The Mind of Bluesleepy

Say it ain’t so… 16 November 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — bluesleepy @ 4:04 pm

I love to collect vintage and antique cookbooks. It’s really surprising to read how very difficult it was to get three meals on the table not that long ago, before we had the convenience of canned goods and premade foods. And I’m not even talking about Hamburger Helper. How about sausage? It used to be that you had to make it yourself if you wanted it. Even cheese and butter were homemade, once upon a time.

How about cooking on a woodstove? How do you keep a constant temperature? How do you even know what the temperature of the oven is? It’s amazing these women were able to do as much as they were able to, and to do it so well.

I’m so glad I’m a modern woman.

Even cookbooks from the 40s and 50s crack me up, though these women had much of the same modern conveniences that we do today. For one thing, in the 40s, the country was recovering from the Depression but also had to contend with rationing for the war effort. During World War II, war was not some abstract thing that only affected us if we had a brother or husband sent to the front lines. Everyone in the country was affected. We had gas rationing, sugar rationing, even clothing rationing, in an effort to make sure that the troops got what they needed. Women no longer wore silk stockings because silk was needed to make parachutes. Instead women drew lines up the back of their bare legs to simulate the seam of a silk stocking. That’s how pervasive the war effort was; no aspect of life was unaffected during World War II. There was no way you could forget our country was at war.

It’s a bit different today.

But I digress.

Before I left Washington, I visited my favorite used book store, where I found a copy of Watkins Cook Book, printed by the J.R. Watkins Company in Winona, Minnesota. My edition was printed in 1945, the same year WWII came to an end. Though the book comes in at just under 300 pages, there are many more recipes in this little book than in most modern cookbooks. Of course, since this was a book printed by a company, there are many references to the company’s product. You’re not to use just paprika; make sure it is Watkins Paprika. You don’t simply season with salt and pepper; you season with salt and Watkins Pepper.

One thing that surprises me is the way in which the recipes are written. Being a modern woman, I’m so used to recipes written for dummies. Everything is specifically laid out so that there is no room for error.

These recipes are a lot more vague. While there are specific amounts to be used, the actual instructions are not nearly as explicit as they are in today’s cookbooks. For example, this recipe for Creamed Dried Beef: “Make a cream sauce of flour and butter in hot skillet; add milk, cream. Stir until quite thick. Simmer dried beef on slow fire, add beef to hot cream sauce.”

Were that written in a modern cookbook, we would be told exactly how to make the cream sauce, how long to stir and simmer, how hot the pan should be, etc.

Maybe women of yesteryear were smarter.

I love to read the tips for economical cooking as well. There’s an entire section on “Stretching Meat,” as that used to be a huge chunk of a woman’s grocery budget. Some of the tips include stuffing a cut of meat, using a pound of ground beef to make a meat pie for six, and using cold meat loaf as a filling for sandwiches, as well as ideas on using up leftover, cooked meat. The cookbook even suggests using “variety meats,” such as liver, hearts, tongue, and brains, as economical substitutions for the more mainstream chicken, pork, and beef.

I think I’ll pass on eating brains, thanks.

There’s even a section on “Food for Invalids.” The introduction to this section informs us:

The preparation and serving of food is of especial importance in illness. Food for invalids should be perfectly cooked, attractively served, suited to the digestive powers of the patient.
Arrange the tray as daintily as possible. Use the best China. Serve hot dishes hot; cold dishes cold.
Serve one course at a time. Have surprise food for patients.
In contagious diseases all dishes, plates, silver, etc., should be sterilized.

I know my mom wouldn’t have busted out the good china when I was sick. She would simply have heated up a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and called it good.

One of the recipes found under “Food for Invalids” is Toast Water. “Equal measures of toasted stale bread and boiling water. Let stand 1 hour. Season, strain, serve hot or cold. Pinch salt. Given in extreme cases of nausea.”

Hmmm, toast-flavored water. Another recipe I’d have to pass on.

It’s also amusing to read old cookbooks to see how our tastes have changed over the years. I know I prefer my vegetables steamed just till tender. If they get too soft, they lose all their fresh flavor, in my opinion. For example: broccoli. I only buy fresh broccoli now (I find the frozen stuff cooks up too mushy for my tastes), and I steam it probably only three minutes, just until it turns a gorgeous, bright, fresh green. At that point, it’s lost its raw taste (I can’t do raw broccoli; I just don’t like the taste), but it still retains its crunchiness and fresh texture.

Watkins suggests that we cook broccoli like cauliflower. The only recipe I can find for cauliflower is one for Cauliflower and Cheese. “Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water about 20 minutes, until tender.”

Twenty minutes?? For broccoli??

Now I know why my mom’s veggies were always overcooked and mushy.

And once the broccoli is cooked, we should “Serve with Hollandaise sauce. Or prepare au gratin with buttered bread crumbs and grated cheese.”

Did the men in the 40s have a cholesterol problem, I wonder?

But the piece de resistance of all this research into vintage cooking was found on a slip of paper cut from a can of condensed milk and tucked between the pages of this cookbook. I give you…

Wait for it….

Hot dog casserole:

You have got to be kidding me

Thanks, but no thanks.


18 Responses to “Say it ain’t so…”

  1. freshhell Says:

    I love old cookbooks. I have a box of my grandmother’s old recipes that just list the ingredients and the temp at which you cook them. That’s it. I think they were just to jog her memory, the rest she knew. Which I think is the same here. Women were just expected to have been taught how to make a cream sauce so it probably would have seemed silly to explain it. Which is why I love Joy of Cooking. All those mysteries are solved. Mostly. I’ll pass on the hotdog casserole, though.

