Monday, April 14, 2014

Snapshot Of The Past

My maternal grandmother received a cookbook as a wedding present in the 1930s and used it until she passed away in 1995.  By then it was worn and shabby: pages were frayed; she'd taped recipes cut out of newspapers onto some pages; the scribbles of grandchildren occupied others.  If you look closely enough, you can find the wobbly traces of both my hand and my younger brother's from when we were kids, a permanent record in pencil of our small size back then.

When my grandmother passed away, her oldest daughter (my beloved godmother) inherited the cookbook.  My mother made copies for family members, though, one of which is a prized possession of mine.  Grandma's distinctive handwriting covers many of the blank pages, including her recipes for spaghetti sauce, pizza, cheese croutons (for wedding soup--so good I used to eat these small squares straight from the bag she kept in the freezer!), pickles, sausage, cookies, cavatelle, and more.

For some reason I was looking through this cookbook the other day and was reminded anew that it is a relic of a bygone era.  This period was the heyday of the woman's club, domestic advances having given middle-class women more time for intellectual and social pursuits.  Grandma's cookbook was published by her city's Federation of Women's Clubs, and the contributor of each recipe was identified by both her name and the name of the specific club to which she belonged, of which there were dozens.  These clubs have names like "Mother's Progress" and "Monday Conversational Club" and "Women's Literary" and "Garden Guild" and "Drama Guild" and "Reading Circle" and "Monday Musical."  This grandmother worked, and so did not have the free time to belong to one of these clubs, but my other grandmother lived nearby and did belong to a club--which one seems lost to time, though.  My dad remembers his mother's club friends coming over for luncheons and cards.

I wish I could tell you what year this cookbook was published, but I can't figure it out.  The date doesn't appear anywhere on my copy, and my aunt was kind enough to go through the original (just in case Grandma taped a recipe over the copyright page) and she couldn't find it either.  Even a Google search came up with a blank.  My best guess is that it dates from sometime between World War I and World War II.  The ads are illuminating: for one thing, the telephone numbers in them are still five digits (e.g. 2-6685) and one is for a coal delivery company!

 ETA: My mother told me after reading this post that my great-aunt's family (this grandmother's sister) actually owned a coal company that made those home deliveries!  Who knew.  She also said that in her own house growing up, there was a coal chute through which the delivery people would pour coal for the furnace, and that her mother would get up early in the morning to shovel coal so that the house would be warm when she and her sisters woke up.


The recipes themselves speak of the general era as well.  One page is titled "If War Should Come, Bread, Buns and Rolls" and gives recipes for breads made with barley or rye flour substituted for some of the white flour.  An article taped onto another page describes ways to use honey instead of sugar because of sugar rationing, perhaps from WWII days.  A third page contains a recipe for a coffee substitute made from bran and black molasses toasted to a golden brown in the oven.

Most of the recipes in the book are relatively simple fare, but not all that different from things we might cook today: the glaring exception is the appetizers and salads, which in a few cases feature some, er... unusual combinations of ingredients.  At least to the modern eye.

Trying to envision combining marshmallows, peanut butter and mayonnaise.

Or lime jello, pimiento, onion, mayonnaise and whipped cream.

This one I just can't wrap my head around at all!

I will say, however, that there were FOUR recipes in a row requiring soy sauce (all variations on chow mein and chop suey), which absolutely blew my mind.  In a cookbook dating from this time period featuring recipes collected from women living in a small city in the Midwest??  Nice.  The other thing that surprised me was how spare the directions are: generally only a few lines per recipe.  Apparently back then people didn't need things spelled out...for instance, two jam recipes list the ingredients to be combined and then the entire preserving process is summed up in one word of instructions!  "Can."

I think I'm going to have to make something from this cookbook soon.  Miss you, Grandma...





  1. Ah, phone numbers should STILL be that way. Our neighbor's number was 7-6447, and that didn't change until ... the 1980s. But I'd like to think I didn't put mayo with peanut butter and marshmallows. Yuck!

    1. I was good up to the mayo part! People back then seemed to add mayo to a lot of things that wouldn't contain it now, judging from this cookbook.

    2. Last night after reading this, The Father came out with his usual bowl of microwaved brussels sprouts with something on top - looks like sour cream. I finally asked what it was and The Mother tried to stop me. Mayonnaise. At least a full half cup of Best Foods dumped on a small bowl of brussels sprouts. Let's just say that fasting was a breeze after that.

      But then The Mother said she had a friend growing up who enjoyed the recipe of PB, marshmallows, and mayo - ate it all the time on wonder bread.


    3. Desecration!! Way to wreck perfectly good Brussels sprouts between the microwaving and the mayo. (Oven roasted with olive oil and kosher salt, however...yum.) I'm almost inspired to try that sandwich for the hell of it, but I have a feeling that I would regret it deeply. ;)

    4. Yeah, when I ovenroasted the brussels sprouts, the Mother and Teenager and Grandmother and I huddled around the still-warm pan and gobbled them down. But The Father said, "It's just the same in the microwave. Why bother?" And that's when I really understood that the brain damage is real (he suffered a massive stroke a few years back and was in a coma for weeks - nobody thought he'd survive, and he's had an incredible recovery - but there's hidden brain damage that only a few of us understand - and now I have proof!).

      Try the sandwich!! Report on it! Do it! I want to hear what your kids think!

    5. I made one and gave it to my eldest as a joke...once he smelled it the jig was up. Boy, did I get a dirty look!! :)

      So sorry to hear about your friend's brain damage, but wow...does seem like he's made an amazing recovery from that stroke if things like this are where you see the issues. As a friend of mine once pointed out to me, any problem in the head is a big problem due to the confined space...he'd had a benign brain tumor but its removal still left him disfigured and with a speech impediment.

  2. Phone numbers used to start with letters, too. My parents' phone number was RA2-5537. And my mom was in a club! It was just called "Club". They met at someone's house every Tuesday night. As a kid, it was a big honor for me to be allowed to serve the snacks. (I think my mom had a little Tom Sawyer paint-the-fence thing going on there - smart mom.)

    And what, pray tell, is the tomato juice for in that last recipe? To drink? To ... dunk? *shudder*

    1. I can only envision that it is to dunk, and I agree with your take on that prospect wholeheartedly. :) That one is definitely a you-know-you're-not-in-Kansas-anymore sort of recipe!!


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