Soon after I posted my blog about the wonderful phenomena of the bread machine, I attended a presentation at the Montana Historical Society titled “A Taste of the Past: What We Can Learn from Historic Cookbooks.” The topic of cookbook evolution fascinates me, and before your click to go read something else, please hang with me while I tell you how lucky we are to live when we live.
Everyone has struggled with a recipe that was sloppily written, or missing important elements necessary for a successful dish. Or, maybe you have a grandmother’s recipe with unconventional vernacular, like: “add a teacup of sugar,” or “place in a hot oven.” Obviously, we have come a long way and most of us have no clue what it was like before we had the standardized recipe format from Fannie Farmer– or experienced what it is to bake without the convenience of the electric oven.
Back to the presentation: The Historical Society has a collection of cookbooks that go back to the 1880s. The oldest in the collection was “The Montana Cook Book” that with a compendium of recipes “adapted to the Rocky Mountain region.” The “Crumbs of Comfort” cookbook dated 1893, and tells how to make a lettuce sandwich. Lettuce sandwich?
The early cookbooks took much for granted. No, OODLES for granted. There was major assumption as to how much skill a cook possessed. Clearly, most girls were tutored by a mother or grandmother on the basics of food preparation. Most postmodern high school graduates might mistake these recipes for a grocery list. Many recipes seemed only to list what went in, in what order, and voila’, a finished culinary creation appeared! Or, not.
And clearly, they did not have ready access to the variety of staples that we take for granted. If a recipe called for butter, one did not buy it at a nearby Costco or Sam’s, but likely milked the cow, skimmed the fat and churned the cream. Imagine that? Or, baking that cake meant stoking the wood stove and testing the heat by “placing a bit of flour on a sheet and waiting until it was browned!” Sounds more like a science experiment to me. (And to think how often I opt for the boxed cake mix so to avoid the “tedious” measuring.)
Another point of interest are those with pictures of the pioneer kitchen. Oh dear. It wasn’t even apparent that the room pictured WAS a kitchen! A stove, yes, but counter or cupboards? No, I wondered how well I might have fared, since I felt deprived because it was 30 years of marriage before I had the convenience of an in-sink garbage disposer. And speaking of a sink? Did not exist in these pictures. And I am ashamed to think of my own dismay that I neglected to include a pull-out cutting board for my new kitchen! Nowadays, we are infatuated with stainless steel appliances, ice cube makers and granite countertops. A decadent and pampered generation of cooks, we are.
Perhaps the most detailed and well- written cookbook in the Montana Historical Society’s collection is one titled “Manual for Army Cooks” (Prepared Under the Direction of the Commissary General of Subsistence, 1896.) Though not of any particular Montana significance, it does describe the best way to gauge the temperature of your stove and how to dispose of garbage “so as to not attract flies” — A skill still yet to be conquered – I still miss those fabulous “No Pest Strips” that I used in the 90’s. (For those who don’t know abut those amazing hanging slabs of insecticides—they were a fab invention that killed those pesky flies from the corrals.) The only disturbing aspect of this wonderfully detailed cookbook is that its author was most likely a man. I guess that tells you I am that most definitely gender biased.
And yet, while I admire the determination and solid work ethic of the pioneer cook, I am abundantly thankful that our technological advances have freed up women for other pursuits, like helping professions, Bible studies and volunteer work, not to mention, Zumba dancing, spray tans and gel manicures. And to think, Martha Stewart has made millions by teaching us how to master these pioneer domestic activities! Who’d have thunk it? She has re-established homemaking as a hobby, yes, an artistic and vogue pursuit even. (I’d like to know if Martha makes a lettuce sandwich?)
Finally, a clear indicator that we now speak a different language of political correctness—one of the collectibles featured was “The Montana Federation of Negro Women’s Club Cookbook”. Published in 1925, they boasted that theirs was a superb publication because “they make their living by cooking.”
It was an interesting night. I appreciated the history lesson and reflected happily how grateful I am for my microwave, 5 burner gas stove and my ever-so-wonderful bread machine. Sometimes it only takes an hour long peek into our past to celebrate the timing of our birth into this world. And though I am intrigued by Martha’s reinvention of our domestic opportunities, I’ll stay comfortable with my level of energy and commitment in the kitchen. I have far too many other pursuits (a job, gel nails and Bible Studies) to fill my days!