet, I think that this "diet bread" is a great dessert to have in your repertoire for summer picnics. Just please, don't say that you're "being bad" or "indulging" by eating it. Part of a balanced diet (yes, there's that word again) is just that -- balance. A treat once in awhile, shared with friends or savoured on my own, is a necessary part of my own diet.


  1. Thoroughly entertaining and informative!

    1. Thank you for the compliment, and thank you for reading!

  2. I will try to make this diet bread at home. Thank for share !

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