Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Really retro cooking

The DHM has been scanning in menus and recipes from 1937 and thereabouts, here and here.

This isn't farm food, eggs-from-the-chicken-house cooking. It's not the worst of the Depression, either (macaroni and potatoes, and lucky to have that). This is urban, gas-stove, Three Stooges shorts, grocer's boy cooking; this is Cuffy's icebox.
The morning finally went by with Randy pushing it every second. It was awful to sit at the lunch table while Cuffy calmly insisted that she must eat everything on her plate. Everything.
"Oh, Cuffy, even my beets?"
"All your beets," replied Cuffy inexorably. "And all your squash."
Randy looked witheringly at the food on her plate.
"Beets are so boring," she said. "The most boring vegetable in the world next to squash."
"Not so boring as spinach," said Rush. "Spinach is like eating a wet mop."
"That will be enough of that!" commanded Cuffy in the voice that meant no nonsense.
At least it was over, even the tapioca, and Randy just stopped herself in time from remarking that she considered tapioca the most boring dessert in the world next to stewed rhubarb.--Elizabeth Enright, The Saturdays
In spite of the fact that the A&P menu sheet is for a week in June, there isn't much use made of all the fresh things that would have been coming into season then. There are lambchops (well, I guess lamb is a springtime food), potatoes, beets (why would Buttered Beets taste any better than unbuttered, unless they were right out of the garden?), spinach (probably canned), and several puddings a week (I don't suppose Randy would have appreciated the Rhubarb Tapioca on the menu). My mom told me recently that Grandma cooked a lot of puddings back then as well--not the steamed kind, but the kind on the DHM's printout: cornstarch pudding, tapioca, Junket and so on. The menu doesn't assume a lot of preparation time or fancy equipment (especially if that Cream of Tomato Soup and the Buttered Mixed Vegetables came out of cans), and doesn't expect that the food had to be terribly exciting--the interest seems to depend on the Iced Cupcakes (and Stuffed Olives if you could afford them) to cheer things up.

The recipes sound very much like the ones in my great-aunt's Modern Priscilla Cookbook (which she got around the time she was married; the flyleaf has her name and "1929" written on it). The lists of ingredients are fairly short and often make use of canned things and the convenience foods of the time: canned pineapple, "gelatine," minute tapioca, canned shrimp, and bouillon cubes. They sometimes have just a slight "off" sound to contemporary tastebuds, like this Spaghetti with Mushrooms posted at Horrifying Foodstuffs. [Whoah Nellie Update: I didn't realize there was such rude language in that post. Just look at the recipe and skip the rest.] I think people must have liked things seasoned differently back then; there's definitely more parsley in this cookbook than fresh garlic.

Just for fun, here's a Modern Priscilla recipe for something chic you could serve, maybe for lunch with the girls.

Pasadena Salad

3/4 cup shrimp (1 small can)
1 1/2 cups celery
1/2 cup radishes
1/2 cup peas (hmmm...canned, frozen, or fresh?)
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar (a slightly exotic touch?)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup nuts

Cut shrimp in small pieces. Dice celery and slice radishes. Combine shrimp and vegetables, adding a little salt and pepper. Pour into a salad bowl, add vinegar, and spread mayonnaise over top. Sprinkle with chopped nuts and garnish with tiny hearts of lettuce (wait a minute, where did those come from?). Servings, 6.


Queen of Carrots said...

One time the people at my office were invited to a luncheon at the house of one of our elderly volunteers. I bravely tried something that was supposed to be crab salad, I suspect--basically, a giant ring of oddly-covered mayonnaise, with occasional flecks of crab. (shudder) How did people manage to develop a taste for so much mayo?

Meredith said...

It all developed out of the early home economists--women using the standards of science to promote sanitary cooking and uniformity. The early home economics movement went hand-in-hand with food manufacturers, which is why you see so many strange convenience foods when you might expect home cooked. Now the pendulum has swung the opposite direction toward rustic, less processed, local food.

That said, I have a particular love of junket.

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