I love old cookbooks. They not only contain recipes (once called receipts), they served as an instruction book for the “plucky housewives who master their work instead of allowing it to master them” (Buckeye Cookbook, 1880). They are small pieces of history hidden among the pages of time. Written by women, for women, they covered such topics as how to: remove grass stains with the enzymes found in a gall bladder, manage a household, take care of baby and wonderful old recipes, such as gingerbread.
The problem with old cookbooks is that the reader often needs a background in history, to decipher the terms. For example, a recipe prior to 1900 often used the gill as a unit of measure. A gill is equal to ½ cup. How many of us would know that sweet milk is actually fresh milk. How about “sweet cream” butter? This is simply butter made from fresh cream. (Next time you are in the grocery store, take note of the butter labels—the term “made with sweet cream” is still used on the label.)
Sorghum was often used as an alternative for expensive white sugar, but most 20th century cooks have no idea what sorghum is, much less how to find it. Sorghum is a type of molasses. The plant, which is grown in Minnesota, looks like corn. The stalk is removed of leaves and put through a press. The liquid is then boiled, like maple syrup, to form molasses. Sorghum molasses can be found in the baking aisle of your grocery store next to regular molasses.
Early bread recipes called for a handful of yeast. This of course would make any modern cook wonder if there was a misprint. Yeast was much weaker in the day—it was propagated by keeping a small amount of starter yeast, to which water and corn meal, hops or potatoes were added. This mixture was left to increase in volume then dried. Bread was made by first producing a sponge. A handful of yeast was added to flour and water, and sometimes mashed potatoes. This was allowed to increase in size overnight before being made into bread.
Cookbooks are a reflection of society and like everything else, have evolved. Once everything was made from scratch and the cookbook was a homemaker’s handbook. During the 1930s and 1940s, cooks supported the war effort by using recipes without eggs or flour. The institutional Betty Crocker Bake-off began in 1949 to celebrate Betty Crocker’s 80th birthday. The trend in the 1970s and 1980s was cookbooks written with convenience in mind. Most recently, cupcakes and fancy cooking are making a return, with the popularity of the Food Network.
During a recent trip to New York, I stopped at a store that carried only old cookbooks. There, I found cookbooks that explained the advantage of using electric or gas stoves. The oldest cookbook in the store was from 1823 and had a price tag of $500.
For those who are still wondering how to cook a husband, in part the recipe states, “A good many husbands are entirely spoiled by mismanagement in cooking, and so are not tender and good. Some women keep them constantly in hot water, other keep them constantly in a pickle… But they are really delicious when properly treated… Add a little sugar in the form of what confectioners call kisses, but no vinegar or pepper on any account. Do not try him with anything sharp to see if he is becoming tender… If thus treated, you will find him very digestible, agreeing nicely with you and he will keep as long as you want him.” (OK Flour Cookbook, Watertown Grain and Fuel Co.)
Recipe in Translation
Source: The Buckeye Cookbook (1880)
One and a half cups Orleans molasses, half-cup each brown sugar, butter and sweet milk, teaspoon each soda and allspice, half-teaspoon ginger; mix all together thoroughly, add three cups sifted flour and bake in shallow pans. Excellent.
1 ½ cups molasses (sorghum molasses is found in the grocery story by the regular molasses)
½ cup butter
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ginger
3 cups sifted flour
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Warm the molasses and the butter on the stove, stir until combined. Add the brown sugar and milk, stirring until combined. Add baking soda, spices and flour; mix well. Pour into a greased and floured 9x9-inch pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.