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Shelf Love: The White House Cookbook

Some time ago, on one of my forays through Vancouver’s used book stores, I happened upon a stack of noticeably old cookbooks, so old it was difficult to make out the words on the binding. The big white book at the very bottom of the pile was calling to me. The shopkeep kindly climbed her stepladder to retrieve it and a few others from her top shelf, and I sat down to have a look see.

WHCB CoverOld cookbooks are some of the very best reference books. Methods and ingredients are typically simple, basic, and locally sourced without a lot of fussiness. These recipes are just the thing I want when I’m feeling creative or when I’m trying a new technique. Pioneers, settlers, and pre-industrial cooks did most things from scratch, and recipes had to be reliable. It must have been such a gas to work on a cookbook back when there weren’t a lot of them around, back when books were precious and kept and handed down.

When I finally got that book in my hands and realized what it was, I was struck by an urgency to possess it for my collection. The cover is worn so that only a mild impression of the cover art remains, and the binding is a little shaky, but has so far lasted beyond a century. The pages have a feel unlike modern books and are fragile due to their age. Some pages have stains and marks, and sadly one or two pages are gone (easily replaced by a photocopy, though). The binding reads “WhiteHouse Cook Book , New And Enlarged Edition, Illustrated” hinting that this is not the first printing. However, there is no publication data, no copyright page. Perhaps it fell out. I have 590 numbered pages, expecting that a couple are missing from the index at the back, since it ends at Macaroni, timbale of. I confess that despite its condition, holding in my hands a piece of history makes me giddy.

The book is dedicated “To the wives of our presidents, those noble women who have graced the White House, and whose names and memories are dear to all Americans.” Illustrations, though few, are a delight. In addition to a couple of photos of food preparation, there are plates illustrating meat carving and butchering, as well as the famous rooms (and women) of the White House.


Chapters cover a wide range of subjects essential for running one’s home at the turn of the century. In addition to a section devoted entirely to 10 types of “Catsups” (that’s ketchup to some folks) as well as a “Confectionery” chapter for all your pre-industrial candy-making needs, there is a wealth of information about cooking for the sick, dying your own fabrics, making household cleaning products and toiletries, and a whole 5 pages describing 20 ways to make toast (including a recipe that looks very similar to French Toast, but is patriotically titled “American Toast”).

The chapter entitled “Health Suggestions” offers a remedy or preventative for everything from earaches and chillbains to lockjaw and cholera, including a helpful chart showing “Time of Digestion” for a variety of foods. In “Miscellaneous Recipes,” you can learn to make your own glue, wallpaper paste, and soap. Plus, there are instructions for making “Incombustible Dresses” with the warning “Remember this and save the lives of your children.” Also, among the “Facts Worth Knowing” are tips for keeping ants out of your sugar, destroying cockroaches, and banishing rats, as well as how to clean and care for darn near everything a household could need.

The Publisher’s Preface clearly states that this book “more fully represents the progress and present perfection of the culinary art than any previous work.” Contributor Mr. Hugo Ziemann comes with an exciting work history, having once catered for Prince Napoleon (who was killed during a war with the Zulus of Africa), not to mention his hotel experience in Paris, New York, and Chicago. Mrs. Fanny Lemira Gillette’s credentials aren’t so exotic, though it is written she was “no less proficient and capable, having made a lifelong and thorough study of cookery and housekeeping.” (iii) If the name Gillette sounds familiar, that is no mistake. Her son King invented the safety razor and helped introduce Americans to the “disposable” lifestyle before losing his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.*

A single post really isn’t enough to do this cookbook justice, so I’ll save some commentary and share some interesting tidbits in future posts. If you’re interested, you can look through the entire book online via Google Books.

* NNDB: King Camp Gillette


Shelf Love: Shoyu Wanna Cook?

I was on my way back from the local Sally Ann with a couple of new old things when I happened upon a little shop called Canterbury Tales Bookstore. I paused and looked into the window. Rows of lovely old books. Had to go in.

Shoyu Wanna Cook? Won Ton of Recipes

Shoyu Wanna Cook? Won Ton of Recipes

I made a beeline for the cookbook section and started scanning the shelves for anything interesting. I made off with a grand old picture cookbook by the publishers of Life, with the most incredible photographs inside . . . but I digress. I also happened upon a stack of spiral bound community cookbooks which yielded a very cool collection from the employees of Outrigger Hotels Hawaii. In additon to the “won ton” of recipes, employees also contributed the cover art and all of the illustrations. Neat! (I know, I’m such a nerd.)

