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Month: April 2021

Old Recipes

These were in that box. The box that sells for $1 and contains history and stories untold.

I’m a sucker for that box at an estate sale. You know the box, the one they throw all the cruft into, the stuff they don’t think will sell by itself. Every orphan item goes into the box meant for a quick sale: little ceramic shepherds, a tin of hairpins, a couple of small frames with broken glass and dented sides, a chipped mug.

The contracted auctioneers are required to sell everything, and if they think an item will slow the sale down, it goes in the box.

That’s my box. The best box is near all the kitchen stuff because it usually has all the old cookbooks and loose recipes. I mean OLD cookbooks. Early pots and pans and kitchen gadgets (electric skillets and blenders, etc.) and certain food products (I’m thinking Jell-O, Bisquick, etc.) used to provide commercially produced recipes featuring their products. Those go in the box. The torn, worn cookbooks go in the box. Sometimes there are scraps of handwritten recipes stuck in the books. Sometimes there are pages torn out of books that no longer exist.

My prize purchase from one of these sales is a very old, very worn cigar box mostly full of recipe clippings as well as a couple of handwritten ones. Carefully pinning the recipe and any artwork together with a straight pin, some long-ago homemaker treasured dreams of fancy dinner parties featuring Jellied Salmon Loaf and Orange Charlotte for dessert.

As I read through them, I try to picture the husband, home from a typical day at the office or dusty from farm work, or weary from a day of selling useless products. He greets his wife, peels off his work jacket, “washes up,” and sits down to a meal that opened with Jellied Shrimp Salad and went on to feature Stuffed Eggplant, or Beef-Hash Pudding, or Macaroni Loaf.

Some notable examples of the types of recipes I found in the box:

Hunter’s Salad: one can of peas, three tablespoons of chopped cheese, three tablespoons chopped onion, three tablespoons sweet pickles, one cup chopped nut meats. Put together with salad dressing.

Celery and Dried Beef au Crème: “Cut celery in small pieces and cook in boiling salted water until tender; add to Libby’s Dried Beef creamed. Arrange on a plate and garnish with parsley.”

Hawaiian Salad for Gala Occasions): “Never have you seen such a novel and delicious salad, so easy to prepare. Border a salad bowl with crisp lettuce leaves. Then fill the center with Libby’s luscious, sliced pineapple. Garnish with strips of Libby’s piquant pimientos and serve with light mayonnaise. Try it once and you will serve it often.”

Some of the cookbooks also include household tips, and those are just as fascinating as the old recipes. For instance, one book describes how to care for “barb wire cuts,” which are “often deep, and contain germs that will cause blood poison if not take care of promptly.” Hidden in these hints are subtle advertisements for things like Barb Wire Liniment, Kristol Salve, and F.W. McNess’ Sarsaparilla and Burdock blood purifier.

Strangely enough, all the health hints involve products supplied by F.W. McNess Co.

It becomes evident that this particular “cookbook” was a giveaway provided by the F.W. McNess, Co., maker of Sanitary Medicines. The pamphlet includes recipes from satisfied customers because “most of our customers’ eat to live’ even if they don’t ‘live to eat.’”

What fascinates me about the recipes in this book is that there are ingredients but no cooking times or temperatures, presumably because wood-fired stoves and ovens ruled the kitchens. I had to assume from these recipes that any experienced cook would know when to pull food from the stove. Based on some deeply ingrained instinct developed over the years of cooking in her overheated kitchen, she could feel temperatures and know the moment.

One word is liberally used in the clipped recipes I found in the old cigar box:  “gelatin.” I was reasonably sure these recipes came from the 1950s due to the sheer quantity of recipes containing the words gelatin or jellied or aspic.

You don’t want to know what is involved in gelatin production (or what gelatin is), but I will say this natural food product, a great source of protein, has been around for centuries. It’s not an easy product to produce. In the 1890s, a man named Charles Knox watched his wife go through the laborious process and developed an “instant” powdered version that was probably instrumental in building the popularity of jellied foods. Even today, we can still find Knox Gelatin in the supermarket.

By the 1950s, gelatin was a staple of American cuisine. Those ladies “jellied” everything from salmon to rice to fruit to carrots to eggs.

I probably won’t be using any of the recipes from the box since I’m not a fan of gelatin, but it has been fun sifting through them to judge what our ancestors were eating. It turns out we’re not so inventive as we thought with our cheeseburger pizzas and our deep-fried pickles and our baked ice cream and our chocolate-covered bacon.

Old Negatives

I found a box…well, I must admit, it wasn’t lost…it had been sitting on my desk for a very long time. I knew it was a box of “things” rescued from my mom’s desk when we cleaned out the old homeplace. I don’t know why I had been avoiding it, but there it was and this week I decided to deal with it.

I think I avoided it because I knew what would happen…and I was right…I got lost. Lost in a time long gone, lost in trying to identify people I had never known, places that lived in only the briefest of my  memories of Mom’s stories.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. In a time when a camera was a wondrous bit of magic he owned a twin lens reflex camera. He wasn’t making art or trying to capture history, he was just trying to preserve a bit of his life.

That’s what I found in the box, snapshots of life. There were studio portraits of people I did not know, and clippings a couple of postcards, but the treasure trove proved to be three crumbling brown envelopes full of negatives.

Smith & Smith Photographers of Mitchell, Indiana, in their Kodak Finishing Department (our motto: “Speed and Quality”) had developed my grandfather’s films for him at a cost of 10 cents a roll and 5 cents per print. I don’t know what happened to the prints, but here were the negatives and I wondered what they would show.

I have some experience with computers, scanners and photo software, so I stumbled around and discovered a way to use my scanner to “develop” the negatives into images on the computer screen.

That’s when I got lost in the past.

There was my mother and her sisters, in the front yard of the house I only knew from stories. There were babies playing on blankets in the grass. There was my Aunt Lena, very young and standing beside a young man who may have been a beau, but certainly wasn’t my Uncle Clarence.

There was my young grandfather, strong and muscular and very much in command of a motorized grader that featured three steering wheels and gears and levers. My mom worshipped her “daddy” and I got the impression she believed he could do anything…maybe she was right. I knew he made or worked on shoes and harness, built furniture, operated a camera somewhat competently, was a traveling preacher, a writer and musician. Apparently, he also operated heavy equipment.

The vast majority of the photos were of young people in groups of two or three or four, smiling at the camera or trying on serious grown up looks. Young ladies stood with hands on hips, a man’s hat cocked comically on their heads. Two youths dressed in overalls stood in front of some sort of out of focus plant life that might have been berry bushes or maybe fruit trees.

By the time I finished scanning these negatives, studying them for the clothing of the time, the surrounding countryside, searching the faces for some feature I could recognize to identify people I had only known as adults…by that time, I felt almost a part of their world. It was a little unsettling when I finished with the negatives and felt myself tumbling back into my own world of pandemics and civil unrest.

I believe the majority of these photos, especially the ones of the young men and women, were taken in the mid-1930’s. Were the times better back then? Were these people happier then? I couldn’t fail to see how thin they all were. They stood for the camera in clothes that were their everyday uniforms with worn or torn knees or slightly ragged cuffs. When they were dressed in their best it was clear they were ready for some event, but I liked seeing the more casual clothing, the young men with rolled up sleeves and the girls with their stockings and worn, flat shoes.

In just a few years, all these young men went off to wars. They may or may not have come home. If they didn’t grow old, they certainly grew up. The young ladies had careers or they didn’t, they married happily or unhappily and had children who turned out okay or didn’t.

They all lived lives they could not fathom as they stood for my grandfather’s camera and smiled and became part of my story.

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