You know the feeling. You start doing something and you find yourself going off of a totally different tangent that leads into different but fascinating territory. This week I was looking for a favorite recipe (flourless chocolate cake) that my mother used to make and found myself looking at an old cookery book that has been in the family for generations. Now I’m not really a cook, Ellie being the one who inherited that creative ability, but I like to eat and am fascinated by unusual dishes of the past and this old book took me on quite a journey.
Cookery For Every Household by Florence B Jack was published in the UK in 1914 just before WWI completely changed the world. It is a reflection of the previous Victorian and Edwardian way of life, where many people still had maids and cooks to do a lot of the domestic duties. Some of the elaborate recipes are heavily influenced by French cuisine and reflect the old style of entertaining of the wealthy. Our copy at same stage lost its original cover and was rebound in red. The book has over 3,000 recipes and is quite a tome. The book is full of line drawings to illustrate the recipes and as well as basic cooking, there are some culinary dishes that seem quite strange by todays standards.
It is also amazing that cooks could produce such complicated cuisine with gas rings, simple stoves and equipment.
Here are some illustrations of the latest technology of the time: The electric stove.
I had to laugh at the mention of low electricity rates. Some things were better back in the early 20th century.
Ingenious contraptions were designed to make cooking easier. The Hutchings’ Patent Cooker was a tall steamer which could hold an entire meal to be cooked all at the same time. Imagine having this towering on your stove. I suppose it was the microwave or Thermomix of its day. Great for the busy housewife.
In complete contrast, the basic meat safe was still in use for storing perishables. This hanging example was very common in Australia to stop ants and other creepy crawlies from getting at the leg of lamb for the Sunday roast.
Improvisation was encouraged if you did not have the right equipment. If you did not have one of these for straining soup.
You could do this.
The book contains recipes based on ingredients that are no longer common in modern books. Take for example Fried Smelts. It made me wonder about the smell. Apparently it is a small fish, which smells like a cut cucumber and should be eaten as soon as possible. Yeah it probably smelt if left too long.
Another unusual dish is Salsifis. These are a root vegetable similar to a parsnip and are either black or white. Taste wise these resemble asparagus. In America they are called Oyster plant because they were thought to taste similar. The drawing of the dish shows that the pureed salsifis were placed in scallop shells to look like seafood complete with lemon segment bow ties.
I noticed that many of the recipes followed a similar line. No food should look like its original form. For instance Stuffed and Baked Cod resembles a pair of eyes. I don’t think that this is any better than having a fish on your plate looking at you. Quite odd.
Vegetables were presented so that there was no sign of any leaf. With Dressed Spinach the cooked leaves were put through a sieve, then butter and seasoning was added and the dish was decorated with triangular croutons of fried bread and segments of hardboiled egg. Anyone who had an aversion to spinach would never know that this plant was on the plate. Maybe not such a bad idea after all.
There seem to be a lot of recipes where the food is dressed. Dressed Crab is another example. It involved the complete dissection of the crab then a mixture of the flesh and mayonnaise was put back into the shell with some claws on top to remind the diners that they were eating what was once a crab. No struggling with a naked crab.
Prawns (shrimp) got a similar treatment. In the Prawn Salad it looks like the two garnishes are dancing in a sea of prawn flesh, lettuce and sliced radishes, a reminder of their origin.
Meat dishes also seemed to disguise the form of the original animal. The traditional Game Pie with its raised pastry case contains a variety of bird meat. The illustrated example is decorated with the feet of birds in the top hole that seems to be saying “let me out of here.” Not very appetizing.
There seemed to be an obsession with molding things into cylinders or cones so that they became architectural structures like the following example.
In those days cooking leftovers was a whole art form in itself. These dishes were not merely an afterthought. Here are a couple of extraordinary recipes.
Proper table linen was as elaborate as the food. There were a myriad of ways to fold napkins. Although the bishop’s Mitre seems a bit sober for a jolly night of feasting. Maybe that was the intention to avoid excess.
To me it is the elaborately decorated desserts of this period that are incredible and make my mouth water. You may not have lived in a castle but you could eat a Castle Pudding (I think it must be a smear of pudding on the page).
Nothing defines the period like Jellies. Great wobbly mountains of Jelly. The following recipe for Coffee Jelly could still be made today and would certainly liven up a party.
The name of this dessert says it all. Tipsy Cake is an elaborate form of the classic Trifle. Layers of sponge cake, custard, strawberry or raspberry jam doused with a cup of sherry and decorated with cream and toasted almonds. Yum.
For those with delusions of grandeur there is always the Princess Cake with it’s pink royal icing.
Invalid cookery is where things take a down turn. No wonderful desserts if you were sick. It was a drab world of steamed food, soup and broth. The following advice in the book tells the sorry tale.
Many of the more elaborate recipes found in this book are the type that nowadays would be made by chefs and are not the sort of food you would have everyday, although there are hundreds for normal meals for the ordinary housewife to feed her family.
I think that old cookery books from the past can still inspire and provide useful information for those interested in creative culinary skills. They also tell a story of the lives of our ancestors and the kind of society in which they lived. You often learn something new when you get distracted.