I love Pacific Island food. All those incredible flavours in one forkful, delicious ingredients (macadamias, citrus fruits, pineapple, coconut), a bounty of seafood recipes, what more could be asked? Stir fry is my go-to dish when I’m starting to feel guilty about eating too much cheese and cream. And Pupu? I remember the first time I experienced a pupu platter. I was in a kitschy tiki-style restaurant in the middle of the Bible Belt drinking about 8 kinds of liquor out of a coconut monkey when our waiter came by and placed a flaming volcano plate on a lazy susan.  Our centerpiece was surrounded by meat skewered on sticks, golden crispy purses of cheesy crab, buttery shrimp toasts, teriyaki chicken wings, and of course egg rolls with dipping sauces for everything. Extravagant and indulgent, but so tasty.

Cookbook Illustration

Illustration p.51

Often, when I buy a new cookbook, there is one little thing that seals the deal. Sometimes it’s the layout or pretty pictures or the way the pages feel. Sometimes it’s the name of a recipe or the ingredients listed in the index. Aside from the play-on-words title and the cute illustrations, the deal-maker in this case was a brownie recipe written in dialectical Hawaiian.

Brah, dis tita’s brownies so ono dey brok da mout. Da Ultimat Brownies (‘dis is food, not wicked Hawaiian Wahines) says the recipe title, and it’s suggested that you stir the batter “until it’s smooth as the sound of ukulele’s strummin” which is pretty smooth. According to the recipe, it makes 3 dozen brownies “enough for 36 keikis, 22 aunties, 10 titas, or 1 moke.” That’s a lot of brownies for one moke.

Why This Cookbook Is Delicious:

  • It has a unique personality and a sense of humour.
  • The recipes are for yummy food that real people feed their families and friends.
  • They have recipes for homemade cat food! Show your kitty some love.
  • There’s a glossary! Butteryaki = Japanese for “grilling or broiling in butter.” Yum.

Shelf Love: The Pocket Cook Book

I found this little treasure in the “free books” box outside a local used bookstore. It’s a paperback Pocket Book first published in 1942. My copy is a 10th printing from 1945. The back cover boasts 1300 recipes in “a complete and completely reliable cook book for a very little money” and highlights “sugar-sparing ideas” to address the wartime sugar-rationing situation. In some areas, sugar continued to be rationed up to 1947, two years after the end of the war. Could you imagine what would happen in North America today if we suddenly had to ration sugar? People would be stockpiling Oreos and soda pop like there was no tomorrow.

During WWII, the government determined certain food costs and ration books were issued for each family member. The homemaker had to plan meals around the total pool of ration stamps for her family. Rationed supplies included beef, sugar, cheese, butter, coffee, raisins, prunes, liquor, and non-food items such as shoes, tires, bicycles, and even typewriters, among other things. Families were encouraged to plant “victory gardens” to supply their own fruits, vegetables, and herbs while the nation concentrated on feeding its troops. The Victory Cookbook, published in the US, is typical of the effort to teach wartime homemakers to stretch their meals, make substitutions, reduce wastefulness, and economize as much as possible.

Because less perishible items (solid cuts of meat, hard cheeses, etc.) were preferred for shipping to troops worldwide, civilians were encouraged to use the more perishible foods (such as organ meats) for home cooking. The Pocket Cook Book ensures that liver is “a prize package of minerals and of all the vitamins” and suggests it be served at least once a week. There are less than a dozen liver recipes in the book, along with a handful more for delicacies such as sweetbreads, kidneys, tripe, and so forth. However, whole chapters are devoted to candies, cookies, cakes, and desserts. I know what I’d spend my ration stamps on.

This little book is chock full of useful tidbits. Chapter 6 “Hints for Successful Cake Baking” has the same kind of advice I’ve heard time and again from skilled bakers like Martha Stewart and Alton Brown and the Cook’s Illustrated folks. There’s even a chapter on leftovers (something few cookbooks talk about these days) that lists specific recipes to help you use up leftover turkey, bread, veggies, and even those extra egg whites.

Chapter 9 is handy for “those dark moments when the kitchen cash box is almost empty and inspiration for appetizing economy dishes seems to have fled forever” offering a recipe list to help your “food-buying pennies stretch further than ever they stretched before.” Wouldn’t it be nice to go to the grocery store and be able to pay for something with pennies?

One of numerous budget-friendly dishes, the “Thrift Special” recipe actually sounds rather tasty and adoreable. Little nests of mashed potatoes are baked in a hot oven until browned, then filled with a creamy cheese sauce containing chopped ham, diced cooked carrots, and cooked peas. How sweet is that? I also stumbled upon a recipe called Eggs-In-A-Frame which is the twin sister for my own Egg in a Basket. And of course there are a few recipes using the humble hot dog, one disgused as Luncheon Salad combining potato balls, carrot balls, sliced weenies, and a combo of French Dressing and mayo, served on a bed of chicory. Why specifically chicory, I don’t know, and I’m not sure how one balls a carrot, either. Of course, if this recipe fails, there’s always the Vienna Sausage Shortcake. The very idea gives me heartburn.

