Home Economics

It’s a new year, and one has to confront reality, unpleasant as it may be. I keep seeing a meme on Facebook: “Who knew that the hardest part of being an adult is figuring out what to cook every night for supper for the rest of your life until you die.” Now, I happen to think some adult things are much harder—finishing books, for one. But I confess I have mostly lost interest in cooking.

When I began to write “for real,” some adjustments were made. I was still working, and woke up between 4 and 5 to get some words in before I left the house. I wrote when I got home, too, so I stopped watching TV. I’ve never seen an episode of Law and Order or Bones or Murder, She Wrote, which might have been helpful in the grand scheme of things.

Inspired after watching the Food Network for years, my husband decided he’d free up even more time for me. He’d earned money in college working at a pizza place, so he wasn’t a total kitchen virgin. His meatballs and chili were already legendary, but his repertoire expanded significantly. As I sat staring at a blank computer screen, he whipped up all sorts of deliciously edible things, occasionally shouting “Bam!” as he went along.

I did have one cooking caveat, though—the holidays were mine. I would juggle the turkey and the ham, stir the gravy, mash the potatoes. Make the gluten-free and gluten-full stuffing. But something happened this Thanksgiving. Everything was under control, until it wasn’t. I blame the baked sweet potatoes (which nobody asked for anyway) that were rock-hard despite spending time both in the microwave and the oven.

A bunch of people were standing around the kitchen talking and drinking and laughing and I wanted to hit them with frying pans. Those poor people—some of my most beloved family members—had offered to help, but I’d been too stubborn to let them. They were having fun. And I was not.

I was hot. I was tired. I’d been on my feet too long. I threw everyone out of the room except my oldest daughter and her delightful husband, a former pub owner, who drains heavy pots, carves, and consults with me over questionably cooked meat. My husband was too afraid to enter, which showed great perspicacity.

Everything was delicious (except for the sweet potatoes, which got another ride in the microwave the next day), but I realized I would have been just as happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Which made me think about the research I’ve done writing 1920s-era cozy mysteries. One always wants to add the appropriate historical flavor (pun intended), so I’ve looked at old menus and vintage cookbooks to see what my characters might have been eating if they were actually alive. (See below. I think someone does not understand the word “simple,” though.)

It turns out that the 1920s were a veritable golden age of food discoveries and advances. They’d finally got rid of the lead solder in cans, so tinned goods were more popular than ever (and didn’t poison you). Jello was everywhere and jiggled everything within from fruit to vegetables to cheese. Kitchens now had electricity, which meant refrigerators instead of iceboxes. Foods could be kept longer, or even frozen.

Enter Clarence Birdseye. During a hunting trip to Canada, he observed Inuits flash freezing their catch, and in 1922 offered his own frozen fish to the masses. His methods must have worked, since in he sold his company and patents for $22 million dollars in 1929! That’s a lot of ice.

Wonderbread is now 100 years old, although it wasn’t sold sliced for a while. In order for me to make that Thanksgiving PB & J sandwich, I’d have to wait until near the end of the decade though—Peter Pan Peanut Butter came into being in 1928, even if Welch’s Grape Jelly debuted in 1923.

Other familiar brands of the decade were Popsicles (1924), Hostess Cakes (1927), and Kool-Aid (1927). The Easter Bunny wouldn’t be hopping without Cadbury’s Crème Eggs (1923).  Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Charleston Chews, Baby Ruths, Milk Duds, and Butterfingers all found their way into candy stores, much to dentists’ delight. (My advice: life is short. Indulge that sweet tooth and eat dessert first. Get dental insurance.)

I’m hanging up my holiday apron. At our Christmas celebration, we did a potluck-ish thing. There was less stress, less mess, and the urge for frying pans was minimal. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions since I so rarely follow through. But I’m contemplating returning to the battlefield every now and then, where I once made homemade jam, cakes from scratch, and a mean meatloaf. I canned, I pickled, I blanched, I froze—heck, I was a veritable Fannie Farmer in my salad days. It’s time to give my husband a break and find out how to set the kitchen timer.

Here are some sample dinner party menus from Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service, published in 1924. Which would you serve? I love the fact they all have multiple desserts, but it’s a safe bet I’m not doing the jellied tongue. Maybe I’ll pick Chicken a la King and Charleston around the kitchen!

