If you knew my grandmother Agnes, you knew she was many things. She had many talents. And you could call her many things: funny, smart, feisty, kind, the life of the party, bossy, stubborn… a redhead. But two words that would not be among those above would be ‘cook’ or ‘baker.’ When I was growing up, my grandma was into fashion, not baking cookies. My grandfather, her husband Clarence (a.k.a. Butch), was the chef in the house, but he passed away when I was very small & had been sick for a few years. So sadly, I never got to know him at his best, or see him in action in the kitchen. My mother remembers times when my grandmother was at work & my grandfather was home, and he would make them dinner, and how she loved it. That’s not to say Nana never cooked anything- she did. She had her little tricks & signature dishes: namely a delicious stuffing, macaroni salad with shrimp, roast chicken, and meatloaf. And she loved to entertain. But my Gramps was the one who came from a family of eaters and cooks. You know that saying “People either eat to live or live to eat”? Well, Nana’s family, when she was growing up, more or less “ate to live” whereas my Gramps’ family “lived to eat.” Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother loved to eat too. But she wasn’t much into the actual making of it. In restaurants or when someone else cooked, sure. But not so much when it was up to her to cook it. She’d just as soon have a sandwich or egg salad, and she’d be just as happy. On the other hand, my grandpa loved him some good food! His family liked to eat, and there were cooks & bakers aplenty. So therefore he learned from his mother to cook and he enjoyed it, and I think I got that “foodie” (horrible word- pardon me) part of me from his side of the family. I mentioned his mother; well Midge (her nickname) was a half German/half Irish woman with a big heart, a kind soul, and a talent for the domestic arts. She crocheted beautiful things, too, and was an expert at tatting, so it wasn’t just a kitchen-related talent. But that’s where she shined. When my grandmother first went to their house for dinner, she was amazed. Her Irish mother, mother of seven and herself the daughter of an immigrant Irish housekeeper (who was really a single mother before that term was even a term), never cooked like that. She did the best she could to feed her seven children during the Depression, and she wasn’t exactly interested in that stuff anyway. Julia Child she was not. But my grandpa’s mother Midge was in a better financial situation, really did love to cook, and made all kinds of things from scratch. Cornstarch pudding, Sauerbraten, potato dumplings… you name it, it was on the table at one point or another. My mother says she can still close her eyes and remember the smell that wafted into the hallway of her grandparent’s apartment building when she used to go there for dinner as a child. She said she could smell her grandmother’s cooking right away, as soon as they walked in. In some ways, perhaps, my grandfather’s overabundant love of food, namely sweets, was a contributing factor to him being a diabetic as well.
And let me just say before I go on… I definitely inherited the clothes-horse/fashionista gene from my Nana’s side as well as that food-lover gene.
Anyway, the last Christmas Eve before my Nana passed away, Christmas 2010, in the middle of eating some appetizers she took me aside and said, “OH! I found something, and I want to give it to you.” She motioned for me to follow her into the dining room. She opened up the right-hand drawer of her buffet and took out a book, and handed it to me. It was a 1947 copy of The American Woman’s Cook Book by Ruth Berolzheimer, in almost perfect condition (in a clear plastic red-trimmed book cover- true to form for my Nana, but I took it off for the photos).
I’d vaguely heard of the author, mainly from just searching recipes on the internet, but I wasn’t fully familiar with the book. I was really excited, though, because of a few reasons. One, it was vintage, and I love any and all things vintage… especially the fact that it was a COOKBOOK, which is the second reason why I loved it. She was happy that I liked it, and that I’d use it. I don’t know how often she’d cracked it open in the last 60-something years, but it looked pretty new. She told me to look through it and make her something delicious, and winked.
It saddens me I’ll never have a moment like that again.
It saddens me that I’ll never get a surprise gift from her again, that if I do find a vintage something-or-other of hers, it won’t be her that hands it to me. But as melancholy as those thoughts are, that’s another reason why I love things like this. Not only was it my grandma’s, but it’s a piece of history. And not just her history… but American history.
Ruth Berolzheimer died in 1965 after a long and illustrious career as a “cooking and child welfare expert” (according to her obituary). She was for years the director of the Culinary Arts Institute, and the editor/author of a number of books.
The The American Woman’s Cookbook was originally published in 1939 (or perhaps 1938?) by the directors of the College of Home Economics of Cornell University, under the auspices of the Delineator Institute – and it seems that it was descended from an earlier Delineator Cookbook. The Delineator Cookbook in turn was derived from a fashion magazine called The Delineator, which was originally produced in the 1870’s by the Butterick sewing pattern company.
The book contains over 10,000 recipes, and went to many printings of many editions. From the outset was considered a trustworthy and comprehensive resource, and I was delighted to find that for those of us not lucky enough to own a real copy, there is an online version available via the Internet Archive.
I hadn’t actually thought much about it after that until Jay was browsing One Kings Lane a few weeks back and there was a copy from the 1940′s that had been sold for $50.00. I said, “Holy crap I have that book!” and then I realized mine, too, must have been from the 1940′s as well. This week though, fueled by a Mad Men marathon & a yen for all things nostalgic, I finally sat down and looked through the book in detail. It’s amazing, really. First of all, the meals that were eaten back then are so incredibly different than the ones we eat now. When was the last time someone you knew made a cold chicken salad in a mold? Yes, that’s right, chicken plus gelatin. Chilled. In a mold. Like a creamy chicken Jello. Yum. Or when was the last time you went to a luncheon and the hostess served peanut butter, bacon and lettuce sandwiches and coffee jelly? Probably never. Although that coffee jelly does sound good.