There isn’t anything terribly exotic about the book’s contents, and many of the recipes are quite traditional (Steamed Brown Bread, Refrigerator Rolls, Divinity Fudge). I think what I like about the recipes most is their utter simplicity. Many require only a few ingredients and not a lot of fuss, and there is plenty of room for tweaking flavours and textures. What’s more, the book is refreshing and inspiring, despite being nearly 65 years old. And there aren’t even any pictures! Everything old seems new again. Cheese Fondue wasn’t invented in the ’70s, and Martha Stewart wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of baking her bacon. I think I’m going to have fun with this cookbook.

Shelf Love: The Chatelaine Cookbook

I found this authentically Canadian cookbook at a thrift store and quickly recognized it as essential to my collection. Coming from a long line of farmers and mountain folk, I’m always on the lookout for cookbooks that hint at ol’ timey handed-down colonial style cooking . . . just in case the power goes out and I happen to have a spare hog’s head lying around. At least I can put dinner on the table.

A woman’s home is her castle. The history of Chatelaine begins in the late 1920’s, when Maclean’s magazine advertised a contest to name a new Canadian women’s magazine. Hilda Pain of British Columbia took the $1000 prize for “The Chatelaine, conjuring the image of a woman as the mistress of her castle with keys to every room of the household.”

Since then, Chatelaine (published in English and French) has delivered a wealth of articles relevant to the modern housewife, covering topics from politics (1929: “Now that women are considered persons, what’s next?”) and relationships (1932: “Why I let my wife spoil me”) to fashion (1943: “If you must wear pants, here’s how”) and food (1971: “Make a Christmas meat house with cold cuts”). The magazine is still popular, so I suppose their advice has proven sound through the decades.

The Chatelaine Cookbook was first published in 1965 (my copy is a 1969 4th printing) and collects hundreds of recipes between its covers, some provided by readers via the annual Family Favorites Recipe Contests. They encourage “creative cooking” that is a feast for the eye and warms the soul. They consider the book an “exciting reflection of what Canadians like to eat and serve from coast to coast.” I wonder which desperate Canadian homemaker came up with the budget-friendly Quick & Easy recipe for:

Corn and Weiner Casserole

Mexican style canned corn is simmered until dessicated, then chopped onion may or may not be added. Sprinkle liberally with 1/2 pound of boneless skinless weiners, sliced, and smother with one can of cream of celery soup. Spread this mess in a casserole dish, apply a thick coating of prepared instant mashed potatoes, and brush with French dressing (maybe that’s what makes it Canadian). Bake at 350° for 30 minutes, then feed it to the dog and call the vet.

Oh how I wish there was a picture of this recipe, fittingly garnished and surrounded by admiring tchotchkes. I may have to try it, just so I can photograph the monstrosity. Maybe it would be nice garnished with sauerkraut.

As horrific as the above recipe may be, there are many others interesting enough in name or ingredient to offset the smattering of potential disasters. I so want to serve a dish named “Father Fainted” at my next holiday gathering. I think he fainted because there is no meat in it, though the recipe does note that it “makes an interesting companion for fried ham.” And for dessert, how about a platter of Soupirs De Nonne (Nun’s Sighs). Deep fried balls of puff pastry drizzled with maple syrup . . . sighs of happiness, I’m sure.

It’s a fairly comprehensive cookbook covering the usual categories, but with pleasant extras, such as the chapters on Freezing & Preserving, International Cooking, and Entertaining. There’s a decent index, and a useful though poorly presented section of tables and charts. You’ll also get some insight into the preparation of game and wild fowl as well as those mysterious “variety meats” otherwise known as vital organs. If you happen to be a good hunter, a wife armed with this cookbook will be excited when  you drag home ingredients for Smothered Moose Steak, Hasenpfeffer, or Pot Roast of Bear. Ginger Man has never fired a gun, but he can still literally bring home the bacon, so perhaps I’ll have more luck with some plain ol’ chicken, beef, or pork recipes.

