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.”
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.