Culinary nostalgia gone very wrong

From Toast Water to Cheap Vinegar Pie, recipes from an old cookbook might leave you looking forward to starvation

By Cyndi Baker

Published May 12, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

An ancient U.S. Department of Agriculture cookbook. Yum!
An ancient U.S. Department of Agriculture cookbook. Yum!

A version of this story originally appeared on The Boulder Housewife.

The basic cuisine in my formative years was what one would expect from a 1980s household: Shake n' Bake chicken, Shake n' Bake pork chops, meat loaf. We never did have Shake n' Bake meat loaf, which would have been very exciting and possibly more American than apple pie.

But my husband's mother ventured farther afield, into the culinary alps of Northern California. There she lived among Sasquatch and crotchety miners in a hamlet called Sawyers Bar, and she recently gave me an antique piece of her culinary repertoire: a nearly century-old Department of Agriculture cookbook from her mother's side of the family -- part cookbook, part history book, part family Bible, the old pages keeping me company while I'm in bed with a pulled back and floating on Flexeril.

So it makes sense that the first recipe that jumped out at me was on a page titled "Preparations for the Sick." At the top of the page, we have: "Toast Water: Place several pieces of stale toasted bread in a cup, cover with ice water, and serve to your patient." They must've been pioneers in incentivized medicine: If you do not get well soon this is what we will be giving you to eat all the time. Bon appétit.

Here is another recipe, this one labeled as good for invalids. Since I am a bit of an invalid today, why not? "Frumenty: Rinse a quart of wheat [fresh from the thresher, I presume] and put in a tin vessel with a gallon of water. Set this in a larger vessel of water and boil for eight hours. It will keep in a cool corner for a week. Eat cold with sugar and cream, or reheat if you are worried about food poisoning." OK, I added that food poisoning disclaimer myself, but look, the recipe's name is just so close to "fermenty."

When I first saw the title of this next preparation, from Kate F. Beanland of Clinton, Mo., I pictured a cow served with a side of her own ice cream:

Beef a la Mode: Boil a roast until half done then bake in the oven until tender. Make a paste of 1 ½ cup sour cream, ½ tsp soda, and 2 egg yelks [yes, yelks] and spread it over and around the beef, bake until browned. Lay the beef in a serving dish and cover with the following sauce: 1 ounce of butter cooked with 1 tbsp flour, add 1 cup each stock and cream and boil with minced onion then stir in two more yelks and a tbsp catsup.

Despite the fact that it asks you to "boil" a "roast," I actually think this sounds great, but then beef stroganoff is one of my favorites. 

As I fondle this federal culinary masterpiece, random papers of the past keep falling out. The latest scrap to fall says COMMON SPEECH ERRORS across the top. On the list are: "My brother, he killed a rabbit." "This is a boughten dress." "I'll learn you to do it." MS Word seems a bit upset with these errors as well so I guess I need not keep grammar tips in my cookbook.

Something a cookbook should have, however, are pie recipes. In the pie category, I give you two. "Hard Times Pie: Rub ½ cup flour and ¾ cup sugar into a heaping tbsp of butter until no lumps remain. Add a cupful of water and bake with but one crust." Mrs. Clara Everts of Griffith, Ind., assures us that it is "quite palatable." I will have to take her word for it. Back or no back, times are not hard enough for me to make that. So how about Cheap Vinegar Pie? This one comes on the heels of Vinegar Pie and Another Vinegar Pie and just prior to plain old Cheap Pie. Makes three pies, hope you are hungry:

Take 1 quart of water and 4 tbsp of strong vinegar and mix with a cup of sugar and 3 tbsp butter. Boil. While boiling, add a cupful of flour wet in cold water and boil 2 minutes more. Let cool. Once cool, if you do not have a solid mass of glue, pour into three pans lined with paste [don't ask me] and bake in a quick oven.

I presume the oven must be quick lest it becomes aware of what it participates in.

The smell of moldering paper must be going to my head. Or is it the Flexeril? OK, one more, this one from the cover (or Page 51, as readers of the intact book may have found). Suitable for any special occasion brunch, I give you "Fried Mush: Slice cold mush ½ inch thick. Dip pieces in beaten egg and then in rolled crackers. Fry same as doughnuts. This is very nice for breakfast," Hattie Cary of La Plata, Mo., advises.

Better yet, lie around and wait for someone to bring breakfast to you. Earlier, a crafty 12-year-old and sweet 3-year-old brought me a Pacman lap tray of second breakfast. Like a good hobbit, I ate it right down to the fun-size Butterfinger. Mmmm, that tasted good. Perfectly seasoned eggs. But now I'm wondering what Pacman is looking to do to my ancient cookbook crumbles. 

Cyndi Baker

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American Regional Cuisines Food Food Traditions