Of particular interest is Chapter 18: Canadiana. What exactly do Canadians eat? ‘Tis a question that has plagued me since I first was introduced to poutine. I can’t say that the chapter defines Canadain Cuisine per se, but like Virginia Hospitality, it provides a window into the world of colonial pre-industrial cooking. The introduction describes “resourcefulness and ingenuity with meagre rations” illustrated by the “seventeenth-century bonne femme of New France and her midwinter experiments with a bag of dried whole peas and a scraped bone.” Thank you, Lord, for Safeway, local produce, and my local butcher shoppe: Market Meats.

The famous French Canadian dish Pate De Noel involves “layers of turkey, chicken, pork, mushrooms, etc., held firm in savory jelly, and completely enclosed in richly glazed pastry.” Is it possible to have angina and claustrophobia at the same time? My biggest fear is being held firm in savory jelly. Of course, someday I may need to make Potted Steak, Fromage De Tete, or Old-Time Rabbit Pie . . . let us hope that day is far, far away. Perhaps some Crispy Fried Cod Tongues, a delicacy beloved by Newfoundlanders that tastes just like scallops, so they say. According to the notations, “A small root section protrudes from the thick end [of the tongue] and cooks to a soft fat consistency. Remove this before cooking if you wish. Devotees, however, would consider this a sacrilege.” Father, forgive me. Perhaps we should move on to the Salt Pork & Maple Sugar pie.

Authentic pioneer recipes for Johnny Cakes, Gooseberry Fool, Saskatoon Berry Pie, Blueberry Grunt, Buckwheat Pancakes, and real Sourdough Bread have been updated for a modern cook. Interesting information is also given about collecting and cooking dandelion greens and fiddleheads (baby ferns), which now would grace the plates in many a gourmet restaurant. By far, the most charming recipe is for Snow Muffins, which actually use 1/2 cup of clean white snow in the batter (remember, yellow snow is best avoided). Of course, if you are really hard pressed and need something to stave off famine, try the recipe for Pemmican (dried raw venison pounded into a powder, mixed with saskatoon berries and suet, and pressed into a delicious cake that promises to “keep indefinitely if perfectly dry”).

I love this strange little cookbook, and I plan to make a few things from it. Although there is a recipe for Oven French Fries, there is no mention of “poutine” which I consider to be a truly Canadian dish. I suppose it took a few decades to figure out what to do with those cheese curds and gravy. I admit, the name turned me off initially, and I wasn’t to interested in trying “curds” of anything let alone if they were swimming in gravy. That’s what got Miss Muffet in trouble.

My how misinformed I was. It’s a freakin’ delicious combination! Rich brown gravy, crispy salty shoestring potatoes, and bits of melty cheesey globs. Heart stopping satisfaction. Try it, you’ll see.

Shelf Love: Virginia Hospitality

Shortly after I moved to California, I found a used bookstore that soon became one of my favourite places to browse. I love libraries and bookstores, and I’m always on the lookout for those community cookbooks from church groups or other organizations because they have such a wide variety of interesting home cookin’ recipes, the kind of food you’d find at bake sales and potluck suppers.

One day, during a time when I had been feeling especially homesick, I went browsing in the cookbook section and something very familiar caught my eye. Virginia Hospitality was one of my Sissy’s favourite cookbooks (from the Junior League of Hampton Roads) and it was guaranteed to have some good old fashioned recipes in it. I happily took it home for $6.

Virginia, being one of the original 13 colonies, has a very long history of hospitality equated with food. Some of the recipes come from historic inns and well-known restaurants, and throughout the cookbook are lovely illustrations of some of these locations. Little blurbs about Virginia history and interesting recipe trivia appear here and there. Beneath the hush puppies recipe, it reads, “Hunters sitting around camp fires many years ago were said to have quieted their dogs by throwing them leftover bits of corn patties with the command, ‘Hush, puppies!’ Today they are a must served with fresh fish.” If you’ve never been to a real country fish fry, I pity you. Catfish and hush puppies are da bomb.

Virginia has access to some delicious seafood (crab, clams, oysters, fish, and shrimp) and we love our spirits, so I can assure you the Beverages and Seafood sections are full of promise. Virginia’s Smithfield ham is world renowned (I’ve never tasted better) and there are recipes for quail, pheasant, turkey, rabbit, and venison as well. Imagine the abundance of game in colonial times!

At the end of each section is a list of kitchen tips, quick side dishes, or nice little things to have on hand to offer guests. Part of being a Southern woman is being a good hostess, and whether you live in a trailer park or up in “the big house,” when company comes by, it’s nice to be able to provide a little refreshment while everybody visits, even if it’s just a big hug and a tall glass of sweet iced tea.

