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The Cookbooks of the Past are Another Country | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Cookbooks of the Past are Another Country

When travelling, I always take a book or two with me. I’ve been a devoted reader since the day when the funny squiggles on the page began to make sense to me as a tiny child.

As Mr. Twistie and I headed down the road last week, I read from a book called Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro on the rise of Domestic Science and Home Economics and the effect the movement had on American cooking. Ms. Shapiro takes a very dim view of said effect. I can’t say that I entirely agree or disagree with her point of view, but I was interested in her argument and the facts at her command. I learned a great deal.
The thing that struck me most, though, was a passage in the excellent introduction by Ruth Reichl talking about her early fascination with old cookbooks:

…To me, the books were filled with ghosts. History books left me cold, but I had only to open an old cookbook to find myself transported to another place or time.

That immediately resonated with me. Though my experiences with food as a child were very different from Ms. Reichl’s (her interest in cookbooks grew directly out of her parents’ disinterest in food, while mine grew from a mother who adored the culinary arts and eagerly bought cookbooks the way my brothers collected comic books) and I’ve always loved history books as well as cookbooks, the sentiment is one I recognize entirely.

Just as Ms. Reichl discovered an entire world in a recipe that involved scooping the flesh out of a banana peel, then filling the peel with gelatin and tiny banana balls to resemble ‘a mammoth yellow peapod’, so I have visited strange worlds through approaches to food and drink.

With all this in the forefront of my mind, Mr. Twistie and I wandered into a tiny bookstore in Solvang whose name I have completely forgotten. I wish I could remember because I found treasures there and the proprietor indicated a web presence.

One of the treasures I discovered was an old cookbook. In point of fact, it was a 1939 printing of the 1937 edition of The Household Searchlight Recipe Book by The Household Magazine. The title and author would have been more than enough to pique my interest, but it’s also handsomely bound in what feels like some sort of stamped ersatz black leather highlighted by a rather lurid orange illustration of a cozy cottage in the trees in a half-dome indentation. Gloriously cheesy bindings built to last the ages are not a necessity, but they definitely increase my glee factor in reading material.

But as Ruth Reichl would understand, it’s what’s between the covers of these books that truly tells us about food, peoples’ relationships with food, and how we saw ourselves once upon a time that truly fascinates me.

The Household Searchlight Recipe Book shows a country that’s trying to be several different worlds at once. In the fish and wild game section, there are two different recipes for squirrel (fried, or squirrel stew, take your pick) as well as several rabbit recipes that begin by assuming you have not acquired your bunny from a butcher and includes a terse bit of information on hanging game before preparation.

The book then goes on to suggest:

“Timbales of wild rice or squares of fried hominy and garnishes of currant or wild grape jelly are appetizing to serve with game.”

Fascinating.

On the other end of the scale, we have a bizarre cocktail the like of which I hope never to be served:

“Cut small round balls from the heart of ripe watermelon and cantaloup. Chill thoroughly. Cover with ginger ale and allow to stand 1/2 hour. Drain just before serving and cover with fresh ginger ale. Serve at once.”

While ginger and melon is a delectable combination, the concept of bumping up against melon balls in my drink just doesn’t do it for me. This seems too close for comfort to that mammoth banana peapod for my taste. The recipe, however, does go on to helpfully suggest that one might leave out the ginger ale entirely and just serve the melon balls on their own. But it might give me a good idea for say adding a bit of melon flavoring to my ginger beer. See? There are practical applications even to cookbooks one hasn’t really thought about using for their intended purpose.

A shrimp cocktail recipe by Virginia Cooper of New Orleans, LA and a Fruit Nectar cocktail submitted by Mrs. E. W. Winget of Oberlin, KS are printed one atop the other in this book. After all, they’re both cocktails, aren’t they?

This book is a world my parents grew up in, but it’s a foreign land to me. I look forward to exploring it much, much further.

10 Responses to “The Cookbooks of the Past are Another Country”

  1. Margo July 13, 2008 at 2:31 pm #

    ” it might give me a good idea for say adding a bit of melon flavoring to my ginger beer”

    It made me think that melon balls, or, more likely in my house, melon cubes, would be excellent with a sprinkling of finely chopped crystalized ginger.

  2. Synnamin July 13, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    You have, of course, seen LILEKS excellent website, The Gallery of Regrettable Food?? Glorious, full-color scans of old cookbooks, annotated in such a way as to make you require a plastic-covered chair.

  3. Amber July 13, 2008 at 4:21 pm #

    http://www.bookloftsolvang.com/

    The bookstore might have been The Book Loft. And I’m sorry if you get this sort of reply twice. My initial comment didn’t show up on the page for some reason.

