Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is Cooking an Art or Obsolete?

The other day at an auction of Ephemera, I bought, for $10, a batch of vintage cookbooks which included such rarities as “The ‘Silent Hostess’ Treasure Book” (1930), the “Metropolitan Cook Book” (1922), “Dishes Men Like” (1952) the “Southern Cook Book” (1939), “A Book of Good Eating” from “the Woman’s (sic) Auxiliary of the New England Baptist Hospital” (1971), “New Brunswick Recipes” (1958), “Saint Paul’s Parish Album of Good Eating”…you get the idea.

I’m not a foodie or a gourmet cook who can read a cookbook like a novel searching for new culinary tricks. In fact my bible after I got married in 1970 was the “I Hate to Cook Book” by Peg Bracken—as far as you can get from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

But I did get quite a few chuckles perusing these vintage cookbooks and reading the culinary wisdom so earnestly laid out in them.It was like time-traveling into the past.

Turns out the “Silent Hostess Treasure Book” was produced by the General Electric Company in 1930 to introduce homemakers to that new invention, the Electric Refrigerator:

“First came the electric iron—the steps it saved from the stove to the ironing board and back again amounted to several miles a year. Next, the washing machine, to save backs from aching and knuckles from cracking—and again a saving of time. And then the vacuum cleaner—what a relief from the tiresome and dirty task of sweeping! Each new electric appliance contributes its share to the lightening of household tasks.

“And now the electric refrigerator. Not only can it save the housewife time and energy, but it can actually work for her. With a little planning on her part it can take an active part in the preparation and serving of her meals.”

The book then explains how foods should be placed according to the various temperatures of the various shelves (check out the photo above) and tells the housewife “You can save yourself many trips to market. You can prepare meals in advance.

“For the homemaker without a maid, one of the most informal and enjoyable occasions is to entertain at Sunday night supper (see Page 7) or the late supper ‘snack’ served after the movies or theatre (see menus, pages 28 and 29.)”

Here’s one of the suggested Sunday Night suppers: Russian Canapes, Stuffed Tomatoes in Aspic, Celery Hearts, Cheese Biscuit, Caramel Ice Cream and Tea.

Most of the menus and dishes suggested in this book would not go over very well with men (or women) today, because there is so much reliance on things in aspic and tiny sandwiches filled with pastes like: peanut butter and chopped dates, mixed with mayonnaise. There are also a lot of “surprise” dishes like a multi-layered “Surprise Sandwich Loaf” filled with chopped raw cabbage, pimiento, chopped, cheese relish and “1/2 lb. Yellow or snappy cheese”

The last part of the book, which details how to defrost the refrigerator, describes refrigerator accessories like white enamel containers, glass refrigerator dishes and rubber trays. I suddenly realized: they hadn’t invented plastic yet! I also realized that I probably haven’t defrosted a refrigerator in 30 years.

So what are the Dishes Men Like? That small cookbook, published in 1952, was produced by Lea & Perrins, Inc. makers of “The Original and Genuine Worcestershire Sauce” and it seems that nearly every dish preferred by men requires Worcestershire Sauce.

Evidently Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce is essential in the cocktail hour for dips and cheese spreads and “Mystery Cheese Ball Spread” (probably related to those “Surprise” dishes from General Electric.) It’s even essential in a pick-me-up on “the morning after” to cure your hangover and “immediately set you right for a good day’s work.” Here are two suggestions: “Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to a raw egg, stir and swallow. Or Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to an 8-ounce glass of tomato or sauerkraut juice and drink contents as quickly as possible.”

Both those recipes, which sound like something right off my beloved “Mad Men”, would drive me to drink.

The rest of the book demonstrates that Lea & Perrins is the magic ingredient in “Easy Beef Pie with Cheese’, various fondues and meat and chicken dishes, Oven Welsh Rabbit (Rarebit) with Beer and Rink Tum Diddy Rabbit (Rarebit). That last one is NOT the name of a Rap singer.

The “Metropolitan Cook Book” published by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1922, intends to inform the housewife how to provide healthy, nutritious and economical meals for her family. It warns her that meat “should be removed from the paper as soon as it is received from market and should be kept in a cool place. Always wipe meat with a damp cloth.” (No GE refrigerator back in 1922!)

My favorite recipe in the book is “How to make toast: Cut stale bread into 1/4 inch slices, put slices in a wire toaster, lock toaster and hold over or under the heat, holding it some distance from the fire that it may dry gradually, and then brown as desired.“ The toaster oven was clearly far in the future, much less Pop Tarts and Eggo Waffles.

My favorite cookbook in the batch is “The Southern Cook Book –322 Old Dixie Recipes” (1939). As my daughter pointed out, it’s hopelessly racist with drawings of “darkies” --cooking and napping and eating watermelon, the illustrations embellished with jokes, songs and quotations in stereotypical southern black dialect.

Here’s the quotation that starts the book: “’Case Cookin’s lak religion is—/Some’s ‘lected an’ some ain’t,/ An rules don’ no mo’ mek a cook/ Den sermons mek a saint”.

Indeed the book is racist and clichéd and demeaning to southerners, but where else would you find “Creole Soup a la Madame Begue,” “North Carolina Syllabub (A Builder-Upper)”, “Burgoo For Small Parties”, exactly how to dress and cook an Opossum, and the recipe for “Tallahassee Hush Puppies” as well as a long story about their origins.

“Good Eating” from the “Woman’s Auxiliary of the New England Baptist Hospital" had a wealth of “Food Facts and Fables” including this one: “Pretzels were born about 610 A.D. when an Italian monk took strips of leftover dough and folded over the ends to represent arms crossed in prayer. When baked, the monk gave them to children who learned their prayers. He called them ‘pretiola”…loose interpretation, “little prayers.”

Each one of the vintage cookbooks had nuggets of information and recipes that I’d like to try, as well as recipes I wouldn’t eat on a bet. After paging through all of them, I realized that today, the housewives of America (and I mean ME above all) don’t really cook.

I know several women who are brilliant cooks of the Julia Child ilk—but they treat cooking as a fine art, not a dull daily necessity…because we have so many conveniences and so many kinds of already-prepared food, that no one has to cook every day, the way our grandmothers did. (When I was little my paternal grandmother, born in Norway but reared in Minnesota, would bake bread every morning before breakfast and then call up my mother—her daughter- in-law—to ask if she’d done HER baking already. She hadn’t. My mother was as lackluster a cook as I am, and we had the same weekly series of meals. I believe Thursday was tuna-fish-noodle casserole with crumbled potato chips on top.

Tomorrow I’m serving Pork Roast Florentine filled with ricotta & feta cheeses, roasted red bell peppers and spinach, rolled up in a spiral and finished with a garlic-rosemary sauce. I got it at Trader Joe's and just have to put it in the oven for 40 minutes. Trader Joe’s also has a Tarte de Champignon and Ye Olde Yule Log and Scallops on the Half Shell and Spice Nog Cake. It’s my new favorite store. I’m just sorry Peg Bracken didn’t live to see it.

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