The recipes vary from the pretty damn old (Peach Preserves) to the rather modern (Gazpacho) to the strange but intriguing (Centennial Cheddar Cheesecake). I have yet to try the Cream of Peanut Soup, but who knows. I can, however, verify that the biscuit recipe is darn near foolproof, and the chocolate crinkle cookie is delicious. This book is where I learned to make a mint julep, cheese rarebit (Virginia Rabbit), crabcakes, and Sally Lunn. Now that I’m a bit more confident in the kitchen, I reckon it’s about time to try a few new things when I feel like having a taste of home.

You can still find old (and new) versions of this cookbook for sale, so keep an eye out.

Shelf Love: The Best Recipe

I’ve been using this cookbook a lot lately, and I love it. The best thing I can do for my cooking is be informed, and the editors at Cooks Illustrated provide plenty of insight and information to boost my chances of success. These are the same people who bring you the PBS show America’s Test Kitchen with Christopher Kimball (the guy with the bow tie).

The best thing about this book? They try everything, so I don’t have to. They test and tweak various aspects of each recipe, from ingredients to techniques until the perfect result falls somewhere between science and taste. In my edition, there are only 700 recipes, but it contains a wealth of useful information. Understanding why a recipe fails is essential for future success, and the writing is straight-forward and easy to follow. If you like the Cooks Illustrated magazine, you’ll dig this book.

There aren’t any glossy photos, but there are some excellent illustrations for the how-to sections that accompany some recipes (Cuttng Up A Chicken, p. 145). You’ll also find plenty of information about ingredients (e.g. maple syrup, canned tuna, limes, cinnamon) and additional sections about kitchen tools or techniques (e.g. food processors, waffle irons, grilling, brining) as well as the science behind success (Why Commercial Baking Powder Doesn’t Work in Waffles, p. 399).

There’s a new expanded edition availalable! I’m tempted to purchase it myself.

The Best Things:

  • All the information! This book is a wonderful thing to read, and I’ve learned to more successfully tweak recipes to suit my own tastes.
  • Variations on basic Master Recipes. The basic muffin recipe (which is yummy on its own) comes with 7 delicious and inspirational variations.
  • Reliability! Their recipes have not failed me yet. If they say it’s going to be sweet or crisp or juicy or spicy, you can lay money on the results.

My only complaint:

  • The index is skimpy, considering all the information between the covers. This seems to be the case with many cookbooks, though.

Shelf Love: The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook

I love my cookbooks, and because they are usually expensive things, I don’t buy many of them new. This one was an exception. As soon as I found out it was available, I decided to splurge. It cost me $38 in 2000 (about as much as a good size bag of groceries).

I think the first thing I made was Pad Thai, of all things. At the time, I had barely brushed the surface of international cuisine. Growing up in the foothills of Appalachia means you’re a good three to five hour drive from any decent restaurants, and the likelihood of finding any authentic ethnic cuisine is limited to remote Mom & Pop pizzerias run by people in witness protection. Moving to California expanded my taste experiences exponentially.

The best recipe I’ve tried has to be Martha’s Carrot-Ginger Layer Cake. It is utterly devoid of those annoying little rasins and frosted with a yummy Orange Cream-Cheese Frosting. I recall it being light, springy, moist, and tasty. This book is also responsible for my first successful attempts at pesto, chocolate ganache, chocolate lava cakes (they were awesome), and homemade turkey stock for gravy.

Martha inspires me to try complex recipes, and sometimes things work out pretty well. More than a few times, however, I’ve been frustrated by exotic ingredients or recipes that are dependent upon appliances that I don’t own (like a food processor or an ice cream maker or a blender–what can I say? I’m po’ and have a small kitchen). Occasionally, I’ll try a recipe that really just doesn’t work out well (like the pizza dough or risotto), but that could be my fault.

Take a look inside the Martha Stewart Living Cookbook at Amazon.com. The original edition boasts 1,200 recipes. You’ll get lots of mileage out of this cookbook.

A Few Good Things:

  • There are some excellent recipes for making your own spice mixes, marinades, dressings, sauces, jams, granola, and more. That’s very budget friendly.
  • Here and there, you’ll find handy tips or recipe variations in grey boxes. Those have always proven useful.
  • It covers the basics (homemade stock, pie crust, roast bird, meat loaf, etc.) as well as touring the exotic (bouilabaisse, paella, crumpets, pho).
  • I’ve explored a lot of new vegetable and fruit territory because of this cookbook.

Weak Points:

  • Some recipes require special equipment, and alternative instructions aren’t usually given. So, if you don’t know how to knead dough without a machine, you’re SOL.
  • Some recipes require tiny amounts of unusual ingredients you may never use again if you are even able to find them.
  • There aren’t a lot of pictures, but the few located in the front are gorgeous. It’s definitely not for the look & cook chef.