A Turn of the Century Cookbook: Our Home Cyclopedia

Laura Taxel shares recipes from the turn of the century cookbook Our Home Cyclopedia and a spin on variations from this cookbook and tips to modernize the recipes.
By Laura Taxel
June/July 2000
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Enjoy these turn of the century cookbook recipes from Our Home Cyclopedia.

In 1890, Etta Thayer came to Plymouth, Indiana, as Jim Thayer's new wife. She brought with her a copy of the newly published Our Home Cyclopedia to help her. More than a cookbook, it was an improved and scientific guide for the homemaker, the most up-to-date volume of its kind and an invaluable tool for family life. It was dedicated to housewives and promised to show them how to make their married lives a success.

The promise seemed reasonable, since those were the days when young ladies were taught that the road to marital bliss started with a man's full belly. Get a husband what he likes, the author admonished, and save a thousand household strikes. So young Etta must have sat in her northern Indiana kitchen thumbing through chapters entitled "Frogs," "Jumbles" and "Mush" to learn just how to please Jim Thayer. Advice, warnings and a compendium of rules accompanied the recipes, and it was understood that a wife's role was to create a perfectly civilized and civilizing haven for her family. The turn of the century cookbook Our Home Cyclopedia was intended to guide the lady of the house through every situation she might face. It advised homemakers to learn how to make desserts on short notice so as not be annoyed by unexpected company. It cautioned that cash customers get the best value from the butcher. And for everything there were detailed instructions: When arranging the dining room, the table should be covered with a colored cloth with fringe extending just over the edge; when handling servants, never, ever say thank you; and for husbands and children, proper table manners are a must. Good food, readers were told, generated good behavior:

It is impossible to feel polite and well-mannered over unpalatable, coarse, ill-prepared and indigestible food. Every mouthful of it provokes ill humor, resentment and dissatisfaction. The housewife who insists on good table manners must give her family good food. How can one be gentle, polite and sweet-tempered on a diet of sour bread, muddy coffee, soggy potatoes, heavy pie crust and leather batter cakes? If this book could be means of bringing into the household happiness, peace and contentment; if the husband hereafter sits at the table with a smiling and satisfied countenance and the wife feels less care and anxiety then its mission will have been accomplished.

The housewifely arts — if such a concept can even safely be mentioned these days — have changed a great deal over the past 100 years, and Our Home Cyclopedia gives us now, more than a century later, a feel for the lives of the women who lived by its dictums and followed its counsel. A good wife and mother was expected to spend her days preparing everything that made its way to the table. It was important to know how to make rhubarb wine, bottle gooseberry catsup, pickle walnuts, preserve eggs, whip up a syllabub, test lard for freshness and cure butter. The Cyclopedia urged women to avoid new-fangled commercial food products that were becoming increasingly available and solemnly warned against succumbing to the temptations of store-bought goods:

A good housekeeper will always look with pride upon shelves of closely corked bottles she has prepared herself and neatly labeled, feeling that she possesses close at hand the means of imparting a delicious, flavor to her meals without placing any deleterious compound before, friends and family.

Though few of us these days have either the time or the inclination to make everything we eat from scratch, the warning against "deleterious compound[s]" is still quite timely. Mass-produced, packaged and prepared foods are laced with chemical additives and preservatives. Homemade food not only tastes better, but it is the one sure way to know what you're eating and avoid the toxins that have become part of the standard American diet.

The Cyclopedia provided directions that few of us likely need nowadays, such as those for brewing spruce beer, potting a woodcock and shelling a turtle. It also included recipes for food and drink that have gone out of fashion: blackberry cordial; floating island; and pork braun, a concoction of pig's head, tongue and feet. But it also contained simple, practical advice that's as useful today as it was in the past. To test eggs for freshness if you haven't gathered them yourself, put them in a pan of cold water; stale eggs rise and float or turn large end up. The best way to harvest cauliflower is to cut early while the dew is still upon it. Breakfast, readers were told, is often a failure for want of a good cup of coffee. To achieve coffee perfection, rinse the cup with hot water. Put in the sugar, then fill half full of hot milk. Add your coffee, and you have a delicious beverage that will be a revelation to many poor mortals who have an indistinct remembrance of and an intense longing for an ideal cup of coffee.

A peek into a bygone era, the Cyclopedia is well-used; the thick browning pages are dog-eared and spotted with greasy fingerprints. It has been covered, recovered and bound together with tape and sticky paper. Additional recipes for things like "Good Frosting" and "Special Chocolate Cake" are written on the back pages in a variety of faded, old-fashioned scripts, testifying to the generations of cooks the book has served.

The daughterless Etta, believing the book belonged in woman's hands, passed the Cyclopedia onto her sister-in-law, Mary Angelica Thayer, who in turn bequeathed the book to her eldest daughter, Dorothy. From there, it went to Dorothy's niece (and this author's friend and neighbor), Jean, who, like Etta, has no daughters. Breaking with tradition, jean gave the book to her son, Ben, an enthusiastic and accomplished recreational chef. It's now in the Chicago home he shares with his wife. Etta and Mary Angelica would probably be quite shocked to see a man in an apron, kneading bread dough or stirring a pot of soup. But while some things change, others, like the pleasure of good food, remain the same.

Many of the recipes in the Cyclopedia are timeless classics — the kinds of dishes that, if you're lucky, your grandma used to make. You'll find a few of them on the preceding pages. Perhaps they will become part of your own family history.

