Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Treasury of Retro Recipes

Last night I went delving through my oh-so-intriguing copy of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book (note the antique letterspacing) of 1949, one of the genuine treasures I selected from Cousin Marguerite’s kitchen when she moved into an assisted-living place some years ago and invited the family to come and take things we’d like to have.

The cookbook (well-worn, stained, lacking the front cover) is full of what we would certainly call “retro” recipes. Fortunately, it’s not like nineteenth-century cooking (which flat-out scares me) with recipes for calf’s head soup and so on.

Yet it antedates the worst culinary atrocities of the fifties (documented so well in James Lileks’s hilarious publications, such as his newest, Gastroanomalies). Still, much of what we take for granted today wasn’t available to most cooks then, and the limitations of people’s tastes and of 1940s food distribution are obvious—and yet there are a surprising number of sophisticated and elevated recipes in here. The book is over a thousand pages long.

An added bonus, for sentimental reasons, is that apparently the book was a gift to Marguerite from her Aunt Esther (my grandma’s sister), because the Christmas card that accompanied it is still tucked within the pages. Signed “Uncle Emil and Aunt Esther”: “Hope you learn a lot from this book!” Bless them all, those dear people who are gone.

This is the cookbook where I found my awesome (and simple) springerle recipe. (More on that when Christmas rolls around.)

You could just laugh at it, because it’s old and seemingly naive compared to the big fat sophistication we bring to our kitchens today (sure, uh-huh), but the book is truly enlightening to me. In fact, it’s a trove.

It’s pretty cool to take a peek through the book—ingredients and flavors that are nearly foreign to us today, certainly out of vogue. Anchovies and sardines. Chopped pickles. Liverwurst. Prunes. Pimiento. Tongue. And chop suey! The recipes distinguish between “canned” and “glassed” ingredients. The “Home Canning” section tells you how to home-can in your leftover coffee and mayonnaise jars, if you want.

There’s also instructions on how to care for “Oil Ranges” and “Ice Refrigerators.” There’s advice to the home cook to “always buy eggs from merchants who keep eggs under refrigeration, not on the counter.” Hmmm. I guess I’ll take that one under advisement!

The section on “Electrical Kitchen Appliances” mentions the wide array of contraptions that can be plugged into your kitchen outlets (though be sure to “ask your local utility office to tell you the kind of current furnished your home”)—“toaster, coffeemaker, beater or mixer, fruit juice extractor, waffle iron [etc.]”—and it ends with this glorious reminder: “There is also the electric kitchen clock.” . . . Imagine.

In the chapter entitled “Sandwiches of All Kinds,” the first statement, under the heading “Sandwiches, an Important Food,” is “Many bakers enrich white bread today. (Look for this information on bread label.) Sandwiches made with this bread . . . take on a new importance.” Later, the cook is instructed to wrap sandwiches in waxed paper for a picnic. It was the days before Saran Wrap, before aluminum foil.

In the section about frogs’ legs, the first helpful tip is: “Only hind legs of frog are eaten.” They needed to say this? Oh, I can just picture the I Love Lucy episode where she spends hours trying to pick the skin from a thousand teeny-tiny frog arms, elbows, and fingers in order to make a dinner for her and Ricky!

The book gives instructions on how to “Disjoint and Cut Up a Drawn Carcass” (of a chicken) as well as how to “Draw Poultry” (which begins: “Cut Off Head—if not already done” and proceeds next to “Remove Pinfeathers”). I had no idea that a nut pick was routinely used for yanking the toe tendons from the drumsticks! And here we’ve been using Grandma’s old nut utensils for . . . nuts! She probably used them for butchering chickens.

There are wonderful pie recipes in this book—from savory types (“Beef Steak and Kidney Pie”) to sweet (“Grape Creme Pie”; “Orange Apple Pie”). The quick breads are pretty cool, too. One of my favorites is “Prune Bread” (which has grated orange peel in it)—very delicious. There’s also an “Oatmeal Prune Bread,” a “Butterscotch Walnut Bread,” and something called “Dark Walnut Bread” made with whole-wheat flour. They used whole-wheat flour in 1949? Apparently so!

Many recipes end in “De Luxe” (as in “Turnips De Luxe”) or “Surprise” (“Broiled Fish Fillets Surprise”) (okay, because now you’re curious, I have to tell you: The “surprise” is that the fish!—are covered with cooked broccoli!—and a cheese sauce!).

The phrase “à la” is used a lot, too (“Salmon à la Newburg”). These kind of dishes remind me of the suggestion in Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints to make one’s mediocre cooking seem tastier by adding the word supreme “to everything you serve—hamburgers supreme, turkey necks supreme, toast supreme, etc.”

So . . . on Memorial Day, I made “Grape Cream Pie” from the Good Housekeeping Cook Book of 1949. It was very easy and turned out fabulously well. And that’s going to be my next post. Stay tuned.

Books Adored in This Post

The Good Housekeeping Cook Book. Edited by Dorothy B. Marsh. New York: Rinehart, 1949.

Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints. Introduction by Bob Hope; drawings by Susan Perl. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

I keep using this cookbook. To see my related blog posts, click on the "Good Housekeeping Cook Book" tag at the bottom.


Eleny said...

I was happy to find your blog entry about this cookbook. I have my mom's like this but the cover and first pages are missing. I presumed she got it after marrying in 1938. But now I know that it's a 1949 because the recipes you mention are all in this one and the wheat motif appears in it.

Tomorrow, I'm baking a peach pie using the recipe from this cookbook. :)

Julie said...

Thanks, Eleny, I hope your pie turns out beautifully!

I just added a few links to the bottom of this post for some other posts you might like.

If you hunt around on the Internet, you can find pictures of the book with the original cover.

Finally, it's interesting that the cover and first pages fell off of your copy, too. Maybe the entire print run was plagued by bad binding.

Doreen G said...

I also have my mom's cookbook like this and I frequently use the apple pie recipe which is always proclaimed the best anyone has ever eaten. The pie crust recipe is also amazing.

Julie said...

I agree, Doreen. These older cookbooks--which call for "real" ingredients and not a bunch of canned or prepackaged/processed foodstuffs--have some of the best all-around recipes in them. Just Good Recipes.

(Folks, never throw out an old cookbook!)

Gail Harrington said...

I have my Grandmother's copy, (Gramma died 38 years ago today) and in October my daughter sneaked it out of the house and had it rebound for a Christmas present to me. I didn't know she had taken it and was freaked out for two month slooking for the book!!! Guess what book gets used a lot here!
It was a wonderful gesture!
My three daughters get raves over their macaroni and cheese casserole. And nothing is better than Susan's Brownies.
PS, my initials are GH for a good reason
Gail Harrington, Newmarket, Canada

Julianna Schroeder said...

Ha ha! GH! What a great story, and a wonderful, thoughtful gift. This edition of the GH cookbook is really excellent.

I need to find some way to get my old cookbooks either rebound, or at least stored some way so pages don't start falling off. I have my Grandma's 1920s copy of the Settlement cookbook that she used in her "domestic science" class, and it needs rebinding (or something) too.

I guess it goes without saying, but were you happy with the rebinding? Where did they get it done--did they have to sent it away, or did they find a local place for the work? I'm curious!

Thanks again for commenting,