By KAREN KEB
When asked about the one item they’d grab on the way out of their burning house, people usually cite the family photo album. For me, it’d be a cookbook. Not just any cookbook, but my Great-Grandmother Pansy Van Loan’s handwritten recipes in an aged, olive-green, water-stained binder simply titled Receipts, the old-fashioned word for “recipes.”
This binder represents my family’s culinary history in all its majesty. Yellowing, brittle pages, runny ink, recipes torn from old magazines and food boxes, and my favorite, the personal notes scribed on various recipes like “mommie’s” and “own” and “very good” that offer me a portal back to the kitchen of my maternal ancestors and allow me to cook right alongside them.
Old cookbooks are portals to another time and place that doesn’t exist anymore in this day of the Internet, iPads, apps, and Kindles. They served as not only inspiration for dishes and ingredients, they also functioned as instruction manuals for devoted housewives. Most cookbooks published from the early- to mid-20th century begin with an illustrated course on how to set the table for various occasions; what the various dishes, glasses, and silverware are to be used for; and basic nutrition and meal guidelines to follow.
During the 1920s and ’30s, a proliferation of food-company sponsored cookbooks hit the market, such as those published by the Royal Baking Powder Co., Proctor & Gamble, and General Foods. These cookbooks delved into the science of cooking and explained the chemistry behind combining certain ingredients like baking powder, baking soda, fats, acids, and different types of milk-sweet, sour, and butter-in an effort to teach the reader how to cook, rather than simply follow a recipe. Grids were a common graphic element that made it easy for the reader to compare different ingredients and methods, and-it was hoped-to start to see the big picture.
Old cookbooks usually assumed a certain level of kitchen acumen among its readers and, accordingly, gave quite simple instructions. Recipes never spelled out what size bowl to use (come on!), what size flame to cook over, or other basic considerations that today signal the amateur. Cooks of yesteryear were skilled because they were in practice every day, with every meal. When a receipt stated to “add enough flour to make a stiff dough,” terror didn’t strike the reader’s heart because she knew what stiff dough felt like.
I’ve heard that “great cooking not only celebrates the ingredients, but also celebrates the moment.” Old cookbooks celebrate their special moment in history, whether that was the 1930s when Depression-era food consisted of making do in every possible way; the 1940s with creative “wartime” recipes that substituted or omitted rationed items like sugar and butter; or the 1950s and the dawn of highly processed “convenience foods” like condensed soup, margarine, mono-sodium glutamate, and the ubiquitous gelatin molds.
I enjoy the old ingredient lists that tended to be simple and natural (lard, sour milk, bones), and sometimes unusual (mayonnaise and sauerkraut in cake?). Really old recipes were never highly seasoned or overly done. In some of my favorite books, it’s evident that cooks of the day weren’t out to “impress” their friends or neighbors; they were out to simply satisfy hungry mouths with common pantry staples. Cooking was, and still is, a beautiful art, but as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Learning from the past and deciphering old-time recipes in your modern kitchen can definitely improve your cooking skills, and more importantly, it will put you in touch with a time long, long ago.
Editor’s Note: All the recipes in this article are transcribed exactly as they appear in the various cookbooks, so part of the “fun” is to decipher them. Look for the “modern” translations of them on our website at www.grit.com/recipe-translations.
From Receipts (the Van Loan family cookbook, circa 1900s to 1980s)
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons soda
4 tablespoons cocoa
Mix all above together
Add: 1 cup lukewarm water
1 cup mayonnaise
Bake 375 degrees for 32 minutes
1 (double) large package of raspberry Jello
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cups Port wine
Let the above set for 30 minutes
No. 2 can crushed pineapple including juice
2 cans whole cranberry sauce
1 cup nuts
Add the above three ingredients to Jello.
8 ounce pkg Philly cream cheese
1/2 pint sour cream-mix together.
Top all with sliced almonds.
Dutch potato salad
Use one potato per person. Boil potatoes in jackets. Peel & slice. Fry 2 or 3 slices of bacon very crisp. Remove bacon & add to grease 2 tabs. flour. Brown flour. Add 1/2 cup vinegar. Cook until like thin mustard. Add 1 tabs. sugar to sauce. To potatoes add bacon, onion, celery as you like it, 2 hard-boiled eggs & green pepper. Season with salt & pepper & toss into custardy sauce. Let stand 1 hour to season.
From Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook of Fine Old Recipes (1936)
Separate one hog’s head into halves. Take out the eyes and brains. Scrape and thoroughly clean the head. Put into a large kettle and cover with 4 or 5 quarts cold water. Simmer gently for 2 or 3 hours, or until the meat falls from the bones. Skim off grease carefully from the surface; remove meat, chop fine and return to the liquor. Season with salt and pepper to taste and 1 teaspoon of powdered sage. Sift in granulated yellow corn meal, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened to the consistency of soft mush. Cook slowly for 1 hour, watching carefully as it scorches easily. When sufficiently cooked, pour into greased oblong tins and store in a cool place until ready to use. Cut in thin slices and fry in hot fat until crisp and brown.
Gebraden Kip (roast chicken Dutch style)
From The Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery (1974)
Place 1 cup butter in a kettle (iron preferably) and melt. Put in a whole chicken which has been thoroughly dried. Brown on all sides.
Add 1/2 cup water and cover tightly. Cook slowly, adding not more than another 1/2 cup water, to keep chicken from burning.
Cook 1 hour and salt the chicken to taste. Allow 3 hours for a year-old chicken to become tender.
Make a gravy with the liquid remaining by making a paste of flour and water and bring liquid to boil. Serve on chicken.
From The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook (1963)
(for a 2-crust pie)
2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces lard
6 tablespoons ice water
First sift the flour onto a piece of paper.
Then measure 2 1/2 cups sifted flour into a bowl. Add the salt to the flour and stir well.
Cut the lard into small pieces, and as you cut, let them drop into the bowl.
Mix the lard into the flour with 2 knives or a pastry mixer until evenly distributed in very small bits.
This will seem very dry, but after all the water has been stirred in, press the dough together with your hands into a ball.
Wrap in waxed paper and chill while preparing your filling.
Roll out the pastry on a sheet of waxed paper lightly dusted with flour.
There are several gadgets available to help shape the pastry. I use a round wire circle, and I place half my dough in the center of it and roll out quickly in each direction to fill out the circle.
The bottom crust should be slightly larger than the top crust and should fit in the pan loosely. Trim off the edges, leaving about inch to come up over the edge of the top crust.
Brush the inside of the bottom crust with egg white.
Roll out the top crust and fit it over the filling.
Fold up the edge of the lower crust and seal all around by pressing with your fingers.
Prick the top crust in several places.
Brush with beaten egg yolk or milk and bake in a very hot oven (450?F) for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350? to finish baking, the time depending upon the filling.
Excerpted from GRIT. To read more articles from GRIT, please visit www.grit.com or call 866-803-7096 to subscribe. Copyright 2020 by Ogden Publications Inc.
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