Friday, October 28, 2011

"Frankfurters take on new glamour..."

My mom had many cookbooks and even more clipped recipes—big paper bags and boxes full of recipes from newspapers, from can labels, from cream cheese packages, from friends….usually not from magazines because the New Yorker and I.F. Stone’s Weekly are short on cooking tips. They were stuffed into baskets in her bedroom, in various drawers of various dressers all over the house, sometimes mingled with the clippings on local transportation issues that she also saved obsessively. (How she would have loved to ride the Sounder train to Seattle.) I found many hundreds more in the attic after she died. It was hard to toss them in the recycle, but I but I knew I would never look through them all. And of course now we have the Internet, so a personal copy of an interesting recipe is not so important. I kept that ones that actually made it to the kitchen, so I can recreate her salmon mousse and Yule log cake, and I know from apprenticeship how to make her one-egg omelet, her peerless mushroom soups and beef stews.  

A crown roast of wieners
I also kept her New York Times Cookbook, The American Heritage Cookbook, the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and of course Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vols. 1 and 2. I already had a Joy of Cooking, though I mourn the loss, somewhere along the way, of her wartime edition with its many tips to deal with rationing. But up in the attic I found another tome I’d never heard of-- The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia of Cooking and Homemaking, from 1940. This consists of 17 pamphlets, bound together on a metal comb, comprising more than 5000 recipes, plus menus and household tips, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer, who got her start in the recipe business by teaching nutrition in immigrant settlement houses.

Since I’m old enough to remember as simply dinner (or school lunch) the retro foods people laugh about now, I had a pretty good idea what kind of recipes I’d find. We had lots of those elaborate Jello salads when I was a kid, the ones with cauliflower and carrot slices shimmering inside.  The Edgemont School cafeteria served up truly awful scalloped potatoes and beans with Vienna sausage. And I still fondly remember making and eating the bacon-wrapped water chestnuts that accompanied the martinis at New Year’s Eve.  I figured I knew about the fare promoted by “one of America’s foremost organizations devoted to the science of Better Cookery.” 

I was right about a lot of that. Some of the suggestions are mind-boggling, and I want to thank Mom right now for never bringing them to the table: “Frankfurters take on new glamour in this gleaming aspic,” reads one photo caption. “Whole hard-cooked eggs in this jellied tuna loaf add a gay and decorative note,” is another. There is a whole section in the Snack chapter on “balls on picks,” including one called Burning Bush--cream cheese and chopped onion rolled in minced dried beef. (That one we may actually have had.) But as usually happens when we start feeling superior to our forebears, further study turned up complications. Though I might not want to make a frozen fruit salad topped with maraschino cherries,  I was surprised that it was to be served on a bed of chicory. Tossed salad suggestions included “lettuce, chicory, spinach, chives,” “watercress, dandelion greens, spring onions,” and “spinach, chervil, chopped onion, parsley.”

The vegetable section is full of varieties that we tend to think of as our own foodie discoveries, ferreted out from more authentic locales: salsify, kale, kohlrabi, fennel, collards, broccoli raab, dasheen, leeks, and more. There are five recipes just for salsify and several for cooked radishes. Desserts include persimmon meringue, ground cherry and elderberry pies, and avocado cranberry sherbet. 

The meat section shows how to debone and stuff a chicken, with photos that brought back the duck scene from “Julie and Julia,” minus the hysteria, as the Encyclopedia admits no qualms, only chipper uncomplaining efficiency whether the challenge is a freshly killed bird or an almost empty larder:  “A crown roast of wieners is an ideal solution for guest problems when the budget is low.”

"Use a skewer to pull out the tendons one at a time."
Furthermore, whatever cut you may be faced with, it’s got you covered: Maryland stuffed hog maw; beef heart with prune stuffing; calf brain rissoles; stuffed goose necks. It has a moose recipe, though I have to say that the one I’ve used (it’s Pot Roast with Hazelnut Barley in Winter Harvest) is better. It explains in the detail that I needed when we first did our own butchering, how to pluck and clean a chicken.  Should I really have been surprised that a generation where at least a quarter of the population had grown up on farms would know about dandelion greens or have the backbone to tackle a goose neck? 

What is strikingly lacking in the Encyclopedia is the array of spices, herbs, and other condiments we, or at least I, take for granted in cooking. Salt, pepper, parsley, occasionally celery seed—that’s about it, except for ginger and nutmeg in cookies. Ambitious hostesses evidently focused on elaborate presentations—carved vegetables, piped cream cheese decorations on aspic, diamond-shaped tea sandwiches—instead of on fusion flavors. 

Another thing missing is the sense of enjoyment in the kitchen that comes from Joy of Cooking and from Mastering the Art… There are no chatty introductions to the recipes, and the captions focus more on the satisfaction of a job well done than on the pleasures of  the table. From what I’ve read, Berolzheimer herself, though a formidable organizer and community activist, was not much of a cook. No doubt the tone also reflects the reality that her readers mostly had to cook three squares a day whether they liked it or not, being in the generation after household help was common but before box food and takeout were ubiquitous.

I’ve yet to cook from the book myself. I’ve been too engrossed just looking through it. But I’m going to hit the candy section this Christmas season to see if I can recreate my Great Aunt Gertrude’s divinity. (As Gertrude aged, her packaging got a bit sketchy.  We stopped eating her candy the year we found mothballs mixed in with the bonbons, and I’ve waited a long time to let that memory fade before trying my own.)

The Encyclopedia went through several more editions, though the Institute itself is long gone from its Chicago offices. I see that the 1988, and final, edition is in stock on Amazon. I don’t know what’s in that one.

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