Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Good Old Days

(copyright-free advertising clipart from Dover).

It is certainly possible to put a bad meal on the table in this day and age, if you are careless or tired or angry, but dinner-time for the average cook is a lot easier than it used to be.

I am not a professional cook or a professional teacher, but I would undertake to teach just about anyone how to prepare a simple meal. By that I mean a main course of something like…I don’t know…maybe meatloaf and baked potatoes, a green salad and a dessert, and serve it forth without fear of either indigestion or food poisoning on the part of my family.

Good home cooks today are the norm rather than the exception, and not just because of the pervasive influence of FoodTV and Betty Crocker. The job has been made possible by the kitchen tools that are now available, tools that we take for granted; such things as controlled-temperature ovens, electric appliances, accurate measuring cups, and raw ingredients that come with some guarantee of freshness and purity. The amateur venturing into the kitchen today has been provided with that which will not permit her/him to fail (unless of course for your first meal, you decide on something like quenelles de veau and soufflé au Grand Marnier).

This was not the case in Victorian America. There’s a reason good cooks were celebrated and not just because it was an acceptable arena for a woman’s efforts. No, cooking back then was, to put it bluntly, a crapshoot. Take coffee, for example.

The spousal unit does not drink coffee (he also does not cook. He would argue the point, but he’s wrong. He applies heat. He’s a perfect example of my premise). He has no trouble making coffee because we own a coffee maker. The back of the Folgers can tells him exactly how much ground coffee he should use, and the mark on the side of the coffee maker tells him exactly how much water. He plugs it in and pushes a button. Ten minutes later, very good coffee.

Had he been born in 1858 instead of 1958, this would not be the case.

“Well, Aunt Jane,” said Grace, very gravely, “I suppose I am to write down Rhoda’s recipe. Number 31. About enough coffee, some hot water, as many eggs as you happen to have, stir it all up together, and let it boil till its done. Is that it?”

“I think, perhaps, I can make it a little more definite, and easier for other people to understand,” said Aunt Jane, “but I’m afraid I shan’t be able to put Rhoda’s judgment into the receipt-book.”


One quart boiling water, half a pint ground coffee, one egg, half a pint cold water; mix the coffee first with the egg, (which should not be beaten,) then with the cold water very thoroughly; put it in the coffee boiler, pour on the boiling water and let it boil fifteen or twenty minutes, then set it where it will not boil, and throw in one-half gill of cold water.

“How much is a gill, mamma?” asked Amy.

“A gill is a quarter of a pint; half a tumblerful, or about two small wine-glassfuls,” said her mother. “A half gill may be measured by putting four even tablespoonsful of water into a cup and noticing how high they come up. Then you will always have your measure at hand

(Six Little Cooks, or, Aunt Jane’s Cooking Class, by Elizabeth Stansbury, pub. 1877).

This book is available online at the University of Wisconsin’s website and it’s a dandy if you’d like to get some idea what was required to put together a dish in a kitchen with a wood-burning stove, no appliances, no measuring cups (!), no cooking thermometers, and ingredients such as flour or molasses or baking powder of unknown, untested, and very likely uneven quality (the Pure Food And Drug Act was not passed in the U.S. until 1906).

Because this is a book targeting young girls, it takes nothing for granted. An experienced cook would know, for example, that to prevent lumps of un-dissolved alkali, baking soda has to be added to warm water before it’s put into sour milk for cakes, that gelatin has to soak for an hour before it can be used in a recipe, and that eggs should always be broken, one by one, into a separate dish, in case one of them is bad. And an experienced cook would know her oven.

“Your recipe doesn’t say how long we must bake these things,” said Grace.

“There is very little use in giving any exact direction about that,” answered her aunt. “Stoves vary so much that half an hour in one means the same as three quarters in another. I think this one will bake the cake in half an hour, and the custard in somewhat less, but we must watch them. There is no absolute rule but experience.”

I have a gas stove. It isn’t restaurant quality but it bakes at an even temperature and it comes with a timer.