  2. Rosietoes Says:

    You can thank the 1970’s and vegetable steamers for al-dente veggies! Before that, they were mush. ICK! Actually, my mom has a cookbook that all of us covet. It is missing its cover, so I have to go on my mom’s word that it was called The Navy Wife’s Cookbook, but it has the very bestest ever recipe for banana nut bread. The part I like best? It tells you to crush your three bananas “with a silver fork”. Not with wood, plastic, or even stainless steel…one simply MUST use a silver fork! How classy is that? I would faithfully always use one of the forks from the silver drawer when making that recipe. I still do!

  3. hissandtell Says:

    Ha! My mother only ever let silver come into contact with bananas, too — must be a chemical-reaction thingy. I’m just trying to think what else must only be touched with silver (other than soft-boiled eggs, of course) — nope, can’t retrieve it from my dusty brain. Anyway, I adore old cookbooks too. When I got married and moved here to the ol’ rancho I became the quintessential earth mother and learned how to bake bread and fashion the most spectacular old-fashioned fabulously-fresh-ingredienty meals from scratch, and those antique and vintage cookbooks are just the best for informing (and amusing!) the cook. I collect 50s diner cookbooks and recipes, too — LOVE the desserts and pies and cakeys! Love, R xxx

  4. its just mac and cheese with weenies hahah

  5. Poolie Says:

    Heart attack in a baking dish!

  6. purple chai Says:

    My mother had a cookbook whose title always intrigued me: You Can Cook If You Can Read. I think it was a wedding present in 1943. And she actually did always sterilize our dishes and things when we were sick, kept them apart from the rest of the family’s until we were better, then boiled them one last time and put them away in the cabinet. It made us feel like we had the freakin’ plague or something.

  7. yankeechick Says:

    I collect cookbooks, too! I have several that were my Mom’s from the 40’s and 50’s. They are, indeed, very entertaining but have some good recipes as well!

  8. cardiogirl Says:

    Well, bluesleepy, you’re taking me back in the time machine and I can honestly state these two facts with absolute certainty:

    1. I have never seen a cookbook in my parent’s house

    2. I have no memory of my mother ever purchasing or having vegetables in the house.

    My mom didn’t cook by the time I came along (sixth kid, she went to work full time when I was two) so you can imagine my own stellar cooking abilities.

  9. clairec23 Says:

    Mmmm, hotdog casserole lol

    My ma and my nanny make mushy veg too, no wonder I never ate vegetables as a kid, blech! My ma doesn’t anymore but she didn’t learn how to cook until she was in her 30’s but my nanny was supposed to be a great cook. She was really but she had a tendency to overdo heart attack foods, everything had butter or a huge amount of oil added to it. She always liked fatty meat too for some reason – again, no wonder I never liked meat as a child.

  10. oleandlena Says:

    My mother would cook asparagus by putting it in a pot of boiling water until it was a mass of fiber. Then put it on our plate and tell us to eat it because it was good for us. Ugh.

  11. whatdayisit Says:

    I still have my Betty Crocker cookbook from when I got married 42 years ago….strange how the recipes don’t seem to work with our modern meals….I remember in high school Home Economics that we had to learn to make white sauce from scratch…I think most of the semester was based on that white sauce….I had to practice so I think I cooked tuna casserole with crushed saltines as a topping every week for 2 months which included that dreaded white sauce!!! my poor sisters and parents…LOL!

  12. sleepyjane Says:

    I have to admit that I cannot cook. I can definately read a cookbook, but if I HAVE to I’d rather read the desert section šŸ˜‰
    Having said that I made some pasta for the first time in my life tonight for J and I. It wasn’t half bad either!

    And I know what you mean by the older cookbooks being difficult to read, we have few here in Afrikaans. And I can’t make sense of them.

    Also, thanks for the wonderful comments over at my place. šŸ™‚

  13. Michele Says:

    sorry it took so long for me to read this… GREAT entry though! very informative!

    love you!

  14. art Says:

    hay! im an invalid, having expired long ago, so i qualify for the yummithy toast flavoured water!!! wheeee!!!

  15. cardiogirl Says:

    p.s. I just realized that casserole in the picture was cooked using … Pyrex!

  16. Fi Says:

    I have the recipe cards that my Grandmother (who was born in 1889) was given in primary school. They have recipes for barley water, jugged hare and coddled eggs. The toast recipe (!) has the instruction “add no new wood to your stove allowing the flames to die down to a steady glow” and the meringue recipe says “use three day old eggs, never straight from the hen” and to “using a knife, whip the egg whites on a tin plate until stiff”. Give me hot dog noodles any time!!

  17. Holly Says:

    I think a large part of my cooking talent comes from my mom, who is old enough that she learned to cook and bake on a wood burning stove [she was raised in the 30/40’s rural ND], but I also blame her for the fact that I hated most veggies {corn, potatos and carrots not withstanding} until I was an adult and discovered I loved them when they were neither canned no boiled into oblivion, or buried in a casserole. I prefer mine steamed in the microwave or roasted until they are sweet and delicious. Green veggies should be bright green. I wouldn’t even look at greens until recently when I disovered if you sauted them, instead of boiling them into seaweed, they are quite good. This from the same woman who could bake the worlds greatest bread with out a recipe. Something I am a long way from being able to do. She also makes an awesome german/ruassian style borsht and knoepfla. skills I’d love to have. hell I’d be thrilled to learm my paternal g’mas recipe for lefse. There is alot to be said for some of those old recipes, the ones w/out canned soup.

  18. karmacat Says:

    As much as I enjoy browsing through my grandmother’s old cookbooks, I have not yet been inspired to bake with lard instead of shortening.

    Vintage etiquettte books are good for a chuckle, too: “No young girl may live alone. Even though she has a father … she must also have a resident chaperon who protects her reputation until she is married or old enough to protect it herself…”

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