When I cook vegetables in water, I usually add a little salt to the water. Apparently people a hundred-years-ago wondered whether it was a good idea to add baking soda when cooking vegetables.
Baking Soda in Cooking Vegetables and Fruits
The baking soda will soften the water in cooking beans or cabbage, and the vegetables will cook quicker and more thoroughly, but the alkali has a destructive effect on the vitamins present in these vegetables, and in all fresh foods. Scientists tell us that these vitamins are more important to nutrition than the foods themselves are when deprived of them, and that we lose the good of the food if the vitamins are destroyed. Try adding a little vinegar to the water for beans or cabbage; this will soften them quite as well, and our friends, the vitamins, are not injured by acids, only by alkalis.
French Onion Soup topped with toast and Swiss or Gruyere cheese is my favorite “restaurant soup,” so I was intrigued when I saw a recipe for French Onion Soup in a hundred-year-old cookbook. I could immediately tell the old recipe wasn’t exactly like a modern one because the soup was topped with toast and American cheese.
I have a somewhat negative stereotype of American cheese (and it just isn’t the same as Swiss or Gruyere cheese), so my expectations weren’t very high for this recipe. But I was pleasantly surprised. The resulting soup tasted similar to modern French onion soups–and the melted American cheese was yummy (and not the least bit jarring) when immersed in the soup. My husband even said that he liked how the cheese was “less stringy” than the cheese on the typical French Onion Soup.
Here’s the original recipe:
Old cookbooks often just use the generic term “cheese.” This is the first time I’ve seen a hundred-year-old recipe explicitly call for American cheese. According to Serious Eats, James Kraft patented a method for making process American cheese in 1916, and it apparently was widely available by 1920.
This recipe is from a promotional cookbook for Snowdrift published by The Southern Cotton Oil Trading Company. Snowdrift was a shortening made from cottonseed oil. When I made the recipe, I substituted butter for the Snowdrift.
1 slice American cheese for each bowl of soup (Use 2 slices per bowl if the slices are thin.)
Melt butter in a Dutch oven or stock pot, then add onion slices. Using medium heat sauté until the onions have softened and caramelized while stirring occasionally. It will take approximately 45 minutes for the onions to caramelize. Add the soup stock, and bring to a simmer.
In the meantime, lightly toast bread. Cut toast into squares small enough to fit the soup bowls; then cut the American cheese into squares slightly smaller than the toast. Top the toast with the squares of American cheese. Put under the boiler until the cheese melts (about 1 minute); remove from oven.
To serve: Ladle soup into bowls, and top with the toast squares/melted cheese.
During this cold and flu season, I frequently see tips for staying healthy. A hundred years ago people also want to avoid spreading diseases. Here is a list in a 1920 home economics textbook of precautions to take against infection and spreading disease:
Use individual towels, combs, brushes, and clothing.
Use individual drinking cups.
Do not put fingers or hands to the mouth or face.
Do not put money, pencils, pins, or anything else but food and drink into the mouth.
Use a handkerchief to cover a sneeze or cough.
Do not carry a handkerchief in the hand or leave it lying about. Put it where it will not be seen.
Use gauze or clothes that may be burned when you have a cold; then burn them after use.
Never kiss anyone on the mouth.
Never spit on the floor of any building, or on the sidewalk.
Avoid crowds of all kinds when there is an epidemic.
Isolate yourself when there is an epidemic.
Disinfect all dishes, clothing and other things which have been used by a person who had had a contagious disease.
Source: Household Arts for Home and School (Vol. II) (1920) by Anna M. Cooley & Wilhelmina H. Spohr
When I recently saw a hundred-year-old recipe for Fried Parsnips, I decided to give it a try. As winter begins to wind down, I’m enjoying some of the less common vegetables.
The parsnips are cut into large chunks. After they are cooked, each piece is dipped into a batter and then fried. The Fried Parsnips had a delightful earthy, sweetness which was accentuated by the crispy coating.
Here is the original recipe:
I could not figure why the cooked parsnips were supposed to stand in the butter for half an hour, or why the batter was to sit for half an hour – so I didn’t include extended wait times when I updated the recipe.
I also substituted butter for some of the Crisco, and any shortening or lard works for frying.
Peel parsnips and cut into 2 1/2 inch chunks. Place in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil using high heat, then reduce heat and simmer until tender (approximately 20 – 25 minutes). Drain.
While the parsnips are cooking, make the batter. In a mixing bowl place the egg, milk, flour and 1/4 teaspoons salt. Beat until smooth; set aside.
Melt butter in skillet, then add cooked parsnips. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then gently roll in the melted butter. Remove parsnip pieces from the skillet, then add enough shortening or lard to the skillet so that there is 1/2 inch of shortening once it is melted.
