As we wind down a summer with limited travel and with conferences postponed or transitioned online, I can’t help but reminisce about a summer in the far distant past (last year) when two bright young AAS staff members, who really enjoy food (and sweet treats), descended upon the city of Baltimore in search of local and historical consumable . . . and also the The Rare Books and Manuscripts (RBMS) conference.
Regional delicacies embody the allure of any limited time offer, and Ashley Cataldo, Curator of Manuscripts, and I we had done our homework before arriving to this conference. About a week before the RBMS 2019 conference in Baltimore, Maryland, an Atlas Obscura article introduced us to the concept of smearcase, a sort of historic cheesecake with its roots in German communities in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and – what do you know – Baltimore. The word itself is an American phonetic spelling of the German word “schmierkäse,” a spreadable cheese that was most frequently used to refer to what we consider cottage cheese.
In the dessert form, this once-popular dish was made by mixing the curdy cheese with cream and eggs to make a custard that sat atop a thick layer of crust. The whole thing was topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon and enjoyed. Today, the legacy of smearcase seems to live-on primarily in family recipes and fond memories, but a quick internet search informed us that there was a neighborhood bakery selling smearcase about 3 miles from the conference hotel. The bakery had been in business for 91 years and was still using the same smearcase recipe from 1927. We had our destination and taste-test set but we lacked some solid historical context for our adventure . . . so we took to the papers.
Looking for mentions of smearcase proved more fruitful than we had imagined, especially given the variety of spellings. We opted for the phonetical “smearcase” and the more German “smierkase.” In addition to the numerous advertisements listing the price of smearcase (presumably just the cheese, save for the few instances that mention cake specifically) we were presented with a delightful assortment of stories, poems and even a medical remedy involving smearcase. It seemed to be quite prevalent in 19th century American culture, reaching well beyond the limits of the early German settlements. Some of our favorite newspaper clippings are reproduced in this post.
There may not be much modern scholarship or many recipes available on the internet, but smearcase is not completely forgotten. We heard a few familiar “Oh yeah, my grandmother made that” at the mention of its name, but we were just as often met with “smear-what?” It’s hard to imagine how or when a dish, once so prevalent that it made its way to New England and across much of the U.S., faded away – especially when it is so delicious.
Perhaps our modern expectations and smearcase’s relative obscurity contributed to our gross underestimation of what a “piece” of smearcase constituted. We attempted to order three pieces and were shocked when we were informed that there were only two pieces left. There had been a half a sheet tray available when we walked in! Still not fully comprehending, we accepted our two pieces, commented on the weight of the parcels and set off for the park and a bench on which to indulge. Upon opening the bakery boxes, we found we had made a serious rookie mistake. Those two pieces had comprised the entirety of the half tray we had seen. Apparently, smearcase was traditionally served as a “slab,” which, we can only imagine, was intended to be shared by a whole family. Could it be that simply our eyes bigger were larger than our stomachs? Were historical appetites bigger than ours? In any (smear)case, we two dessert-seekers made only a dent in the delicious treat.
Over the last several months at home, people have been rediscovering the joys of baking – from banana breads to sourdoughs. Will smearcase find its unlikely resurgence as the next trendy pandemic bake? We are certainly looking forward to the days when we are once again able to gather in groups large enough to polish-off a full slab of smearcase and see our colleagues face-to-face as we continue our hunt for regional treats in conference cities across the country.