My Mother’s Meatloaf

3 slices bread (stale is fine)
1 c. milk
2 lbs ground beef
2 eggs
1 packet onion soup mix
2/3 c. of tomato ketchup
1 T. brown sugar

Pour the milk over the bread in a large mixing bowl and allow it to soften. Add the eggs, ground beef and onion soup mix and squish everything together thoroughly with your fingers. Don’t worry about the dry bits of onion in the soup mix, they’ll soften during cooking. Pack the meat mixture lightly into a large loaf pan or casserole dish and bake uncovered in a preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

Dissolve the brown sugar in the ketchup. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and spread the ketchup over the top. Place it back in the oven for another 15 minutes or until a skewer shows that the meat loaf juices are running clear. This serves nine people with no leftovers if four of them are boys.

My Peach Crunch

2 cups frozen peaches
½ stick butter
3 T. quick-cooking tapioca
½ c. Bisquick
½ c. oats
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. butter, cut in bits and chilled
1 t. cinnamon
½ t. nutmeg

Rinse the peaches in warm water and put them, with the half stick of butter, in a baking dish that can go from the microwave to the oven. Microwave, covered, until the peaches are thawed and the butter melted. Stir in the tapioca, which is not strictly necessary but helps thicken up the peach juice. Some people use flour instead. Taste the peaches and if they need it (we freeze our own peaches but commercially packed frozen peaches vary), add brown sugar to taste. A little ground cardamom is nice, too. Allow the peaches to stand for ten minutes. This gives the tapioca a head start.

Cut the butter, oats, Bisquick, brown sugar and spices together until crumbly and about the size of frozen peas. Sprinkle over the top of the peaches and bake in a pre-heated 350 oven for thirty minutes. If you use a deep dish, you’ll get a thicker crunch layer. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream.


Sharon Kubichek said...

Thank you for the link! I have a monarch wood stove in our family's non-electric cabin that we use for cooking and heat up there. It has been quite an adventure figuring out how to cook on it. The little book is a nice reasurrance that it is a learned skill, and that I'll figure it eventually. 'Constant Vigilence' is a good phrase for cooking with wood.
Sharon K in Wyo.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.. I grew up with a wood cook stove in our kitchen and mom knew just how hot to have the fire before she put something in the oven to bake.. I can remember her sticking her hand into the oven to test the heat to make sure all was ready. I'd love to have one of those stoves in my kitchen to use during the winter months.

rabbitIng said...

I just love the things you find to post - they never fail to brighten my mornings here in the UK! Thanks a million!!

Shay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shay said...

Thanks for the kind comments!

To the end of her life, my mother made coffee in an old tin pot on top of the stove. I'm surprised any of us still have enamel on our teeth, it was so strong.

I could live without my microwave and my slow-cooker and my breadmachine. I could probably even give up my food processor (with a fight). But I have to have my coffee maker!


I remember from my 7th grade Home Ec class (1970) that we were still directed to break each egg separately into a cup in case one was rotten.

Not a real problem anymore, what with store bought eggs.

I still want to have my own chickens one day.

Lindsay said...

Even with modern appliances, I am thankful for my oven thermometer. *grin*

My mother taught me - this would have been in the late 50s or early 60s - that you break eggs one by one in a separate bowl so that if you broke a piece of shell in with the egg, it would be easier to pick out. (With another piece of shell, which supposedly attracts the broken piece.)

And the way to tell a bad egg is to place it in water deep enough to cover it. If it submerges, it's good. If it floats, it's bad.

Dunno where this esoteric knowledge came from, but my mother came from a large family of excellent cooks.

Sharon said...

I disagreed that most people today can cook. More and more as you go through grocery stores real food is being replaced with packaged yetch (as in retch) that has nothing to do with food. Aisle and aisles of frezzer compartments with microwavable meals and shelves of prepackaged something or other intended to be comestibles. Most young women I talk to wouldn't know how to bake a cake from scratch or make anything else from basic ingredients. I have an electric stove at home, but my parent's cottage was equipped with a wood stove. They're a little bit trickier to cook on, but just as reliable if you have a good supply of the right kinds of wood and a knowledge of which is which.

Shay said...

Even leaving the boil in a bag products behind, Sharon, it's much easier to cook today than it was in Victorian times. Using myself as an example, I don't hesitate to make cakes from scratch with confidence in my cheap Sears oven, but I wouldn't try it in a wood-burning stove without help ;-) And I wouldn't bet the farm on the results with 1870's flour and baking powder!