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:
Thanks, but no thanks.