#1

Hot or Jellied Consomme, Bread Sticks

Chicken a la King

Cream Cheese Sandwiches, Brown Bread Sandwiches

Olives, Salted Nuts, Candied Ginger

Nuts and Date Salad Mayonnaise

Strawberry Bavarian Cream, Little Pound Cakes, Russian Wafers

Coffee

#2

Chicken Broth, Whipped Cream Rolls

Crabmeat Croquettes, Peas, Brown Bread-and-Butter Sandwiches

Jellied Tomato and Pimiento Salad, Olives, Celery Hearts

Nesselrode Pudding, Macaroons

Coffee

#3

Fruit Cocktail or Strawberries in Halves of Melons

Jellied Tongue, Harlequin Salad

Buttered Baking-Powder Biscuits

Olives, Salted Nuts

Biscuit Tortoni, Angel Cake Squares, Bonbons

Iced Coffee

Bon appetit!

 

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16 Responses to Home Economics

  1. Ooh! Crabmeat croquettes for me! And macaroons, too. Fun post, Maggie – thanks!

  2. jselbo says:

    I will admire the jellied dishes – not easy to make. But enjoy from afar (consistency of jelly is a horror to me) and go straight for the buttered biscuits and the Russian Wafers. Chicken a la King was a family staple on Wednesday nights, my mom was not a great cook but she used Campbell’s Mushroom Soup for the “a la King” creaminess and it was edible. Love all the looking back.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      I used to live near a cute general store that made chicken a la king for take-out regularly. On home-made biscuits. Gosh, I’m hungry now.

  3. kaitcarson says:

    I’m wondering why main dish AND sandwich – or is it either or? It’s been so long since I’ve had a cream cheese sandwich (on date nut bread – do they even make that anymore) that I’m craving one now.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      I have ordered date nut bread from the Vermont Country Store, and it’s pretty good–nothing will ever top what the date nut/cream cheese sandwiches they used to sell at Chock Full O’ Nuts stores in NYC, tho.

  4. susanvaughan says:

    I’d go for the crabmeat croquettes. But what, pray tell, are whipped cream rolls?

  5. What fun, Maggie. I may give up cooking because my oven is dying and everything I cook is awful. But so is takeout. Such a first world dilemma. If I ate as much food as is on these menus, I’d be an elephant. Fun to imagine. I definitely grew up in the jello era. It seemed to appear on all occasions. A few years ago, I decided to make my mother’s chopped cabbage, pineapple, and jello salad. Turns out, if you use fresh pineapple, the jello won’t set. Rather than serve jello soup, I threw it out.

    Kate

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      There was a show (on PBS? BBC?) that had two people dress in vintage clothes and eat food typical of the various decades they featured. Course after course after course. I can’t even order an appetizer when I go to a restaurant because I won’t want to eat my entree! (And I’d never want to eat a jello salad, LOL)

  6. itslorrieswp says:

    I enjoyed this Maggie. Can you imagine making such complicated meals? So many of the items on the menus you shared are nasty in my opinion. Jellied stuff gives me the shudders. Always have loved “Cafeteria Jello” though, the more chopped celery and apples the better. When we lived near family we all shared with the cooking. The host house (rotated) prepared the main event and everyone else brought sides. Everybody brought what they were best at making. So much nicer and more relaxed. I hope that you enjoy the holidays from now on.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      I’m really lucky that my three daughters usually take over my kitchen when we get together during the year. Pretty soon, the granddaughters will step in!

  7. Deb Noone says:

    I’ve tasted your hubby’s cooking – I’ll be right over 🙂 These days, we always do the “potluck” holiday dinners. I used to host. Now my son does. Which means I don’t have to clean up afterwards and don’t have to cook the turkey or roast, depending on holiday. We all bring various things. So much easier. And we all get to bring home leftovers. I do still end up cooking for several days prior, but not full-time, all-day cooking. But I can totally relate, it is hard to give up “the control.” This blog reminds me of a paper I did in college for my women’s studies course – using old magazines as my primary resources. YUP, cooking has changed a bit since then. Anything with crabmeat in it sounds good to me. NO pimento!!!!

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      Enchiladas, right? But I think he’s getting sick of cooking too! I love looking at old ads. When I threw a “retro” bridal shower for Abby (everyone wore aprons, red lipstick & white gloves, LOL), I copied a bunch and stuck them all over the house. Pretty eye-opening, I agree!

  8. Bavarian cream-a favorite childhood dessert. Honestly, we went super simple here this past year as I was completely exhausted at the end of term. We picked up our dinner for seven at our local club and simply reheated the next day according to the chef’s excellent instructions. It was pricey but worth every penny because we were still sane after the guests went home!

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