Role of Potatoes in Diets a Hundred Years Ago

Potatoes were an important part of the diet a hundred years ago. Here’s what a cookbook said:

Housewives are always interested in new ways of preparing the potato as it appears on the average menu 365 times in the year. There are innumerable ways of preparing potatoes for the table.

When potatoes are practically the only vegetable used in the household, they should always be cooked in their skins, so that all the mineral salts may be retained. When salad plants and other vegetables are used freely, the skins may be removed before cooking, although it is not economy to do so. Sometimes convenience and palatability decide in favor of the latter.

Potatoes, combined with milk and cheese, provide a dish fully as nourishing as when combined with meat. This is interesting to know when meat prices are high.

The Housewife’s Cook Book by Lilla Frich (1917)

Old-fashioned Fried Green Tomatoes

I think of Fried Green Tomatoes as a classic comfort food – but I never actually tried them until I recently made a hundred-year-old recipe.

This is a food that I should have tried years ago. The Fried Green Tomatoes turned out wonderfully.  They were delightful with a crispy cornmeal coating.

Here is the original recipe:

Source: The Blue Grass Cook Book (Compiled by Minnie C. Fox, 1917)

And, here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Fried Green Tomatoes

  • Servings: 3 - 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

4 medium green tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices

4 cups water

1 teaspoon salt




1/2 cup corn meal

shortening or lard

Combine  the water and  1 teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl, then soak the sliced tomatoes in the water for approximately 30 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the water and drain on a paper towel, then lay the tomatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet, and sprinkle with sugar, salt, and pepper. Put the cornmeal in a small bowl, then roll each tomato slice in the cornmeal.

Heat 1/2 inch of shortening or large in a large frying pan. Carefully place the breaded green tomato slices in the pan in a single layer. Depending upon pan size, the slices may need to be cooked in several batches. Fry for about 3 minutes or until the bottom side of each slice is lightly browned, then gently turn and fry until the other side is browned. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

Old-fashioned Potato O’Brien

When browsing through hundred-year magazines, I came across a recipe for Potato O’Brien. Diced potatoes (that are first boiled) and green pepper are immersed in a hot and bubbly mild cheese sauce. The dish is then browned in the oven.

This version of Potato O’Brien is a little different from most modern recipes (which generally call for frying the potatoes), but it’s delicious. It reminds me a little of Scalloped Potatoes, but with cheese and green peppers.

Here’s the original recipe:

Source: American Cookery (June – July, 1918)

This recipe contained several firsts for me. It’s the first hundred-year-old recipe that I’ve ever seen that called for American Cheese. I googled it, and learned from Wikipedia that:

After the official invention of processed cheese in 1911, and its subsequent popularization by James L. Kraft in the late-1910s and the 1920s, the term “American cheese” rapidly began to refer to this variety, instead of the traditional but more expensive cheddars also made and sold in the US.

Apparently by 1918, American cheese was commonly enough available that it was included in recipes published in magazines.

It’s also the first hundred-year-old recipe that I’ve ever seen that called for skim milk. I’m not clear to me why skim milk is preferred in this dish, so when I updated the recipe I just listed milk as an ingredient.

Here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Potato O'Brien

  • Servings: 3 - 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

4 medium potatoes (about 2 cups, diced)

1 tablespoon butter

1 green pepper, chopped

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup milk

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup American cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Peel and dice the potatoes into 1/2 inch pieces. Put diced potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water. Put on high heat and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender (about 10 minutes).

In the meantime, in a skillet, melt butter using low heat. Add the green pepper;  saute until tender, and then stir in the flour, salt, and pepper. While stirring constantly, slowly pour in milk and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add cheese, and stir until the cheese is melted. Gently stir in the cooked potatoes. Put into a baking dish and place in the oven. Bake until the top is lightly browned (about 20 – 30 minutes).

One teaspoon of salt seemed like a lot to me, so when I updated the recipe, I used less salt than was called for in the original recipe. I also sauted the green pepper in butter, rather than cooking it separately first.

Hundred-year-old Directions for Cooking Macaroni

Source: Wikipedia

What did macaroni look like in 1918? I’m a bit foggy about what macaroni looked like a hundred years ago, but I found directions for preparing it in a century-old magazine that provides a few clues.

To cook macaroni successfully is not difficult. Break into short lengths. If it comes from a sealed package, it does not need washing; if it is “loose,” it should be rinsed in cold water. Drop into boiling salted water, adding a level tablespoonful of salt to a quart. Stir to prevent sticking, but be careful not to break the pieces. If the dish is greased before the hot water and macaroni are put in, it will not stick so readily. Cook until tender, then toss the macaroni into a colander and let cold water run through it. This process is called blanching, and is to prevent it from sticking together.

American Cookery (August – September, 1918)

Old-fashioned Cabbage and Beet Salad


Sometimes salads can seem a bit boring, so I was delighted to find a hundred-year-old recipe for Cabbage and Beet Salad. This salad makes a lovely presentation that is just a tad dramatic. And, a subtle homemade French dressing adds just the right amount of flavor to the salad.

Here’s the photo and recipe for Cabbage and Beet Salad in the hundred-year-old magazine:

Source: American Cookery (August – September, 1918)

And, here is the recipe updated for modern cooks:

Cabbage and Beet Salad

  • Servings: 5-7
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

1 small cabbage, shredded (about 5 cups shredded cabbage)

2 medium beets, cooked and diced into 1/2 inch cubes (about 1 cup diced, cooked beets)

French Dressing

6 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon mustard

1/2 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons onion, finely minced

Put shredded cabbage in a bowl; gently stir in 2/3 of the French dressing. Put in refrigerator, and chill for at least 2 hours.

Put diced beets in another bowl; gently stir in 1/3 of the French dressing.  Put in refrigerator, and chill for at least 2 hours.

To serve:  Drain any excess dressing from the shredded cabbage, then arrange the cabbage in a ring with a hole in the center. (I pressed the cabbage into a circular mold, covered with the serving plate, and then quickly flipped and removed mold – but a mold is not necessary.)

Drain any excess liquid from the beets. Place beets in the center of the ring. Serve immediately.

To make French Dressing:  Put olive oil, vinegar, salt, mustard, and paprika in a small bowl; stir to combine. Stir in minced onion.

Food-Related Humor a Hundred Years Ago

Image Source: Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book (1915)

In the early 1900’s magazines often had humor pages. What is considered funny has really changed over the past hundred years, and often the humor in those magazines falls flat (or is even offensive) by modern standards. But, some hundred-year-old humorous stories still make me smile. Here are a few food-related humor items:

Little Elizabeth and her mother were having luncheon together, and the mother, who always tried to impress facts upon her young daughter, said, “These little sardines, Elizabeth, are sometimes eaten by the larger fish.”

Elizabeth gazed at the sardines in wonder and then asked, “But, mother, how do the large fish get the cans open?”

American Cookery August-September, 1918)

“Waiter,” said the indignant customer, “what does this mean? Yesterday I was served for the same price with a portion of chicken twice the size of this.”

“Yes, sir,” answered the waiter. “Where did you sit?” “

Over by the window.”

“Then that accounts for it. We always give people who sit by the windows large portions. It’s an advertisement.”

American Cookery (October, 1918)

A  hobo knocked at the back door, and the woman of the house appeared.

“Lady, I was at the front . . . “

“Poor man!” she interrupted. “Wait till I give you some food, and then you shall tell me your story.” After she had given him a hearty meal she anxiously inquired, “What brave deed did you do at the front? “

“I knocked, “he replied meekly, “but couldn’t make nobody hear, so I came around to the back.”

American Cookery (October, 1918)