  4. Mr. Henry July 14, 2008 at 9:01 am #

    Early in their courtship, Mr. and Mrs. Henry spent the night at a B & B in Pine Plains, New York. Each bedroom held an assortment of women’s magazines from the 1940’s and 50’s. Although the fashions were hugely entertaining, the recipes were eye-poppingly weird.

    One that remains uppermost in mind was a hot dog and hamburger casserole made with mayonnaise and topped with crumbled potato chips.

  5. Tuppence July 14, 2008 at 3:57 pm #

    Squirrel is still eaten in some parts of the country, including, um, where I am. I actually know when squirrel season is and always try to get my Dh out there. Small but tasty animals.

  6. Sunflowery July 14, 2008 at 11:22 pm #

    I do think Mr Henry (with his undeniable refinement and fabulous appreciation for gourmet fare) and the rest of the generally discerning Manolosphere readers will appreciate the following links – recipes from the ’70’s as dreamt up by the talented ladies over at Weight Watchers.

    Enticing creations such as the ‘Fluffy Mackerel Pudding http://www.candyboots.com/wwcards/fluffymackpudding.html

    OR a ‘Budget Best Bet’ such as the ‘Frankfurter Spectacular’ http://www.candyboots.com/wwcards/spectacular.html
    are culinary masterpieces you simply cannot find these days. Where has all the refinement gone???

    A more alarming conglomeration of recipes will be hard to find, I think. And Synammin- Lileks is a hoot, and one of my favorite timewaster links at work :)

  7. Twistie July 15, 2008 at 11:18 am #

    Margo, that sounds like a wonderful idea. I’ll have to try it, too.

    Synnimin, I am such a fan of the Gallery of Regrettable Food! It’s a wondrous site filled with marvels.

    Amber, that wasn’t the same store…but I’ll definitely be visiting the Book Loft virtually! Thanks for the link. The one I found was a tiny little hole in the wall tucked at the back of the tourist stuff. I wish I could remember what it was called, but my purchases were put in a recycled Payless bag and the receipt is not customized. I should have asked for a business card.

    Mr. Henry, that casserole sounds gloriously bizarre! Is now a good time to mention that while perusing my book yesterday I ran across instructions for making your hard-boiled egg resemble an apple?

    Mr. Twistie once came home from a flea market with a foot-high stack of booklets and pamphlets on cooking from the 40’s and 50’s. I can’t tell you how I adored him for bringing home such treasures! Gloriously fussy sandwiches, obscene uses of gelatin, vegetables boiled far beyond their ability to be anything but tasteless mush…and every once in a while, a great idea lurks in the corners.

    Tuppence, I know that squirrel is still eaten in some places, and would be delighted to give it a try should I ever find myself in one of those places. The unusual thing for today is that a cookbook expected to have a national rather than regional audience included recipes for squirrel. If I’m ever out your way, I’d be thrilled to give small but tasty animals a try.

  8. azulitos July 15, 2008 at 1:46 pm #

    I have a copy of “The I Hate to Cook Book” that my Mom received as a gift in the 60’s. The names of the book’s chapter alone make me crack up: “Desserts, or People are Too Fat Anyway.” or “Children parties, or they only came for the ballons anyway.” Witty writing for recipes that will get any modern woman out of the kitchen and sipping away dry martinis.

  9. Twistie July 15, 2008 at 3:00 pm #

    Sunflowery, the Frankfurter Spectacular will now haunt my nightmares until my dying day.

    Seriously, everyone, go check out these horrors! They amaze me…and I lived through the time when these things might have been seriously served!

    Azulitos, one of the great treasures nobody else wanted when we were emptying the family homestead was my mother’s copy of the Date Bait Cookbook, a hilarious little tome of kitchen wisdom from the 50’s all about how to snag a guy by being handy with a pound of hamburger and such. I’ve seen The I Hate to Cook Book. One day I may need to investigate further…or send a copy to Plumcake who is clearly far more handy with a cocktail than I am! Hmmm…perhaps next Bastille Day….

  10. JoJoKaffe July 18, 2008 at 2:28 pm #

    I totally concur on the old cook books. My grandmother was a lunch lady and then a caterer. And her mother was a cook at a fraternity house in the 20s. The cook books from both are as much family history as a peering glass into another era.
    The hand edits, comments and evaluations are almost like a diary.
    Instructions such as ‘a walnut sized piece of butter’ and ‘heat and maintain the stove at a medium heat’ are lovely and thought provoking.