The century old recipe book I picked up recently demonstrates the challenges my grandmother faced in the kitchen as a young bride. In 1907 the St. Katherine’s Guild of Grace Church in Oak Park, Ill. collated a hard bound church cookbook of “Tested Recipes.” Even with decades of kitchen experience, that cookbook challenged me.
“Popovers for Six People” calls for “One quart of milk, less the cream.” Living in the era of homogenized milk, I wondered exactly how to measure that. Most all the recipes lack sufficient instructions. The Devils Food Cake recipe ends with “after all this is well mixed, stir in chocolate.”
“Then what?” inquiring minds want to know.
The answer is, “use your judgment….”
Several recipes say, “Flavor to taste.”
With what flavor? Orange, vanilla, almond extract?
Okay, maybe I could wing the flavoring and flour. But the 1907 ovens had no temperature settings. The church ladies’ simply wrote: “Bake” with no temperature provided. The stoves did not have temperature controls. So recipes say, “Bake in a moderate oven, ” “a quick oven or “a slow oven.”
Explicit instructions are few. Many recipes are reminiscent of the recipes school children submitted for the El Dorado News-Times annual Newspapers in Education contest. They lack instructions and ingredients.
Some recipes like Suet Pudding never appear in modern cookbooks. Its first ingredient is suet – as in the hard, white fat around animal organs. To this, the cook adds raisins, currants, molasses, or brown sugar before steaming it all for an hour or two.
The final sentence for cream of corn soup caught my eye: “Serve with freshly popped corn, slightly salted.”
Measurements also seem a bit odd. Dyspeptic’s muffins need a “walnut sized piece of butter.” First of all, is that a walnut with or without the shell? Secondly, what is dyspeptic? The instructions end with “have the oven and muffin pan very hot.” How hot is very hot? And, how long are these muffins to be baked?
If I can’t bake with this recipe book, I can try a nut sandwich: “chop a cupful of English walnut meats, moisten with thick cream and spread between a slice of Boston brown bread and a slice of white bread which have been cut with a biscuit cutter.” I could also try a Cottage Cheese Sandwich: “Cut graham bread into thin slices and butter generously. Spread with a paste made of cottage cheese, chopped olives and nuts.” How much cottage cheese? No explanation. Do it “to your taste and preference.”
With sandwiches in hand, reach for a glass of Dandelion Wine. Thanks to “Tested Recipes” I finally know how to make it. A big batch requires 10 quarts of dandelion flowers – the flowers, not the stems or leaves. It would take field of dandelions to pick that many! Like all good wine, it takes time and one of those large stone jars that serves as a quaint decoration in some homes. It also needs 19 lemons, nine pounds of sugar, lots of time and several sessions spent squeezing the flowers and lemons and straining them through cheesecloth. All told, at least a couple months pass before you pour the wine into bottles and loosely cork.
Food for invalids includes egg gruel: “egg yolk and sugar beaten together. Pour one cup boiling water on it, add the egg white which has been beaten to a froth with any seasoning or spice desired. Serve warm.”
Maybe there is a reason why gruel rhymes with cruel.
My grandmother cooked in that sort of kitchen in the first decades of her marriage. In her last years, she warmed up cans of soup to pour over toast and carefully opened packages of Archway cookies for dessert. All of which tasted much better than gruel any day.