In Which There are 3 Small Tales of Culinary History

Tale 1: A few months ago my pistol-packing, dirty-joke-telling, watercolor-artist and great cook of a grandmother started me down the road of collecting antique cookbooks when she handed me a tattered 1888 volume of The Grand Rapids Cook Book and Illustrated Price List from H. Leonard's Sons and Co.  A reprint of The Old Congregational Cook Book, the original price was: $1.00. The first page is "Hints for Housekeepers," including:

- Housekeeping is the best and noblest art a girl can learn.
- The road to a man's heart lies through his stomach.
- Wilful (sic) waste makes woeful want.
- Remember the Golden Rule in the kitchen as well as in the parlor.
- When you have a rule, follow it; guess work fails nine times in ten. 

I think Gram might have been an antique dealer at one point in her checquered past, but she really couldn't remember where she got this book. It might have been her mother's, or it might just have been something interesting at an estate sale.  

This well-loved volume is interesting for its turn-of-the-century recipes that make up the first hard-used half. It includes forgotten pleasures like Gooseberry Catsup, Souse, and Saratoga Fried Potatoes (aka Potato Chips).  But a hundred and twenty years later, it may be even more interesting for the (less worn) second half which contains many advertisements for things like: state-of-the-art iceboxes and ice tongs, dinner pails, and cast iron gasoline powered stoves.  

Still more than even this fascinating glimpse of a real and regional past, I think I'm most captivated by the dozens of scraps of lined paper with recipes, usually with no title, scrawled in pencil inside.  And with the recipes clipped from now yellowed and brittle newsprint. Some of the scraps are glued to the pages, some pinned with a straight pin, some just loose. These old time treasures include: Tomato Relish, Applesauce Cake, Suet Pudding, and Brown Bread. 

I've learned a few things about the lady who compiled these scraps.....she loved pickles, and desserts. Probably 60% of the scraps of paper have recipes for some kind of pickle. Another 30% is desserts. And the rest just miscellaneous. Like the one for what appears to be a Chinese dish including that exotic ingredient known as "shau you" sauce and served with rice. 

In looking for more of these books that tell us how we used to eat (and think and communicate),  I've accidentally started my own little culinary history reference collection. Thanks to Jan Longone at the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the William L. Clements Library, I've learned a little about what to look for and have made some lucky finds (most recently, some of the earliest Pillsbury Bake-Off pamphlets from the early 1950s!).  But when I need to consult the original masters (mistresses?) of the American cookbook, I use the Feeding America project for which Jan chose seminal books of American culinary history to be scanned and archived at MSU. 

Tale 2:  With this developing interest in the opposite of digital works (and yet the thrilling ability to take advantage of new digital facsimiles of old books), I was excited to be among the bloggers (like Jen of A2EatWrite) Gene Alloway contacted recently about a new Culinary History Reading Group at Motte and Bailey Booksellers, a used and rare book store over on 4th Ave. next to the great People's Food Coop.  Gene says:

"I'm writing let you know we are going to (try to) start a culinary history reading group here at Motte & Bailey Bookshop. The first book is CURRY: A TALE OF COOKS & CONQUERORS by Lizzie Collingham. Future books will be Jennifer Lee's FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES  and Ian Kelly's COOKING FOR KINGS : THE LIFE OF ANTONIN CAREME, THE FIRST CELEBRITY CHEF. Thereafter the group will have a chance to choose what is next.

The first meeting will be July 15th at 7:30 p.m. here at Motte & Bailey, 212 N. 4th Ave. I will have used copies in nice shape for sale here at the shop, and in selecting the first books I made sure inexpensive used copies were available online for those wishing to buy for themselves as well."

And, I should add that all of these books are also available either through AADL or the MEL inter-library loan. Can't wait!


Tale 3:  Finally, in what I consider to be "living" culinary history, I've been looking at a lot of old soup recipes for part of a project I'm working on and noticed a recipe for Chlodnik (a Polish version of cold beet soup, aka Borscht). The Wiki-ness writes of Chlodnik/Cold Borscht:

"Its preparation starts with young beets being chopped and boiled together with their leaves. After cooling them down, the soup is usually mixed with sour creamsoured milkkefir or yoghurt (depending on regional preferences). Typically, raw chopped vegetables such as radishes or cucumbers are added and the soup is garnished and flavored with dill or parsley. Chopped, hard-boiled eggs are often added. The soup has a rich pink color which varies in intensity depending on the ratio of beets to dairy ingredients."


The recipe for Chlodnik below comes from one of the best early international cookbooks I've found (and notice the old-time recipe format - starting to move into a more structured, modern form): 

From: Recipes of All Nations,  Compiled and Edited by Countess Morphy, New York, 1935

Chlodnik (Salt cucumber soup), Pg. 480
Ingredients: 3 pints of sour cream, ½ pint of pickled cucumber juice or pickled beet juice, 1 ½ cups of cooked veal cut in dice, 1/3 lb. of fresh beets, 1/3 lb. of beet tops, a little dill, 1 teaspoon of chives, shrimps, 6 hard-boiled eggs, 2 fresh and 1 salt cucumber, salt and pepper.

Method: Cook the beets and, when quite tender, remove from the water and rub through a sieve. Add the chopped beet tops, and cover with either the cucumber or the beet juice. Stand for 1 hour in a warm place. Then stir in the sour cream gradually, add the veal, cut in dice, the chopped dill and chives, the shelled shrimps, the sliced cucumber, the hard-boiled eggs, quartered, and season with salt and pepper. This soup should be iced. The veal, shrimps, eggs, etc., are sometimes served separately. 

I'll probably leave out the shrimp and veal, but when I make this I'm planning to get one of those antique Zingerman's pickles that I think will be a perfect substitute for the "salt cucumber." 


When I saw this recipe, I remembered that Kate had posted about Chlodnik because I'd been wanting to try her recipe too - a cool, summery combination of buttermilk, beets, radish, cucumber and herbs, perfect for a blistering hot day. Last week I finally made Kate's recipe with my own homemade yogurt, golden beets (so it's yellow rather than pink), cucumber, dill, mild pink radishes, and other nice things from the farm share box. With a handmade soft pretzel from Mill Pond Bakery, I was back in the old country of some past life. 


Culinary history is another aspect of learning where my food comes from, of learning the story behind the food.  Every single thing we eat has a pretty amazing story. Usually we just don't know what it is. 



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