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Monday, February 23, 2015

When a cookbook is more than a book of recipes

As a child in Osaka, Japan, I loved illustrated books from our international school's library. Not only were the pictures works of art (especially for me since I couldn't draw anything but a stick figure), but the aroma of the pages grabbed my senses. Musty, a little on the mildew side, damp---to me that scent was adventure. To this day, I associate the smell of musty bookstores, libraries, and book pages with the joy of escaping into beautiful and wild lands. I'm six again, learning to read. I'm ten, on the train heading home from school, a Bobbsey Twins book in my hands.

So when Carl showed me his cookbook, The Modern Family Cookbook, I loved it immediately for its musty smell. Of course, the fact that he uses it to bring great dishes and desserts to our table is equally important to me.

But upon further observation, this cookbook entices me for other reasons. It is a piece of American history. It's a legacy, a document of what our culture around the kitchen and table used to be.

The first edition came out in 1942. That was a time period when women dominated the kitchen whether they wanted to or not. The author, Meta Given, provides pages of advice, including The Cook's Creed, found near the first half of the book. These five pointers stress how the woman is to do an outstanding job at making meals. To assist her, every month she has a weekly meal guide, using seasonal foods for "thrifty balanced menus". Each recipe found in the guide is numbered.

For breakfast on a Monday in February, stewed dried peaches and soft cooked eggs are recommended. Coffee for adults and milk for the children. On a following morning, cocoa is part of the breakfast menu for children. On a Friday in December, "luncheon" is to be carrot souffle and watermelon pickles. The dessert (after every lunch something sweet is to be served) is "inexpensive fruitcake", which from the recipe looks like a typical Christmas fruitcake with cherries, candied citron, and pitted dates.

The mother of the house was clearly responsible for her family's welfare as well as nutrition. She was to abide by The Meal Planner's Creed: "The health of my family is in my care; therefore---
I will spare no effort in planning the right kinds of food in the right amounts.
Spending the food dollar for maximum value is my job, therefore---
I will choose from the variously priced foods to save money without sacrificing health.
My family's enjoyment of food is my responsibility; therefore---
I will increase their pleasure by planning for variety---for flavorful dishes, for attractive color, for appetizing combinations.
My family's health, security and pleasure depend on my skill in planning meals; therefore---
I will treat my job with the respect that is due it.

When I was writing my World War Two novel, Under the Silk Hibiscus, I slipped the cookbook into my story. The aunt in my novel uses it to make food for her niece and nephews. She's a lover of cookies and bakes oatmeal raisin cookies. Since all my novels hold recipes in the back, I include this cookie recipe in Under the Silk Hibiscus so all can enjoy it.

Cookbook language changes over time. Women have allowed men in the kitchen and men are proving to be just as skilled with creating meatloaves, chocolate cakes, and souffles. But a cookie recipe that was delicious back in 1942 is still tasty today. It is timeless, as is wanting to share it with your family. To me that falls under the "I will spare no effort in planning the right kinds of food in the right amounts." Two cookies after dinner? Four? Seven? Meta doesn't tell me, but I'm thinking since both the enjoyment and the pleasure are "my" responsibilities, the more the merrier!

Under the Silk Hibiscus, with the oatmeal raisin cookie recipe, is available today for just $1.99 on Kindle.


Anonymous said...

There is a very interesting point in this cookbook. EVERY recipe is for 5 people. If you were to follow the monthly and weekly menus I cannot see when there would even be time for shopping for the ingredients let alone have ANY time out of the kitchen. Having said that, not one recipe I ever tried in that book has failed!!!!

alice wisler said...

I know, it is mind-boggling to think of anyone having to follow the menu guides in this book. The recipes have probably never failed because you are a good cook. :-)