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.
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.