Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The American Woman Cooks

Just opening The American Woman's Cookbook reminds me of my mother. On the title page she dashed off a quick recipe for Kaye's Cooked Frosting, which conjures memories of elaborate birthday cakes shaped like the Easter Bunny or tin drums with candy cane striping. Food was the centerpiece of my family's life. It was how we celebrated occasions and one of the only ways my mother felt comfortable showing love. Mom was a traditional Southern cook, serving up mountains of fried chicken (cut from a whole bird), vats of buttery mashed potatoes, and stuffing made from scratch. Every Christmas we had a pink concoction called "winter strawberry salad," made with miniature marshmallows, whole cranberries, and pecans, which mom would crack and pick out while watching tv. Her specialty was breads and deserts, which for some reason had names that didn't quite fit. Her "steamed puddings" were actually tiny, raisin-filled muffins that we devoured like popcorn, and her Key Lime Pie used lemons, not limes.

Mom's favorite cookbook was published in 1942. It is a fascinating artifact of a lost way of life, with chapters like "Wartime Cookery," "The School Lunch," and "How to Feed a Family of Five on $15.00 a week" (Tip #1? "Buy Carefully"). In the "Useful Facts About Milk" section, there's no mention of 2% or 1%, but we do learn how to pasteurize our own milk and that Vitamin D milk is a "new way to get this important vitamin." The book is formal and rather dictatorial in its instructions on how American women should care for their families, and it offers all sorts of helpful hints for those struggling to make ends meet in the face of food shortages and rationing.

In the "Useful Facts About Food" chapter, we are told that "every bit of fat from scraps of meat, bacon drippings, roasts, soups and poultry may be made into a mixture useful for general cooking purposes." I well remember the dented tin bacon grease canister that sat on our counter and the pots of chicken necks and gizzards boiling on the stove. (Page 170: "Never discard the bones of turkey or chicken as they always will make a delicious soup.") Mom's chicken soup was loaded with chunks of carrots and celery and wide egg noodles. This soup is one of the few meat dishes I recall actually enjoying, and if a bowl were put in front of me today, I'm not sure I could resist eating some.

I've been a vegetarian for 32 years (actually, what I call a "hypocrititarian," since I still eat fish.) I thought I had it rough in the days before frozen veggie burgers and soy crumbles, but this old book's chapter on "Vegetarian Dishes" reminds me of how hard it must have been to be a vegetarian in the 1940s. There are recipes for Peanut Balls, Peanut Scrapple, Peanut Butter Cutlets, Baked Peanuts, Peanut Souffle, Peanut Chops, Peanut Loaf (not to be confused with Nut Loaf). God forbid if you had a peanut allergy! For some variety, they offered up Chestnut Croquettes and "mock sausage" made from Lima beans, along with the more mundane spaghetti and macaroni.

The cookbook includes more than just recipes, covering the whole gamut of food-related activities, from shopping to entertaining. There's a chapter on china and table settings, complete with charts and stern instructions on what is proper. "Breakfast china is gay, sprightly; color runs rampant upon it; often whole gardens shine on its face. But it should not be used for a dinner, which demands fine china of exquisitely fine design. Luncheon is still another thing. Its china may vary as the season -- or as the whim of the hostess."

Mom had several sets of china. Our everyday dishes were premiums from the gas station or laundry detergent boxes; the one I remember most was the wheat china, with its golden sprigs of amber grain in the center, which came in boxes of Duz detergent. (I recently saw a set of these at a junk store and was barely able to resist buying it.) Her "whimsical" china was pink Russel Wright pottery, and her fine china was a delicately patterned floral, by Haviland. Mom bought the Haviland and a monogramed set of silverware at a yard sale in the sixties. Her own family had been poor -- there was no china to inherit -- and while we were comfortable, I don't think my mother could have afforded an extravagance like new fine china. (I have vivid memories of this estate sale, because I made my first-ever yard sale purchase that day -- a wooden bobblehead Japanese doll. Just a month or so ago, I found two more dolls like it, but smaller, which I couldn't resist buying.)

The chaper on entertaining is called "The Friends Who Honor Us." It cautions that while many families"see in their social life an opportunity to train their children in the social graces and amenties....Many guests are not interested in children and some are annoyed by them." And, beware the folly of Entertaining Without a Maid: "There are distinct limits to what should be attempted for pleasant and dignified results." For casual entertainment and family get-togethers, the book recommends the Rumpus Room, made possible by "the retirement of solid fuels from domestic consumption [which] has resulted in the rearrangement of basement space" (ie, the coal cellar.) The Rumpus Room was not only an ideal spot for hamburger picnics and games, but for the "taffy pulls and popcorn-ball parties of the oldsters' childhood."

The most interesting chapter is the one on "Wartime Cookery," which instructs the American woman on how to do without, including lessons on "The Return of the Soup Kettle" and "The Kitchen Garden," recipes for deserts without sugar, and tips on coping with metal shortages by breaking the reliance on "foods prepared outside the home to be purchased by her in tin cans." This chapter provides a view of a long-lost time and place, when a whole nation suffered together from the effects of war, and also helps me understand my mother's obsession with stockpiling food.

Mom was born in 1927 in Oklahoma, growing up during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, marrying (in a suit, with a corsage instead of a bouquet) not long after World War II. She spent much of her youth on a farm, earning money to help her family by picking green beans at 10 cents a pound for the local canning factory. She learned to put up her own food, especially fruits and jams, and she filled shelf after shelf with homemade pickles long after we could afford store-bought. My mother used to drive my sisters and me crazy with her excessive, obssessive shopping, especially for fabrics and groceries. If she found a good sale on donuts at the day-old bread store, she would buy 30 or 40 boxes and put them in her freezer. She continued doing this even after she and dad had divorced and we kids had grown and moved away. Sometimes we laughed about "mom's department store" -- whatever you needed, you could find it at mom's (she was generous and always happy to give things away). More often, we nagged and harangued her about her overflowing cabinets and freezer. Mom's cookbook helps put it in perspective. My mom learned early how to scrimp and save, how to eke the most meals possible out of a single cut of beef, how to lay out patterns to use every square foot of cloth (saving the scraps for quilts), and especially how to stock up when things were cheap and plentiful. In these hard times, maybe such skills are not so old-fashioned and irrelevant after all.


  1. Nice...I love owning old personalized books. And how people cooked back then! My gran still does a lot in the kitchen and my mom doesn't even know the ingredients of half the things that gran makes. Thanks for visiting my blog. I look forward to more descriptions.

  2. Thank you ReNu, and thank you for becoming my first Follower! It's interesting how cooking has changed...I read the other day that in the U.S. most people never cook from scratch anymore.

  3. Cookbooks are full of so much more than just recipes. They carry the legacy of our mothers and our grandmothers don't they? I love my Betty Crocker cookbook, not for the recipes, but for the images it conjures up of my Grama in the kitchen in her house dress and her apron and her sensible shoes. I can smell the yummy turkey in the oven and the sage and apples in the dressing warming on the stove. Mmmmm. But nothing was as delicious as spending time in the kitchen with Grama.

    Great post! Glad to find you!

  4. Adlibby,

    You're so right; cookbooks do carry legacies. I can almost smell that turkey and sage from here! Thanks for the comment, and for being my second follower. It's so exciting!