Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

Recently, the New York Times Kim Severson bemoaned the complications of cooking a good pot of rice. You’d think that such a staple would be a no-brainer, but it seems unless you have southern or Asian heritage, it’s just not in your blood. Hell, I have Asian heritage and I rely far too often on my rice cooker, which produces serviceable grains, but not the firm, springy kernels that should be my birthright.

Looking for help makes things even more complicated—there are as many suggestions on how to boil, steam, simmer and soak your way to a good pot of rice as there are people. So I figured we might as well check in with the year 1853 to see if there are any tips we haven’t tried yet.


I found the article above—clipped from an August 1853 issue of the New York Daily Times—inside the Beekman family recipe book. The Beekmans were an extremely prominent family in New York, working as merchants, traders, and government officials (they’re the reason why the city has a Beekman Place). This book, kept from 1800 to 1871, has a collection of medicinal and culinary recipes, including this rice recipe that professes to follow “the most esteemed method of the South”:

Wash it thoroughly in cold water; have your pot of water (two pints for every half pint of rice) boiling—add salt at discretion; put rice in and stir while boiling; let it boil four minutes (some say ten and some fifteen) [Ed note: This seems like a big difference!] then pour off the water as close as you can, without stirring the rice; set the pot on some coals and cover it; let it remain for twenty minutes and then dish it up.

Since I didn’t have coals handy, a low stovetop flame would have to do. I was paranoid, though—no recipe I’ve ever encountered calls for boiling rice in that much water, or cooking it with most of the water poured out. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the lid and was met with a pot of firm rice that kept its shape when fluffed with a fork. It wasn’t mushy or gummy, and it didn’t crumble under the chicken with a heavy tomatillo sauce I served it with. However, almost a third of it did remain burnt and stick to the sides of the pot, so perhaps it’s not the most efficient way to cook rice. But the two-thirds I did eat was much more satisfying than what comes out of my rice cooker.