Most of the photographs are black and white, save for a few every 50-100 pages or so that are in color.
Check out that stand mixer! And as you can also see above, my copy clearly has the same photographs from the original late 1930′s books; the women’s hair is basically marcelled! Which, on top of making me very excited (I love Marcel waves), also leaves me wondering: were the same photographs kept the same for every copy of this book? Or did they change at any point? I can’t see the 1950′s versions having photos of women with marcelled hair in them… that would be very outdated by then. Not to mention I’m sure cooking techniques & equipment would have drastically changed by then as well. If anyone out there has a later copy, I’d love to know the answers to these questions!
I don’t know the origins of her getting the book. The printing date is 7 years after she was married, but before she moved out of the apartment in the Bronx to her home on Long Island. So it wasn’t a wedding gift or housewarming gift. Perhaps she went and bought it for herself? I don’t know. I wish I had asked her. I wish I had asked her that night where she got it, but I didn’t. I was more interested in flipping through it and eating, and I was distracted by the excitement of Christmas. It went onto my book shelf and I didn’t take it down again until after she passed away, and then it was only briefly.
The canning & preserving recipes have changed, too. Not a lot, but mainly the methods (they discuss the paraffin wax technique) and timing (and sugar amounts), and the USDA would probably say to be on the safe side they shouldn’t be used. Even the way food was served back then is totally different. Lots of decorations, ruffly lettuce underneath, turnips/tomatoes/cucumbers cut into flowers, etc. Not to mention the food photography! It’s funny that food blogs now have livelier photos and better photographed food. But can you imagine what a big deal cameras were then? Hey food bloggers: think of your Nikon or Canon with the macro lens that you love so dearly. Women back then didn’t have one of those, and if they did, I guarantee you it was nowhere near the kitchen or the food.
Also in this book there are some killer drawings & diagrams, including floor plans for how a kitchen ought to be laid out- taking into consideration the “service entrance.” ‘Cause really, who doesn’t have a service entrance? Oh, and of course how to set up your dinner service, from appetizer to dessert.
However some things are timeless. All the baked goods: cakes, cookies, desserts, etc. Those are all the same now as they were back then. Maybe there’s more shortening used in the actual cakes than there is butter, but other than that they’re the same. Meringues are the same. Boiled icing is the same. And the cuts of meat; shoulder, rump roast, etc. The butchering process is the same, as are the standards of good quality meat (“Good beef has a fresh red color, a smooth covering of brittle creamy fat and small streaks of fat distributed through the lean”). I think, actually, this book will be my go-to guide for choosing meats and cutting them since it goes into so much detail. And of course, vegetables are still vegetables. The food pyramid may have changed 100x since this book was printed, but the stress on eating more vegetables and less fats is still the same. The general idea of entertaining is still the same, too, albeit the methods are different (no longer would you read a cookbook that said something along the lines of “Lead your guests out of the dining space into a lounge area… by the time the guests have lit up a cigarette and begun to drink their after- dinner drinks, the dining table should long be forgotten”).
Why are we so quick to assume that the people in the past have nothing in common with us today? Do iPads and smartphones make so much of a difference that people aren’t fundamentally after the same things in life? I don’t think so. We just think our ways are better. I happen to not always agree with that statement. I lean towards being nostalgic for (and often romanticize) times I never even lived in. Which is dangerous, admittedly, because it means that I’m overlooking the reality to only see the “fun things” or the novelty of it. But let’s face it: we all do that. My grandparents and great-grandparents lived through Prohibition, and if they were alive today they’d tell you it wasn’t exactly like Boardwalk Empire. I can, of course, see the benefits in technology & modernization. A hand mixer is a gift from Zeus & Athena bestowed upon us for convenience & expedience. And these advancements aren’t just in cooking & baking, but everything. My great grandmother’s had their babies at home, no epidurals. Ask most women who have children about that. And laptops? Wow. I couldn’t live without mine, personally. I can’t even remember life with a desktop PC anymore- and that was just a few years ago! I could go on and on… but like I said, I see the benefits of that. And I can understand how much harder life was, even if only because things we take for granted today either took longer or had to be done manually. Isn’t it easier to Google than to find an encyclopedia & look something up? Don’t cell phones make emergencies easier? Isn’t satellite radio way cooler than AM/FM? Yes.
But on the other hand, these things have complicated life and dumbed people down substantially. I said it once before: smart phones are making people stupid. Basically, people are the same they always have been. Deep down. I think a lot of the priorities have changed, and not for the better. But all the way down in the very core of people… they’re the same they always have been. I just think we ALL need to get back to what’s important, and it certainly isn’t who has the latest trend in technology. And it definitely isn’t who has the biggest car, the nicest house, the most offshore accounts or the most popular blog. Build relationships with your kids and your families. Go outside. Get fresh air. Have a picnic. Or read a vintage cook book. It’ll give you a fresh perspective on things, I promise.
I’m reminded once again of how food can tie together memories & feelings, and how a simple cookbook I forgot I had can make me smile on a day when I needed to.