Every now and then, you’ll get a present which is incredibly well-suited to you that you didn’t even know existed previously. Such things are a rare treat; last year, I was given The Old-Time Brand-Name Cookbook: Recipes, Illustrations, and Advice from the Early Kitchens of America’s Most Trusted Food Makers. It’s a cookbook of nothing but retro recipes — and they’re all good! (Luckily, I know Buzz well enough to feel sure this wasn’t just his way of saying, “here’s a bunch of retro recipes that don’t involve jellied hot dogs, please make these.”)
My favorite part of the book was the introduction, a dozen pages describing the evolution of food, cooking, and kitchens throughout the last century. The combined forces of commercially processed food and evolving kitchen appliances (the refrigerator in particular) completely overhauled what people ate, and how meals were made. This change was also strongly correlated with the decrease of people with domestic servants (you don’t need to hire a cook to stick a TV dinner in the oven), and also an increase in options for women outside the home. And, corporate advertising began to aggressively convince the world that their products were vital to delicious, quick, and inexpensive meals for the family. There are certainly many books worth of material which could be explored, but Old-Time Brand-Name Cookbook does an excellent job of covering the topics without boring the amateur.
I also learned why gelatin dishes were so widespread, and incorporated into practically every course. We’ve all wondered what the hell could motivate someone to create Jellied Bouillon with Frankfurters — well, it was simply so they could brag about owning a refrigerator. You can’t solidify gelatin without refrigeration, and so you couldn’t serve Jellied Bouillon with Frankfurters unless you were above a certain income level. (For some of the more dubious recipes, it presumably also helped if you didn’t have any friends, because you certainly wouldn’t after you fed them THAT.) So people started jellying vegetables, meats, salads, cream, and pretty much everything in their kitchen.
All the recipes are “adapted”, often to remove brand names but in some cases to change the quantities of ingredients. The “Hungarian Gulasch (As Prepared by the Hungarian Shepherds)”, for example, calls for 1 tablespoon paprika (still fairly mild) rather than the skimpy 1/4 teaspoon of the original recipe. (The point is frequently made that early American tastebuds were not really able to handle spice at all.) Even with adjustment, you may not like a recipe; we found the Bread Pudding recipe to be somewhat lacking in pizazz, but that’s not really atypical for very basic bread pudding. Like any cookbook, you have to cook the recipes before you can really judge them.
For additional fun, the cookbook is illustrated with vintage images from recipe pamphlets throughout the ages. Occasionally this is a little odd, when a recipe for one salad is illustrated with an obviously very different salad; however, such discrepancies are rare distractions, and the vintage illustrations are mostly very entertaining. I have resolved to be on the lookout for recipe pamphlets in antique stores to get similar pictures for use on here 🙂
I would strongly recommend this for anyone interested in cooking, particularly if you have a fondness for ephemera or vintage cooking. It’s fascinating to see the evolution of America’s attitude towards and expectations from food; historical perspective with snacks included.