I love cookbooks, old ones especially. One whole bookshelf next to our kitchen is devoted to an ever-growing collection of cookbooks and cooking magazines. Based on the number I have, one might think I spend a lot of time actually cooking.
Well, not really. I try to spend at least some time each weekend cooking for the week ahead, making at least one or two things that will provide leftovers to fill the lunch bags during the work week. Typically, one thing is going in the crock-pot, another in the oven. I’ll throw together a salad or two, and something for dessert. And I do like to cook, especially when I need a break from writing or am trying to work out a sticky plot-point.
My mother was a wonderful cook. Self-taught, she had that extra “something” that good cooks have, where they can tell by the smell or taste or texture exactly the one ingredient that will take a dish from edible to masterpiece. My husband claims I can do the same, bless his heart. I do cook in the style of my mother, if not the excellence, and if nothing else, I learned her theme well: Midwestern church potluck dinner. That pretty much sums it up – most often, I cook like I’m going to a potluck. It comes naturally, of course, as my mother was a minister’s wife for much of her married life. In the Midwest, even. Most of my favorite recipes to cook are from her cookbook, and when I do take food somewhere, it is her recipes, not ones I’ve tried from recent purchases, that are the first gone and the most complimented. She was definitely on to something.
While most books of my cookbook collection are recent purchases, some of them came from the few recipe books my mother had on hand to use when she needed an idea. Recently, I was on the hunt for something to make, and I ran across one from her collection called The Silent Hostess Treasure Book. The book was published in 1932 by the Electric Refrigerator Department of General Electric, designed as a promotional and educational piece to accompany the purchase of a brand new General Electric Refrigerator. It includes menus, recipes, helpful hints, general suggestions on food and refrigeration, and directions for the use and care of the new refrigerator. For me, it was a marvelous moment of re-discovery as this relatively tiny book took me back to a time when refrigerators were new. It also offered some marvelous insights into what life was like for women, and specifically homemakers, at the time, especially since it was printed during one of the worst years of the Great Depression.
So I thought for today, I’d share a bit of the wisdom given in The Silent Hostess.
Under the heading Guest Meals Need Not Worry You: “If a part of one shelf of your refrigerator is reserved for an ’emergency corner,’ it will be space well spent. Keep it stocked with a supply of little luxuries, and you can transform a family meal into a gala affair in no time.” (6-7)
The book continues, advertising the time-saving benefits and the healthy bonuses that owning a refrigerator can provide the modern housewife: “By marketing less frequently, and by doing much of your preparation in advance, you can make considerable leisure for yourself.” (8) And preserving food in refrigerated style is less wasteful and more healthy as well. The following picture and text are included in the health-benefits section of the book (pay special attention to the instructions under meat):
One section left me chuckling, as one of the important pieces of advice in “Entertaining Is an Art” was called “If You Are Without A Maid”: “For the homemaker without a maid one of the informal and enjoyable occasions is to entertain at Sunday night supper, or the late supper ‘snack’ served after the movies or theatre.”
The book also has a fair number of recipes, some of which I know I ate as a child! It also has some color pictures illustrating several of the recipes, but I will spare you both the photos and any recipe that has “aspic” in the title! And I can only hope that the one titled “Molded Chicken Salad” is really chicken salad in a form of some sort….
But most of all, spending a bit of time with this book reminded me that what I write needs to do what this book did for me in that hour – take me to a place, whether familiar or not, known or unknown, and immerse me into that world. What are the customs and habits? How does the woman who owned this book view the world? How does she spend her time? What are her conflicts, goals, and motivations? Was she the first on her street or in her town to get this new refrigerator? How, in 1932, did they afford it? For whom was she cooking?
And did she really eat aspic?
What kinds of things do you use to help create the universe you write about, and especially those writing something other than contemporary works? How do you craft your universe?
One final note: if you are interested in more vintage cookbook information, be sure to check out Amy Alessio’s wonderfully entertaining blog, Vintage Cookbooks & Crafts, and especially her “Handwritten Recipe Wednesdays.”