My mother’s cookbooks have, since her death in 1968, rested rather comfortably inside packing boxes and storerooms and on brokendown shelves, travelling with me on my various odysseys in America and Australia. They have seldom been opened since her death and never used, but lately – for some reason – I started perusing them in earnest, and in the process discoverd what an adventure cooking must’ve been for many women of my generation that had grown up during the Great Depression, been tempered by war and then faced the dubious promise that beckoned to them from the range of modern applicances that flooded the marketplace in the late 1940s and 1950s.
In a world where even a cookbook was telling you “why you need to know what you’re making”, a trusted recipe – whether it was actually in the book or torn from pages of a magazine, was a friend indeed.
The mists of time do not allow me to recall what my mother’s favorite cookbooks were, if indeed she had a favorite, but the recipes that she made over and over again appear in most if not all of them.
I imagine that you could read the history of America – its fashions, values, fears and sense of itself – in the cookbooks that were published there, starting as far back as you can find and going all the way up to the present day. Actually, the first American cookbook to be published in America (that was written by an American) appeared in 1796, and is still available online in a facsmilie edition at http://www.amazon.com/The-First-American-Cookbook-Facsimile/dp/0486247104 My mother’s cookbooks go all the way back to the 30s, when she was a young wife. The recipes from that time provide sobering evidence of just how difficult times were, and how hard people had to try to bring a little light into their lives. Take The Potato Volcano recipe, for an example. This recipe comes from a 1937 home economics text called Foods and Homemaking, by Carlotta C. Greer (who the book tells us was the Head of the Department of Home Economics at John Hay High School in Cleveland, Ohio). The “Volcano” sounds a rather “interesting dish” – at least that is what the author calls it. It certainly speaks volumes about the times: “take a pile of mashed potatoes and mush them down in the middle. Beat up an egg with a teaspoon of water and pour it into the crater. Bake the whole thing at 500 degrees until “the points of the potato are browned. Fill ‘er up with Welsh Rabbit (cheese sauce) and decorate as follows… ”
The passage ends with the following remarks: “When you have completed this interesting dish, the Welsh rabbit will suggest the lava of a volcano; the pimiento, fiery rocks; the sprigs of parsley, the shrubs that dare to grow at the base of this turbulent mountain.” You might be excused for thinking of this as recipe poetry – or perhaps of the poetry of the recipe. Such such were the joys before television and tv dinners. The shrubs that dare to grow at the base of this turbulent mountain, indeed!
But why indulge in mere nostalgia. Here’s your opportunity to enter your very own epicurian time machine and sail back to those simpler and, dare I say, more adventurous times.
If the spirit of exploration is still alive in you, why not try some of the following:
The Mouth-watering, Layered Corn Beef & Cabbage Salad
Not only were the concoctions rather bizarre and convoluted, they also stimulated the imagination towards a notable torturing of the language, as was the case with the infamous “Benedictish Frankwiches” … unmercifully portrayed in stark black’n’white!
American Chop Suey
- 2 tablespoons bacon fat
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 3/4 pound flank beef chopped fine
- 1 can condensed tomato soup
- 1 cup cooked spaghetti
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
Cook onion and beef in fat until brown; add tomato, spaghetti, and seasonings, and simmer ten minutes.
Queen of Puddings
One large cup of fine bread-crumbs soaked in one-half cup milk
three -quarters cup sugar
one lemon, juice and grated rind
one-half pound stale sponge cake
one-half pound macaroons-almond
one-half cup jelly or jam
one small tumbler sherry wine
one tablespoonful melted butter.
Rub the butter and sugar together; put the beaten yolks in next, then the soaked bread-crumbs, the lemon juice and rind, and beat to a smooth, light paste, before adding the whites. Butter your mold very well, and put in the bottom a light layer of dry bread-crumbs, upon this one of macaroons, laid evenly and closely together. Wet this with wine, and cover with a layer of the mixture, then with slices of sponge cake spread thickly with jelly or jam; next macaroons, wet with wine, more custard, sponge-cake and jam, and so on until the mold is full, putting a layer of the mixture at the top. Cover closely, and steam in the oven three-quarters of an hour; then remove the cover to brown the top. Turn out carefully into a dish and pour over it a sauce made of currant jelly warmed, and beaten up with two tablespoonfuls melted butter and a glass of pale sherry.
And of course, no retro page would be complete without that old stand-by, which my mother made with alacrity, sometimes as a sandwich and sometimes as a side dosh to filet of sole and spinach – the infamous peanut butter and banana special. Here is her recipe for the sandwich version, which shall go down in the annuals of Marshall Stoneking history as…
The Florence Lloyd Robey Dream Sandwich !
Ingredients & Method
Take some fresh bread, a gob of peanut butter, a ample amount of honey, and one or two large bananas of course. Slather some stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth peanut butter, piled high with bananas all dripping with sweet, sticky honey. Use this combo to make open-faced sandwiches, regular sandwiches, and even grilled sandwiches (though yu have to butter the outside of the bread beforehand. The grilled peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich is particularly good with the peanut butter melting a bit and dripping all over. The messier the better!
Eat for breakfast, lunch, snack or even as a quick light meal.
Bon apetit, brave cook!