The Joy of Cooking is probably one of the best-known book titles in America. I discovered only recently that the book actually dates back to the very early 1930s, and was one of the first proper 'cookbooks' that launched an entire genre of publishing.
Written by widowed housewife Irma S. Rombauer as a way to generate an income, it was a collection of her recipes and cooking tips and techniques. Irma was a celebrated hostess in St Louis and was aghast that there were no practical resources readily available to the average housewife who wanted to serve a tasty and impressive meal but did not have the budget for extravagent ingredients.
The publishers of The Joy of Cooking recently produced a commemorative 'facsimile edition' - a complete copy of the first original edition from 1931, including the original illustrations and cover artwork of a woman 'slaying the dragon of kitchen drudgery' (designed by Irma's daughter Marion).
I've been intrigued for some time about the typical foods people ate in America in the early twentieth century, so I got my hands on a copy of this first edition reprint of The Joy of Cooking. It was such a huge selling success that one can pretty safely assume that the recipes contained within were used by a large majority of American housewives in the 1930s and 40s.
A quick flick through the book reveals that Irma was indeed arming housewives with an arsenal of tips on how to make tasty food using readily available ingredients. Most of the recipes are very simple - less than 6 ingredients and very simple instructions. This is not fancy-schmancy cookery, it's real Depression-era cooking: how to make vegetables more exciting and cleverly combine ordinary ingredients to fancy them up.
There are lots of very simple, basic recipes:
- Cucumber sandwich
- Scrambled eggs, with or without onions
- Peach salad [peach slices served on a lettuce leaf with a little French dressing]
- Jellied salmon and cucumber salad
- Corned beef hash
- Prune souffle
- Mock venison [soak a leg of mutton in sour milk for 24 hours]
- Mock chicken sandwich [made with boiled tuna fish and mayo]
- Mock pistachio ice cream [add almond extract and green food coloring to vanilla ice cream]
- Onion cases filled with meat or fish
- Green peppers filled with macaroni
- Cucumbers filled with bread dressing
- Tomatoes filled with stuffed eggs
- Apples stuffed with link sausages
In fact, my beau and I decided to make an entire evening meal using The Joy of Cooking (1931) as our reference. We already had leftover fruit crumble in the fridge so we didn't bother with dessert, but planned our evening meal around the following dishes:
Apples stuffed with Link Sausages
We went to the grocery store to get supplies and then had a grand time in the kitchen making our dinner. Somehow we had managed to forget to buy oranges, so our salad was downgraded to simply Avocado & Grapefruit.
The salad was simply sections of avocado, grapefruit (and orange, had we had some) arranged in a pinwheel fashion on a lettuce leaf, drizzled with French Dressing. To maintain authenticity I made the French Dressing from the book recipe rather than using Paul Newman's. The book recipe was a little alarming as it contained half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of suger for only 1/3 of a cup of dressing, but I followed it faithfully.
The apples are simply cored, then you stick a sausage in the hole (and yes, it looks as dirty as it sounds), sprinkle with brown sugar and lemon juice and bake in the oven. It's sort of like a reverse pork chops with applesauce idea I suppose.
I was excited about the creamed cabbage recipe - it called for one-and-a-half cups of cream plus cheese, butter and breadcrumbs. It sounded tasty, if a little high-calorie.
Et voila! A Depression-era dinner for two! [recipes are at the end of this post]
The salad was quite tasty, although I found the salad dressing so incredibly salty and not to my liking at all. Next time I'll make a simple vinaigrette sans salt (sorry Irma!)
The baked apples with sausages were ... interesting. Quite edible, although I think next time we'll use nicer sausages. We used pre-cooked sausages as we happened to have some in the fridge but they are more akin to hot dog weiners than nice meaty porky sausages, which I think would be nicer.
The creamed cabbage was DELICIOUS! So much so that I ate too much of it and felt ill, then went back for a few more helpings. Seriously - it was that good. Though I suppose any vegetable would be, slathered in that much cream and cheese. I made it with 2/3 cream and 1/3 milk, but you could probably go for half and half and it would still be lovely.
If you're interested in researching or recreating authentic Depression-era menus this book is an absolute must-have reference. But if you're also looking for ways to dress up ordinary foodstuffs or cleverly re-use leftovers - and during the current recesssion, who isn't? - then old Irma can still teach you a thing or two. Highly recommended.
AVOCADO PEAR, ORANGE AND GRAPEFRUIT SALAD
Peel avocado pears, slice them lengthwise and arrange them with skinned orange and grapefruit sections in wheel shape on lettuce leaves. Serve the salad with French Dressing made with lime juice.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 tablespoons vinegar or lemon (or lime) juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon mustard (optional)
garlic or onion juice (optional)
Add the seasoning to one tablespoon of oil. Add one half the vinegar slowly. Beat this, with a fork or a wire whisk and add the remaining oil and vinegar alternatively.
APPLES STUFFED WITH LINK SAUSAGES
Cut the core from each apple with an apple corer and insert a sausage. Sprinkle the apples with brown sugar, place them in a pan with a little lemon juice and water. Bake them until they are tender in a moderate oven 375 degrees. Baste them frequently.
1 small cabbage
1 and a half cups cream sauce (recipe below)
grated cheese or butter
Prepare boiled cabbage by removing outer leaves, shredding it finely and dropping into rapidly boiling salted water and barely cooking it, allowing only 7 to 8 minutes boiling. Drain well and place it in layers in a baking dish. Sprinkle the layers with grated cheese, season them with salt and pepper and pour the boiling cream sauce over them. Cover the top with bread crumbs, dot it with butter or sprinkle it with cheese. Bake the cabbage in a hot overn - 450 degrees - until the crumbs are brown.
2 tbsp butter
1.5 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp paprika
1 cup hot milk (whole)
Melt the butter and add the flour. Stir these ingredients until they are smooth, then add the seasoning and gradually the hot milk. Use a wire whisk to stir the sauce and boil it for two minutes. This will make a thin sauce. For a heavier sauce, increase the flour to 2 or 3 tablespoons and use an equal amount of butter. Cream may be substituted for milk. Nutmeg and lemon juice may be added for flavour.
* NOTE: When I've made creamed cabbage I've just used straight cream or a 50:50 cream and sour cream combo for the cream sauce, with a tsp each of dijon mustard and horseradish for flavour. I don't think it's an exact science, as long as the cabbage is baked in some sort of rich creamy sauce.