DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Mar 7 2012

Concocting the Past

by Dea Anne M

Maybe it was inevitable, but our sometimes food-obsessed culture combined with a growing interest in genealogy might be leading to a new-found passion for recreating “lost” family recipes. That, anyway, is the contention of this recent WSJ article.

Mentioned in the article is Ruth Clark’s fun blog The Mid-Century Menu. Clark’s intent is to select what are admittedly bizarre recipes from circa 1950’s and 60’s cookbooks and test them out. The names alone of some of the recipes (Ham Banana Casserole and Jellied Stuffed Eggs are two) are enough to cause shivers while other dishes sound and look surprisingly tasty.  The images of Clark’s husband Tom tasting, and reacting, to these experiments are a special highlight.

Sometimes recipe recreation requires the equipment of years past. Also mentioned in the WSJ article,  Laura’s Last Ditch will help in the search for the tool of your dreams (or memories). From vintage ice-trays (what?) to donut cutters to manual cherry pitters Laura has what you’re looking for.

Do you have a beloved family recipe that you want to recreate? While contemplating the question, you might want to check out these offerings from DCPL. Any one of them might inspire you…or at least allow you to indulge in a little nostalgia.

Some best loved recipes come from community cookbooks. These are local collections of recipes, often bound with a plastic “tooth” spine, offered for sale by garden clubs, women’s clubs, and the like. I especially love these cookbooks when they feature stories about local families and individuals. Southern Foodways Alliance community cookbook by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge and America’s Best Loved Community Recipes from the Editors of Better Homes and Gardens magazine are two collections that provide great stories along with interesting recipes.

Many of us crave the tastes of our childhood and that childhood is often tied to a particular region or ethnic heritage. One of my favorite books that explores taste and memory is The Taste of Country Cooking. Written by the late great Edna Lewis, this book is a  beautifully written memoir that evokes Lewis’s childhood spent in Freetown, Virginia, a small piedmont farming community. Lewis, who has sometimes been called “the South’s answer to Julia Child,” provides a treasure chest of recipes, all tied to the seasons. I loved reading about the special menus her family prepared for such events as Wheat-Threshing Day and Emancipation Day. Highly recommended! Some other memoir/cookbooks that you might enjoy include Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood by Ken Hom, You’re Cookin’ It Country: my favorite recipes and memories by Loretta Lynn, and The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber.

Finally, if you want to take a real trip in the time machine, check out Square Meals: a cookbook by Jane and Michael Stern and Fashionable Food: seven decades of food fads by Sylvia Lovegren. Each chapter in the Sterns’ book features a theme like the World War II era (victory garden vegetable plate suppers and spam recipes among others) or the cooking of Suburbia (1950’s). The writing highlights the Sterns’ trademark witty and tongue-in-cheek style as well as their genuine love for Americana in all its kitschy glory. Lovegren’s book is more of a true culinary history spanning the decades from the 1920’s through the 1990’s and concerns itself with food fads more than it does with what actual people were regularly cooking at home and includes such new-to-me things as the Depression era toast supper and the marshmallow craze of the 20’s. Both of these books make fun reading, and you actually might come across a recipe that you want to try. By the way, pictured to the right is a molded gelatin salad which features what seems to be a mixture of peas, corn, and maybe carrots. That’s not my kind of thing, but who knows, maybe someone, in some kitchen somewhere, is recreating it right now as a beloved flavor from the past.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura's Last Ditch--Vintage Kitchenwares March 8, 2012 at 7:31 PM

It gave me a little smile to see I was featured on a library blog! I love my local library here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and owe my cooking prowess to all the cookbooks I checked out from the Michigan State University library when I was a student. Thanks for the feature!

RetroRuth March 20, 2012 at 5:12 PM

Hello! Thanks so much for the great mention and generous words of praise! I am so glad you enjoy the blog and the pictures of Tom testing out the recipes. I have to admit that the pictures of Tom are really my favorite part of the blog. :)

Those are some awesome book selections! I just wanted to add my two cents in and say that Jane and Michael Stern write fantastic books for vintage foodies, and Square Meals is one of my favorites!

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