I channeled treasure hunters this past weekend, breaking the long winter fast and diving head first into a few yard sales. And my favorite treasures – cookbooks – were there for the picking.
Who can resist these fascinating books, whether they are glossy, sometimes utterly useless vanity projects of celebrity chefs, or old pamphlets that used to come with appliances.
But my favorites are archaic cookbooks from the 1930s and 1940s. With their formal, prissy writing and old-fashioned advice on how to entertain without a maid, they present the most intimate, daily view of women’s history – good, bad and revolting.
Unlike today’s cookbooks, which tend to gender-neutral writing, these tomes talked directly to women, because, let’s face it, while men were rocketing up the social scale by cooking well in public, the yeoman’s work was done by women in home kitchens.
So, finding a 1939 edition of the American Woman’s Cook Book was a bright spot. When I got it home and opened it up, more treasure. The owner had clipped and slipped dozens of newspaper recipes into the pages, along with half a dozen handwritten recipes in a neat, precise cursive. Remember cursive? It’s going the way of gelatin salads, but here were several great examples.
The clippings, most from the 1940s, covered easy Lenten dishes featuring fish or meatless meals; a 1945 wartime cake icing made with cocoa, sugar and cream; and a great column from the Shelby paper that began with “Today initiated the pork slaughtering season for Cleveland County farmers – they hope.” It then went on to give, in excruciating detail, the correct methods of slaughter, including the most important advice to not pierce the heart.
So, in the spirit of sharing history, here are two of the handwritten recipes. The instructions are spotty, probably because these were shorthand for someone familiar with the recipe.
Spaghetti Sauce (apparently for a really, really large group)
4 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound fat back
2 1/2 pounds onions
14 large green peppers
4 large cans tomatoes
2 pounds cheese
6 packages skinny spaghetti
1 large bunch celery
1 bottle hot sauce
Fry fatback. Fry beef in drippings. Add onions, then celery and peppers.
Add tomatoes and hot sauce.
Simmer for 4 hours.
Queen of Puddings
1 pint bread crumbs
1 quart of milk
1 cup sugar
yolks of 4 eggs
1 Tsp. butter
1 tsp. lemon extract
Bake. Spread with a layer of fruit jelly.
Whip the whites of the eggs to a froth with one cup sugar and the juice of one lemon; then spread on top and brown.