You'll note that most of the recipes make use of butter. Food made without it just doesn't taste as good. We have become a fat-phobic culture, and butter is often considered a dietary villain. But it is a natural food, unlike its artificial counterpart margarine, and can be included in a balanced healthy diet.

The instructions appear just as they were written in Our Home Cyclopedia, There are few precise measurements, Everything was done to taste, and women were expected to have a cooking "sense," born of years spent in the kitchen, beginning when they were children. Even if you don't have the kind of cooking sense that knows a pinch from a lump, don't hesitate to try these recipes and experiment until you get them just light. For each one I've included some modern day tips gleaned from my own experiences.

Read more kitchen articles at www.motherearthnews.com.


Chicken Pot Pie Recipe

Cut and joint a large chicken. Cover with water and let it gently until tender; season with salt and pepper and thicken the gravy with two tablespoonfuls of flour mixed smooth in a piece of butter the size of an egg. Have ready a nice, light bread dough; cut with a biscuit cutter about an inch thick; drop this into the boiling gravy, having previously removed the chicken to a hot platter. Cover the gravy and let boil from one-half to three-quarters of an hour. To ascertain whether they are done or not stick a fork into one of the biscuits, and if it comes out clean, they are done. Lay on the platter atop the chicken, pour over the gravy and serve.

Modern Day Tips:

The trend today is to consume less animal fat. To adapt this recipe, use either skinless chicken parts or skim off the fat from the broth before thickening with butter and flour. Use 4 to 5 pounds of chicken and a scant 1/4 cup butter. Depending on the size of your chicken pieces, they will need to simmer 1 to 2 hours. For a nice, light bread dough, you can use any simple baking powder biscuit recipe. I like the following:

2 cups all purpose unbleached flour, sifted before measuring
(can substitute whole wheat, flour)
Resift flour with:
2 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons double acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Cut in 1 cup butter
Add 2/3 cup milk

Roll out onto a floured board. Cut and drop into broth.

Lemon Trifle Recipe

Two lemons — juice of both and grated rind of one — one cup sherry, one large cup sugar, one pint cream whipped stiff, with a little nutmeg. Strain the lemon juice before adding the sherry, sugar and nutmeg. Strain again and whip gradually into the frothed cream. Serve in jelly glasses and send around cake with it. It should be eaten soon after it is made.

Modern Day Tips:

Use heavy whipping cream. Whip until it begins to thicken. Using a bowl and beaters that have been chilled in the freezer speeds up the process. Add the lemon juice mixture and continue to whip until stiff peaks form.

The Cyclopedia provided directions that few of us likely need nowadays, such as those for brewing spruce beer, potting a woodcock and shelling a turtle. It also included recipes for food and drink that have gone out of fashion: blackberry cordial; floating island; and pork braun, a concoction of pig's head, tongue and feet. But it also contained simple, practical advice that's as useful today as it was in the past. To test eggs for freshness if you haven't gathered them yourself, put them in a pan of cold water; stale eggs rise and float or turn large end up. The best way to harvest cauliflower is to cut early while the dew is still upon it. Breakfast, readers were told, is often a failure for want of a good cup of coffee. To achieve coffee perfection, rinse the cup with hot water. Put in the sugar, then fill half full of hot milk. Add your coffee, and you have a delicious beverage that will be a revelation to many poor mortals who have an indistinct remembrance of and an intense longing for an ideal cup of coffee.

Onion Ormoloo Recipe

Peel ten or twelve large white onions, steep them an hour in cold water, then boil them soft. Mash them equal quantity of boiled white potatoes, adding half a pint of milk and two or three well beaten eggs. Stir the mixture hard, season it with nutmeg, pepper and salt, and bake it in a quick oven; when half done a little melted butter or gravy over the top.

Modern Day Tips:

You can use common yellow onions, small pearl onions (use about 30 of them) or medium-sized white bulb onions with green tops (remove tops before cooking). You can use a food processor if you wish to puree onions and potatoes together rather than mash them; a hand-operated food mill will also do the job. To season, start with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg — and adjust to your taste. Be sure to grease the baking pan well.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mashed Carrots Recipe

Carrots boiled and mashed and warmed with butter, pepper and salt deserve to be known. Scrape and boil whole until tender. Drain, and cut into round slices a quarter of an inch thick. Warm a cup of broth, add three or four tablespoons of milk, a lump of butter rolled in flour, with seasoning to taste. Bring to a boil and pour over carrots.

Modern Day Tips:

Use two bunches of fresh carrots, purchased with the tops on. Remove green tops and peel. Boil here means simmer. Chicken broth or vegetable broth work equally well. For a lump of butter, use a tablespoon.

Delicious Sponge Cake Recipe

Twelve eggs separated, one pound of sugar, twelve ounces flour, a pinch of salt, a bit of vanilla extract. Beat the whites to a very stiff froth, the yolks till the bubbles look fine. When the yolks are beaten enough, add the sugar and beat till it dissolves. Add the salt and vanilla and then add the whites, and lastly the flour and hake immediately in brick-shaped tins. This will make two loaves. You will find your cake so much nicer if baked in a paste. Make with flour and water only; roll out on a board same as pie crust, line your greased tins all over inside with the paste and then pour in the batter. Cover top with paste. Bake nearly an hour. Do not break off the paste till you want to use the cake. It will be more moist and keep longer; indeed the cake will be much better a day or two old.

This recipe includes instructions about how to keep baked goods fresh. The technique is ideal for today's busy cooks who like preparing foods in advance.

Modern Day Tips:

You'll get a better result if you use eggs that are at room temperature. Use 1 teaspoon vanilla. Bake in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven in rectangular bread pans.


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