Like many of the pieces I write for Forgotten Foods, this is a combined story of love and revulsion.* But unlike those pieces, this doesn’t reach back into history to pluck out Victorian funeral cookies or pre-microwave bachelor foods. No, this month I’m writing about recipes that are much more recent, but still forgotten – the recipes that fill locally produced cookbooks of the 70s and 80s.
I own a small collection of these cookbooks; I purposefully keep it small, because for every good recipe I find in them, there are usually three more that simply amount to mixing a canned soup with something else from a can and putting cheese on top. You’ve probably seen the cookbooks I’m talking about – you might even own one. Produced as fundraising projects or to celebrate a particular town’s “cuisine,” these typewritten or dot-matrix printed, spiral-bound collections have traditionally served as a great way to discover that your neighbors have terrible taste in food.
Or, at least, many of mine did. Two of the cookbooks in my collection are specific to Northern New Hampshire – the Shelburne Sampler II and Our Favorite Recipes: North Country Senior Meals. Well, the infractions in the Shelburne Sampler are relatively benign (except for the off-color drawing associated with the “Ethnic” recipe section), but the fine folks who submitted recipes to North Country Senior Meals provided some absolutely baffling entries.
If my life is indeed a picnic, like the cliche says, I’d argue that it’s specifically a late-1800s picnic – stressful, frequently overpacked, and requiring me to wake up a lot earlier than I’d like.
At least, that’s how these “relaxing” Victorian outings often were for the women stuck with food preparation. 1883’s Practical Housekeeping demands that, when picnicking, women “be up ‘at five o’clock in the morning’ to have the chicken, biscuits, etc., freshly baked.” Mrs. Owens’ Complete Cookbook and New Household Manual, meanwhile, lists several types of foods that should be brought, from baked beans to canned deviled ham – and she also notes that “Bouillon tablets are just the thing, provided there is hot water.” Because one thing that is totally not a pain in the butt to eat at a picnic is soup broth. And oh, we haven’t even gotten to the other picnic accoutrements women needed to pack yet. 1882’s The Successful Housekeeper says, “Forget not the napkins, forks, spoons, and luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar, and a bottle of cream or a can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee.” And here I was about to say that that was a ridiculous amount of stuff to pack, but thank goodness – picnickers can leave their saucers at home.*
For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.
That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:
entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real use, partly because most people cannot remember what they mean and partly because their meanings have changed over time and vary from one part of the world to another. Forget them.
Forget them? Davidson, my man, come on – when almost everyone else has forgotten about something, that’s the time when you should remember it. Those almost-forgotten things are where fantastic weirdness usually hides. In the case of entremets, that fantastic weirdness is young boys singing duets with deer and roast pig heads vomiting fire like drunk dragons. But more on that in a moment.
Oh, how many of us yearn for a simpler time and place? A time before cell phones, when people couldn’t always reach us. A time before the Internet, when we didn’t accidentally read Game of Thrones spoilers on our Twitter feeds (I’m still bitter about the Red Wedding). A time before Nicki Minaj, when all of the beez were free.
You know that wholesome time I’m talking about – that time when little children would sit around, eagerly waiting for someone to die so they could eat funeral cookies.
Lest you think I’m romanticizing the past, allow me to offer this selection from an article entitled “Scotch Funerals,” published in 1883’s The Living Age:
My grandfather…always had one or two of his grandchildren awaiting his return from any burial he attended, who were often not disappointed in seeing the coveted morsel produced from his pocket and having it shared among them.
If only today’s children knew what treats they were missing out on, they might do like children of yesteryear and eagerly await the death of others!
Any women’s health magazine worth its low-sodium salt substitute can tell you about three things: How to flatten your abs, how to please your man (yoga helps, ladies!!!!!!), and how to scientifically justify eating chocolate.
Fitness Magazine lists “Four Reasons to Eat Chocolate on a Diet,” citing chocolate’s cough-fighting and tooth-strengthening theobromine, anti-diarrheal antioxidants, and skin-protecting flavanols. Women’s Health mentions a study from Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism noting that chocolate milk worked just as well as “recovery drinks” in helping negate post-work soreness. Even sugar-phobic clean-eating magazine Oxygen says that dark chocolate’s catechins may aid in weight loss.
Of course, many of these studies are funded by, well, chocolate companies. And it’s not as if these studies are lies – the cocoa plant does contain all of these good things. But most adults also have the good sense to know that just because there are flavanols hiding somewhere in our chocolate bars doesn’t mean we should nosh on those sugar-filled treats multiple times a day. (Although a study funded by the US National Confectioners Association showed that “there is no link between the number of candy-eating occasions” and obesity. Not that candy doesn’t cause obesity, just that there isn’t a link between obesity and how many times you break off a piece of your Kit-Kat bar.)
It’s January, which means that all across America, people are resolving to eat better. And that means that they’re also resolving to smugly tell you about it. But the next time your newly gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free co-worker insists that you need to jump on the kale-acai smoothie express, just be thankful that this isn’t the turn of the century. Because back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, diet adherents really knew how to twist the guilt knife.
I can’t figure out where to get a lump of coal in September. In Los Angeles. In 2013. Not activated charcoal, which is sometimes used by present-day hospitals to help suck up ingested poison. But a plain ol’ lump of dirty coal, like you would use in the 1800s to fuel your stove and give your home that lovely soot smell. This is a problem, because according to a woman with too many names — Lady Mary Anne Boode Cust – in her 1853 title The Invalid’s Own Book, boiling a walnut-sized lump of coal in an pint of milk until it gets thick is “a very nutrative* food, and easily obtained.”
Well, at least for me, that second part is a lie. And sweet jeebus – coal milk? As if it didn’t already suck to get sick in the 1800s and early 1900s. MORE
There is a category of foods for adults that I call “stink foods.” These are the foods that people appreciate after they’ve eschewed the plain pasta of their picky eater days and developed a more mature palate. I’m talking about foods like eye-watering onions; soft, blue-veined cheese; and pungent garlic.
Or tiny, oil-packed, smelly little fish. Like the oh-so-humble anchovy.
The title of this column is Forgotten Foods; the idea is that I am showing you recipes that, though wonderful and worthwhile, have become less popular over time — maybe new cooking technology made them obsolete or the ingredients became prohibitively expensive. Maybe tastes just changed. And now, isn’t it wonderful that we can rediscover these foods together?
But there are also the foods from the past that aren’t forgotten as much as willfully shunned. Fermented meats. Tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles. And at the top of that tasteless heap — the gelatin salad.
I am from New England stock. (I’m tempted to call us “hearty New England stock,” but the truth is that my immediate family skews more to the side of thin, independent, and quiet weirdos. Which is its own New England archetype, I suppose.) But a childhood in New England means that certain things are in my bones: Foliage and crisp apples in the fall, cross-country skiing in the winter, fiddleheads and mud in the spring, and in summer, shell-cracking lobster dinners. To me, lobster isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime rarity or even a particularly high-class food. It’s a treat, certainly, but not the epic, caviar-level foodstuff some people make it out to be.
My father does not have an illustrious history with cooking. You wouldn’t know that looking at him in the kitchen now – when my grandmother’s health was failing, he studied with her so that he could make her classic desserts, like fluffy cream cake, spiraling jelly rolls, and not-too-sweet apple pies. But before that, I knew my father to have exactly one dish – Welsh rarebit.