And now for something completely different…

victoria —  May 10, 2006 — 1 Comment

I have this hobby, one might call it an addiction to vintage cookbooks and culinary ephemera from the early 20th century. I had started a small collection on my own and then Our Lady J sent me a lovely shot of new and exciting pieces including a lovely booklet entitled “How to Enjoy a Package of Dromedary Dates” by the Kitchen Lady. I mentioned this largess to my mother who (no surprise given the bottomlessness of her cabinets/attic/basement) practically inundated me with a very large Rubbermaid container’s worth of these gems. And there are definitely some gems.

Most of them are booklets to help housewives get the most out of their newfangled appliances with a few very odd recipes thrown in. Some though, one from the Nordic Ware company in particular, have some great recipes that I have made (and admittedly tweaked for, um, modern tastes). I made a carrot and pineapple Bundt cake from the booklet “Unusual and Old World Recipes” that has rocked many a potluck. Bundts are great for looking fancy and impressive when you don’t have the time to be either.

There are also a number of scary, scary things that involve cooking with alum and carcinogenic food colorings and more oleo than a contemporary person would consume in a lifetime. Given my complete distrust of gelatine-based desserts (I can’t eat something that won’t stop moving), the Jell-O and Knox Gelatine booklets are some of my favorites.

The purely anthropological value of a recipe for lime Jell-O with ham, celery, blanched cauliflower and pimento-stuffed olives makes these booklets worth their weight in saffron.

I think that because of the explosion in food magazines and television programming, we have this idea that we are boldly going where no cooks have gone in terms of international dishes and ingredients. From the modest collection I’ve amassed that seems not to be the case. Granted there aren’t recipes that involve things like extremely hot peppers and nitrogen frozen ice cream, but there are lots of curries, Latin flavors and desserts that would make any European pastry chef gleam with pride. Things like avocados, rock lobster tails and such weren’t just discovered in the 1980s.

I especially like the maid’s outfit and the fact that there is indeed a maid serving sandwiches. This one has not one, but two recipes with avocado.

In the mix were some wartime booklets disseminated to help housewives deal with rationing and with the fear, I can only assume here, of being able to protect and feed their families in the event of catastrophe. They are very patriotic and mention vegetables from Victory Gardens and such. The thing that strikes me now is that they all discuss belt-tightening and pulling your own weight for the war effort in a way that our current government and society, I think, seems reluctant to even discuss let alone implement.

That is not to say that, like now, companies weren’t willing to prey upon the miasma of fears that swirl during wartime.

Detail from the above manual detailing the devastation in London as a result of the Blitz

Though the wartime recipes do rely on oleo (shudder) for some of the fat in baking especially, as all fats began to be rationed, they move toward what we would consider low-fat or healthy-fat type recipes today. There are pie crust and biscuit recipes that use oil instead of butter, lard or oleo. There are also several cakes that use applesauce and other pured fruits to replace the fat altogether, something the “healthy baking” recipes of recent years have thoroughly embraced (with mixed results). Again, I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel as often as we think.

Some of the booklets I have kept just because of the artwork or the overwhelming kitsch factor. Booklets with “modern” or “time-saving” tend to be heavy on the latter. I obviously can’t know how these images were received in context. I want to believe that there was a time more innocent and less jaded when covers like the one below wouldn’t make your average shopper laugh out loud in the checkout line.

I also really love it when kitsch and Christmas overlap. I have a pretty extensive Christmas and winter holidays cookbook section in the (now-groaning) library. I have three editions of Have a Natural Christmas, ’77, ’78 and ’79, that are bursting at their yellowed seams with pine cone reindeer and low-sew cloth hobo gift bags. They also have many recipes in which peanut butter and seeds feature boldly. And yes, one in which there are seeds, nut butter and pine cones… but that one is for attracting birds to your burlap and popcorn-decorated yard, as if the popcorn didn’t have them chirping “Hallelujah” already. I do poke fun but having been a wee lass in the 1970s, those popcorn garlands and Coke-can angels make me a little misty-eyed. So naturally (no pun intended) this Reynold’s Wrap Christmas booklet made me giggle like a school girl.

Don’t think I am above including this cotton-haired beauty in my cookie packages this year.

I find the more I read about molecular cuisine and the laboratory approach to cooking with infusers and foams and nitrogen freezing, the more I enjoy these forays into the past. There is an article in May’s Wired (“My Compliments to the Lab” by Mark McClusky) that I read with fascination and dismay. McClusky talks about an outing to Chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Alinea in Chicago that involves things frozen to -30F and applewood ice cream suspended on a long wire sort of contraption that you bob-off like an apple on a string. Yes, I see the elements of the novel and of play. Yes, the food can taste remarkable. I’m not entirely sure that I believe it feeds us so much as entertains. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in the end I want to feed people. I really do believe that food made with care and love can sate hunger both physical and spiritual. And before the fat police descend and scream that I am colluding in that sin of confusing food with love, I’d like to get my two cents in.

I don’t mean to confuse “love with lasagna” or whatever that fat-blocking drug commercial says. What I do mean is that food, eating, like sex preserves our species and that unlike all other animals we have made an art and a vice of both. A parent feeding his or her child delicious, wholesome food is an act of love as much as a perpetuation of our kind. A future of food reduced to a pill or gelled strips of flavor doesn’t interest me any more than turkey-baster copulation for baby-making only would. I am going to try to avoid the soapbox but I do feel its splintery edge creeping up on me. Sitting down with people you love, be they friends, family, lovers, whatever, binds us. And for me personally, the people are the entertainment and the food should be fabulous and sustaining. I guess this makes me terribly old-fashioned, but I have to say I’m okay with that. I will happily delve into my culinary artifacts and sit down to conversation and damn fine lasagna with mine.

For further enjoyment

Culinary Ephemera via the U of Michigan

and the U of Iowa

A Chef and His Library

a place to purchase these lovelies if your mom/gran doesn’t come through for you

notes on collecting culinary ephemera and other kit(s)chen-y type things

the granddaddy of food kitsch on the web, James Lileks

A note or two

The tea towels in the photos are courtesy the Doris Raschke (aka Mom) collection.

Apologies for the overexposure on the pics, a photographer I am not.



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  1. The Food Company Cookbooks Blog » Blog Archive » Sunday Morning Reading - September 18, 2006

    […] While cruising the blogosphere over my morning coffee, I came across a nice piece about vintage cookbooks and culinary ephermera over at the Foodieporn Blog Ars Culinaria. […]

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