It’s been a while since I did a “writing” type post, but I was put in mind the other day of exactly why people still turn to historical fiction and what it can be at its best. My local newspaper was heralding the return of the TV series “Mad Men” and urging readers to throw a Mad Men party with foods from the early 1960s. The only trouble was that the writer, who seemed to be a very young person, had no idea what to suggest and the article spluttered out with the mention of deviled eggs.
While I’m no big fan of Mad Men, I think the show’s popularity highlights the desire we still have to experience the world of our parents and grandparents. Food is a terrific aspect of the past to explore, and it’s a shame the writer didn’t get hold of a cookbook from the show’s era. Cookbooks, especially the practical, everyday variety, can be an amazing way to immerse yourself firsthand in the customs, technology, and values of days gone by.
My mom was of the Mad Men generation, and I was inspired to pull out my copy of the legendary Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I inherited from her. Continuously in print and revised since 1930, the plaid notebook has faithfully recorded America’s culinary habits for generations. I remember many of these recipes from my childhood.
From the history point of view, the jewel in the crown of Better Homes and Gardens is the “Special Meals and Foreign Cookery” section, which offers dozens of set menus for different occasions. It is here that we get our most unwavering look at the Mad Men era, from bridge parties to cocktail parties, from “For Stags at Eve” (bean and ham chowder; men like it with apple pie, we’re told) to hobo hikes (tie up your fried chicken, a waxed-paper cup of beans, and banana in a kerchief).
Every conceivable holiday is celebrated, even Washington’s Birthday, complete with lattice cherry pie. The Better Homes and Gardens book reflects a determination to have fun, to make every day special dammit, tackled with all the determination of a generation creating explosive prosperity after coming of age during a ghastly Depression and the most blood-thirsty war in history. Treasure hunt, anyone? Serve hamburgers, popcorn corsages, and hot chocolate, and in the name of God, give good prizes.
If the recipes of 50 years past seem a bit quaint, they are still recognizable things that most of us have eaten, at least at grandma’s house. Go back a century and you’ll immediately realize the truth of the saying that “the past is another country,” complete with foreign food. We recently picked up The Economy Administration Cookbook at a used book sale. This 1913 cookbook was, according to its foreword, put out to encourage Americans to return to the “simple and natural life” while fighting the “high cost of living.” The recipes were contributed by the wives and daughters of public officials in Washington, D.C. and include gems such as Democrat Cookies and Temperance Pie. Many of the dishes that appear to have been quite common were unknown to me. Timbales were a type of savory muffin or tart; apparently dasheens (taro roots) were a common starch in the American South and could be baked, boiled, stuffed, or fried. Oysters were cheap and could be used to make pigs-in-a-blanket. A breaded squash could stand in as “mock duck” and a calf’s head for “mock terrapin.”
There are a great many prize recipes for dishes it is almost impossible to imagine anyone wanting to eat today, from roasted squirrel to “old hare,” from escalloped brains to “kraut wickle” (a cabbage and ground beef loaf). Some of the contributed recipes are written in Negro dialect. Food was often prepared in mass quantities (one sausage recipe calls for 18 pounds of lean meat), and total pulverization is a not-uncommon method of preparation. A recipe for “beef a la mode” suggests the following:
To twenty pounds of round beef (large cuts) take two and one half pounds of suet, chopped very fine and mixed with black pepper until almost black. Mix with this one handful of whole allspice and one of whole cloves; punch holes through the meat and stuff with suet; sew up in a bag very tight, and cover well with a brine made of four gallons of water, one and one half pounds of sugar, two ounces of pulverized saltpetre and six pounds of common salt. It will be ready for use in three weeks. Boil well and when cold remove the bag and slice. Delicious relish for cold supper or lunch.
Thanks, Mrs. Henry L. Edmonds of Princeton, New Jersey! By the way, she notes that this recipe “has been used in our family for generations and is much liked by gentlemen.” (Kind of makes you think twice about that time machine fantasy, doesn’t it?)
Cookbooks imported from England were commonplace in America by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were born in the 1770s, though the first cookbook of American origin was not published until 1796, just a few years before the Expedition. This was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, and it was revolutionary (pun intended) in showcasing American ingredients. Simmons’ cookbook was the first to include recipes with cornmeal as an ingredient, with instructions for Indian pudding and hoecakes, and the first to suggest that cranberry sauce was the perfect accompaniment for turkey.
(Interestingly, Simmons’ book contains a recipe for beef a la mode that is very similar to the one included in the Economy Administration cookbook published more than a century later, suggesting that tastes have changed more in the last century than they did in the first hundred years of American cookbook history.)
Simmons’ book also reflected the divergence in culture and technology that was carrying American cooking away from its British roots. She offers recipes and tips on using “pearlash,” or potassium carbonate, which was at the time a major American export. It seems that the vast hardwood forests of the United States afforded the raw materials for ash for use as fertilizer and lye. The ash also enabled the clever cook to make a primitive baking powder for biscuits and cakes.
Every household needed lye, a caustic agent made by repeatedly passing water through a barrel of hardwood ashes. Once you had the lye, you could use it to make soap by boiling it with fat, or you could dry it to make potash (fertilizer). The potash could be further refined into pearlash. Initially used for glassmaking, someone discovered it lightened breads and made a good quick substitute for yeast. The American embrace of practical new technology and willingness to break with old-world traditions are fully on display in Simmons’ cookbook, which remained the standard for 30 years.
There is no evidence that Lewis and Clark took a cookbook with them on the Expedition. However, the Missouri Historical Society has a collection of the recipes of Julia Hancock Clark, the wife of William Clark, that appears to be in William Clark’s handwriting. Here Clark records pudding recipes, instructions for making “orrange” preserves, a recipe for making catsup with Missouri walnuts instead of tomatoes, and “light roles.”
Apparently these household notes were edited by Robert G. Stone & David M. Hinkley in the 1990s and published as Clark’s Other Journal: William & Julia H. Clark’s Household & Homemaking Recipes, Home Remedies, & A Partial Inventory of the Families Personal Belongings as Recorded by William Clark 1820. I have never been able to find a copy of this book; if you have it and would like to sell or trade, let me know!
For more reading:
The Historical Dish (great blog)
Feeding America (historic cookbooks)
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (Google Books)
American Gingerbread Cakes (demonstrates how to use pearlash in a Simmons recipe)