Some brave souls at the New York State Library have been rummaging through its cookbook holdings to discover how American attitudes regarding the food we eat have evolved during this young country’s history. They presented a brief tour of some of their discoveries during a livestream seminar (part of an Online Speaker Series offered by New York Archives Magazine) late last month. This latest presentation Tasting History is available on the Online Speakers Series You Tube page which now offers nearly 30 videos including Tasting History.
Josie Madison, managing editor of New York Archives Magazine, moderated the event, which featured Elizabeth Jakubowski, a senior librarian at the New York State Library, and Heather Carroll, an archivist at the New York State Archives. Working around them means you’re liable to be tapped as a taste-tester, as their photos of intrepid colleagues attest. And what were they tasting?
Stuffed Peach Salad, from “Mary Elizabeth’s War Time Recipes,” a 1918 book by Mary Elizabeth Evans. Cottage cheese and salted chopped pecan bits go on top of a pitted peach-half, which is then topped with a “French” dressing that turns out to be a vinaigrette colored with paprika. “The overall consensus,” according to an illustrated Facebook post, “was that this was a little strange but edible.”
Using resources found in special collections in the library’s rare-books room, four eras of this American journey were targeted. The other World War I-era book, also from 1918, was Amelia Dodderidge’s “Liberty Recipes.” The book’s title page identifies her as “Formerly, Instructor of Cooking, Manual Training High School, Indianapolis, Indiana; and Emergency City Home Demonstration Agent, Wilmington, Delaware. Now, Head of Home Economics Department, Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio.” Which isn’t as overblown as it sounds, what with credibility having been so much harder to achieve for women back then.
The US Food Administration (not to be confused with the FDA) was founded in 1917, and during its three-year life urged people to conserve food, suggesting “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays,” among other weekly recommendations. “Save wheat: use more corn,” exhorts a contemporaneous illustration. “Save sugar: use syrups,” a suggestion that helped boost our current dietary pest, corn syrup. Not only were those wartime cookbooks about marshaling resources, but Mary Elizabeth herself, who founded a chain of candy stores and tea-rooms, promoted sugarless, wheatless recipes at her establishments, while Dodderidge ran a Liberty Kitchen in Wilmington, Delaware. My favorite piece of advice from that era: “Husband your stuff; don’t stuff your husband.”
Other recipes from this era that the historians prepared were Lima Bean Croquettes (very popular) and a Peanut Roast, substituting peanuts for meat and fooling nobody.
The second era they explored was the mid-1930s, when a Depression sensibility informed the kitchen. Much of the information for this segment was drawn from literature produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, one of many New Deal employment opportunities. This one gave work to about 10,000 people until paranoid Congressman Martin Dies, of Texas – who saw “Communists” everywhere – helped railroad it to its end in 1943.
With refrigerators and freezers more common, attitudes toward resources shifted accordingly, and there was a rise in the use of processed food. From a book of recipes collected in Chemung County, on New York’s Southern Tier, come Bacon Muffins, Cream of Lettuce Soup (served with whipped cream on top), and the tasters’ favorite, Applesauce Cake. The consensus was that at this point, the recipes still were calling for what could be considered pantry staples.
Moving into the 1950s, four books are considered. The “Antoinette Pope School Cookbook” was an offshoot of the hugely successful Chicago-based school run by Antoinette and husband Francois in the basement of their house – a school founded in 1930 and which flourished for forty years. The Popes were precursors to Julia Child also in their televised cooking show, which ran from 1951 to 1963.
The cookbook, explained Carroll, “features convenience ingredients and processed food,” but with some whimsy, as a recipe for cheese carrots illustrates. A finger-sized amount of processed cheese (think Velveeta) is shaped into a carrot-like cone, given a small sprig of parley for its top, and served on a crouton. No doubt these would be snapped up at cocktail party or bridge club.
A 1958 “Complete Hors d’oeuvres Cookbook,” by Alice Schryver and Francille Wallace includes – adventurously, for its time – a “From Other Lands” section. Marion Clyde McCarroll, whose “Summer Cookbook” was published in 1954, also wrote an advice to the lovelorn column for two decades (under the name Beatrice Fairfax) and served as president of the Newswomen Club of New York. Her cherry-marshmallow pie in coconut crust was the hands-down favorite among the tasters.
Most frightening of that era’s titles is “So Easy Recipes and So Good Too,” a 48-page booklet from the National Canners Association (which eventually would morph into the Food Producers Association). Not surprisingly, all of the recipes require canned items, and all of the recipes, said Carroll, “leave little bit to be desired.” The Hearty Garden Salad with canned tongue, for example, won’t be on my next dinner-party table.
The fourth series, introduced by Jakubowski, took us back to the 18th century with single, startling volume: “American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plum to Plain Cake, Adapted to This Country and All Grades of Life.” The book dates to 1796, by Amelia Simmons, “an American Orphan.”
The 60-some pages offer recipes “that are compact,” as Jakubowski explained, “for the cook who knows the basics.” The book stresses American ingredients and terminology, and may have been the first printed instance of the use of “cookie,” as adapted from the Dutch “koeje.” A simple Pound Cake included the use of rose water, “which killed it.”
The recipe for Indian Slapjack is written thus: “One quart of milk, one pint of Indian meal, four eggs, four spoons of flour, little salt, beat together, baked on gridles (sic), or fry in a dry pan, or baked in a pan which has been rubbed with suet, lard, or butter.” “Indian meal” is cornmeal, but the result, as noted by the Tasting History tasters, was not good, resembling an “eggy custard on a cornmeal crust.” Surprisingly good were the Potato Pie, seasoned with nutmeg and lemon and holding its own as a dessert, and Cranberry Tart with Paste, “paste” being an archaic term for crust.
One of the overarching lessons from this survey is that the earlier the recipe, the more likely it is to call for local ingredients, a trend that seems to have been reversed only in very recent years. Another is that earlier recipes were less fussy about all the step-by-step instruction that has come to characterize what’s now a standard cookbook model. There was once a time when home cooks knew how to handle ingredients and knew what the oven temperature and cooking times would be. Now we are saturated with food blogs that spend most of each entry whining about how wonderful is this featured dish, surrendering a recipe only after you’ve scrolled through the blather.
Tasting History is an ongoing project of the New York State Library, and past and future installments can be found online. There’s a New York State Library Facebook page, and @NYSLibrary will bring up entries on the other popular social media accounts.
(B. A. Nilsson, 5/4/23)