Dip each piece of parsnip in the batter to coat, remove from batter, let any excess batter drip off, then put the batter-coated parsnips pieces into the hot fat. Cook until lightly browned on the bottom, then gently roll several times to brown other sides. When browned, remove parsnip pieces from the skillet with a fork. Drain on paper towels, then serve.
Sometimes we look at the past through rose-colored glasses, and everything seems very idyllic. But, actually a hundred-years ago, factories were in full swing, and people were rapidly shifting from traditional ways of doing things to more modern ways that often utilized commercially-produced products. Sometimes this was good; other times it may not have been. For example, in the early twentieth century, a rapid shift was occurring in how infants were fed.
Breastfeeding was in decline, and was viewed as something done by women in the lower socio-economic classes.
The real decline of wet nursing came, of course, with the rise of formula bottle-feeding, which began in the 1910s. Bottle feeding was convenient (especially for women busy outside the home); it was “scientific”; and it was “modern” – it was what mothers who were “with it” did. From that point of view, only primitive or unenlightened women breastfed.
A hundred years ago, magazines contained advertisements for baby bottles that made mothers feel good about bottle feeding. An advertisement for the Hygeia Open-Mouthed Nursing Bottle emphasized how much babies liked the nipple design and how easy it was to clean.
In comparison, today new mothers are encouraged to feed their babies breast milk. It is generally considered superior to formula (and high-quality breast pumps are now available that can make it more convenient to pump and store milk). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 82.3% of the babies born in the U.S. in 2015 started out breastfeeding. At six months, 57.6% of babies were still breastfeeding, though only about 25% were breastfeeding exclusively.
Sometimes it is a challenge to make a recipe in an old cookbook. The cookbook may make assumptions about the knowledge level of the cooks who will use the cookbook that totally miss the mark when it comes to modern cooks; or one recipe may refer to another recipe which might then refer to still another.
For example, I recently found a hundred-year-old recipe for Canned Fruit Custard that at first appeared very simple – Make a thin (soft) custard and pour it over drained canned fruit. But there was just one problem; the cookbook did not contain a recipe for thin custard. Apparently cooks were just supposed to know how to make thin custard.
Unfortunately I am not as knowledgeable as cooks a hundred year ago, and didn’t know how to make a thin (soft) custard, so I searched through other old cookbooks for a recipe. I finally found a soft custard recipe in a 1920 home economics textbook.
All was good, but I then was surprised to discover that I needed to find still another recipe. The Soft Custard recipe said to “mix the materials in the same way as for steamed or baked custard.”
Whew, this was getting complicated. After I found all three recipes, I took a stab at synthesizing all the directions, I finally made Canned Fruit Custard using canned sweet dark cherries. The dessert was lovely, with the cherries coated with a creamy, slightly sweet custard sauce, but the whole process has left me feeling drained.
So that others don’t need to go through the process of synthesizing the recipes, here is the Canned Fruit Custard recipe updated for modern cooks.
2 pints canned fruit (15-16 ounce cans) – I used canned dark sweet cherries.
2 eggs, separated
2 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
To make the custard, first scald the milk. To do this, put the milk in a heavy sauce pan (use a double boiler if available); then heat using medium heat. Stir frequently until the milk just barely begins to bubble, then remove from the heat.
In a bowl beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks slightly, then add sugar and salt. Beat to combine. Then place a small amount (approximately 1 – 2 tablespoons) of hot milk into bowl with the egg mixture, stir quickly. Add this mixture to the hot milk and stir. (This helps prevent the egg from coagulating when the egg is introduced to the hot liquid.) Return to stove and cook, using medium heat while stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken or coat a spoon. Quickly stir in the beaten egg whites. Remove from heat. Strain and then stir in the vanilla. Chill at least 3 hours.
Drain canned fruit. Put the fruit in dessert dishes, and spoon the soft custard over the fruit.
Dishwashing is one of those never-ending chores, but I don’t stress over it; and I have a very simple process for deciding how to do the dishes. I ask myself, “Are there a lot of dirty dishes?” If the answer is “yes,” I use the dishwasher; if it’s “no,” I wash them by hand.
A hundred-years-ago there were lots of large families – who produced lots of dirty dishes; and almost all those many dishes were washed by hand. So people were looking for ways to wash dishes more efficiently. Here is some hundred-year-old advice:
Dish-washing and Efficiency
There is almost invariably a waste of effort in both the washing and the drying of dishes. This may be due to:
(a) Poorly arranged dish-washing equipment
(b) Inadequate utensils for dish-washing
(c) Lack of forethought in preparing the dishes for washing and in washing and drying them.
Since dish-washing is one of the constant duties of housekeeping, efficiency methods, i.e., methods which accomplish satisfactory results with the fewest motions and in the least time, should be applied to it.