Wednesday, November 20, 2013

“Cooking for Company”

I love old cookbooks. Especially American mid-century ones. American cookbooks from the 1950s, 60s and 70s contain bizarre recipes with ingredients in combinations best left untested (though some have certainly attempted them recently) that are often overly complicated unless you have regular “help” around the house, or they demonstrate an overreliance on canned items (technology! progress!). The illustrations and photographs are unappetizing at worst and ridiculous at best. Lastly, the commentary at the start of each section and in the recipes is absolutely priceless.

Canning and preservation technologies were celebrated in the 50s,
which fed into the mantra of home economics--being economical at home.
This led to some highly questionable food choices.

Cookbooks betray so many of the commonplaces of their time, they are like looking through a magic window into another era. For historians of her-story, they are an invaluable tool. Of course, earlier cookbooks and recipes are also wonderful. Cookbooks of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, often had many instructions about how to appear in society, whom to invite to a party, how to arrange guests at a table, and what to serve at various times of day (and what to wear!). They was also often efficiency advice, explaining how to feed a family on budget or how many housemaids, cook’s helpers and footmen were needed for family dinners versus dinners for 50.

Case in point: On Mad Men, Betty has Carla to help out at parties.
Twentieth-century cookbooks often contain the same bits of advice, especially books written before the 1990s. It’s much rarer now, in a regular cookbook, to find suggestions on what to wear during a Sunday brunch. Similarly, most cookbooks now take it as a matter of fact that one person is probably making any given dish with no extra paid help. Of course there are gourmet cookbooks even now, but the kind of everyman (everyperson) cookbooks that are out there on the shelves of Barnes and Noble or Books A Million are often catering to people with little time, money or cooking knowledge.

Mid-century cookbooks are quite different. They assume that the person reading the cookbook is a woman. Who doesn’t work, most likely. Who has access to help and/or loves to spend the entire day cooking (when, of course, she isn’t cleaning). She might be totally devoted to her children, or she may have a bouncy social life that includes heading up steering committees at the Junior League, but she has plenty of time for cooking.

I love Ann Taintor's work, like this piece, that make fun of the 50s housewives
who were so devoted to cooking, among other domestic pursuits.
I used to have an Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking, Volume 1, from the 1950s, but I misplaced it during our move. (Hopefully it’s just in a box somewhere at my parents’!) Not only did it have amazing (badly-colored) photographs of the food (see below), but it had a brilliant section at the beginning on how to plan a week’s worth of meals for each month, with complete meal plans for all three meals of the day for a family of four. There was frequently milk on the menu for children, stewed prunes for the adults, and hot cooked food for the whole family for every single meal.

The inside of the cover of The Modern Encylopedia circa 1953.
Luckily, I recently came across Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company (1974). Here is the cover:

Yes, her dress matches the wallpaper.
This book is as brilliant in its pastness as the Encyclopedia. In some ways it’s better, because it’s all about cooking for company, so the recipes are complicated and the menus are ridiculous. Additionally, there are lots of wonderful tidbits of advice from Helen herself:

Chapter 1: Mid-morning entertaining: “The atmosphere should be gay and cheery…The food should be flavorful, simple or elaborate, but dainty in size.”

Chapter 2: Brunches: “You may omit a first course or a dessert and no one will talk about you. In fact, very few hostesses today really go through the soup-to-nuts routine.”

Chapter 6: Sunday Entertaining: Sunday Night Entertaining: “Buffet—who has help on Sunday?”

Chapter 8: Cocktails and Cocktail Buffets: “For those who drink, you can no longer provide just whiskey. Wine, beer, and champagne are becoming the usual rather than the exception.”

Little tidbits like these give way to a flurry of questions in my 21st century mind:
·         Should there ever be an atmosphere at a party that is not “gay and cheery”?
·         What else is in a “soup-to-nuts” routine?
·         Who still has help?
·         Why was it ever ok to just serve whiskey?????

The suggested menus and recipes are similarly titillating and strange. The menus frequently juxtapose foods that seem ok, maybe even delicious, with foods that don’t seem to match at all. Or which one would never serve today. For example, one of the cocktail party suggested menus reads as follows:

Broiled oysters Parmesan
Honey and Mustard Spareribs
Cold Chicken Livers with Mustard Sauce
Garbanzo Salad
Artichoke hearts (canned) filled with red caviar and sieved hard-cooked eggs
Rich Chocolate Cookies

How about some Sunday entertaining?:

Tournedos of Beef, in artichoke bottoms
Green Enchiladas with sour cream
Cold lobster and king crab on rings of papaya with curried mayonnaise
Flageolet Salad
Hot bread sticks
Glazed strawberries

Almost all of the suggested menus read similarly. There is an over-reliance on things like paté, artichokes, caviar, tongue, liver, lobster and sherry. There are often several meat dishes (why so many!?) as well as dishes whose names history has long forgotten—maybe for the better?

One of my favorite recipes in the book (so far…haven’t read it cover to cover—yet) is the “Little Princess Sundae”:
“Place a ball of ice cream in a meringue shell or on a round white cake to anchor the ice cream to the plate. Place a tiny doll head (found in variety stores) in the top of the ball. Dribble whipped cream from a pastry tube or an ice tea spoon to make the ice cream ball look like a bouffant skirt. Sprinkle with silver dragees and candied flowers (buy also). You may deep freeze. Place a paper parasol over the head when you serve. Little girls from 3 to 80 love them.”

Sprinkle with a touch of racism, and it's ready!


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