I stand today before the ethical mirror.
Is my interest in old cookbooks a reflection of my genuine curiosity about history? Is it a form of culinary anthropology, where I gain a tiny glimpse into the lives of our forefathers by seeing what they ate and how they cooked it?
Or do I look at old recipes merely to laugh at them?
As it turns out, it’s a bit of both.
Reader Spencer Stone recently sent over three vintage cookbooks, all of them more than a century old, that are intriguing looks into the lives of Americans from several generations ago. And parts of them are just plain funny.
The oldest of the books, the Lakeside Cookbook, dates to 1878. Published in Chicago, it claims to be “A complete manual of practical, economical, palatable and healthful cookery,” and at 48 pages of small type it is fairly comprehensive.
If you would like to know how to cook a pig’s head, for instance, the recipe begins “Have the head nicely cleaned and boil it till very tender.” It also includes a recipe for pig’s feet hash (basically, cook the pig’s feet and chop up the meat).
The cooks who used the book at the time had a more intimate knowledge of the food they cooked than most Americans do now. White-legged poultry is best for boiling, it says, while brown-legged ones are juicier and thus preferred for roasting. In other words, the women of the day (and it was almost exclusively women) were doing the plucking and more.
Poultry “should be killed and dressed from eight to ten hours before cooking. Pigeons are far better for being cooked the day they are killed, as they lose their flavor by hanging,” it says.
Studying the recipes, we can gain knowledge about what foods were available almost 135 years ago. Oysters apparently were big: The book lists instructions for making them broiled, chowder, croquette, fried, fried again, pie, pot pie, pickled, spiced, roasted, fancy roasted, stewed, Maryland stewed, and with toast.
Though it has three recipes, it does not include recipes for shrimp, clams, or any other kind of seafood. And while it devotes six pages to recipes for puddings, it only has five pages for meats.
The next oldest book is local, the directory and cookbook for St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church, which was on Magnolia Street in Vistula. The recipes all came from parishioners.
Dating from 1896, it was published to help raise funds for the church’s pipe organ. The preface proudly states that it “is a temperance book. Not a drop of that which intoxicates is recommended in any receipt for fruit cake, pudding, sauce or mince pie.”
This book includes two recipes — or receipts, as they were then spelled — for pork cakes, which were, yes, cakes with ground pork in them. The salmon recipes all use canned salmon, of course. What we call potato chips are in the book called Saratoga chips (I looked it up: they were invented in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., by a man named George Crum). And the book also includes an entire section devoted to Olykoeks (I looked that one up, too. That is a Dutch term for “oily cakes,” or doughnuts).
What we learn from both of these books is that the writers assumed their readers knew what they were doing. The recipes were what we today would consider inexact. Times for baking were never listed and neither were temperatures, except sometimes to say the oven should be quick or hot (hot was slightly hotter than quick).
But times had changed by 1910, when the Gold Medal Flour Cook Book was published. It is more modern by far. Here, the recipes are specific, with exact amounts given, and the lengths of time they should be cooked. The seafood sections includes recipes for clams, scallops, crabs, crawfish, and shrimp, along with a few recipes for lobster and 15 for oysters. Most of the recipes would not be at all out of place on today’s tables.
A hundred years from now? Today’s recipes calling for tiny smears of sauce or anything involving guar gum or lecithin are going to look awfully silly.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.