Dress code for this dinner: Vintage clothes
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Just for fun, and because vintage cookbooks can tell us a lot about how our ancestors ate, worked and lived, we're hosting a fantasy dinner party with recipes drawn from cookbooks spanning almost a century. For guidance, let's turn to "Mrs. Seely's Cook Book" of 1902.
"The two things most essential to a successful dinner in these days are well-chosen company and good service. If to these you can add artistic cooking and beautiful table ornaments, so much the better, but the best food loses half its savor if we are bored while eating it, and the best talk is apt to flag if there are long pauses between the courses."
For starters, we'll have a "sallet" -- salad -- from Margaret Huntington Hooker's 1896 book, "Early American Cookery," reprinted in 1981 by Americana Review. Comprising dozens of Colonial recipes Miss Hooker gathered, the book includes instructions for, among other things, grilling a calf's head, boiling hops and frying apple pies: "Make a sweet Crust, roll and cut out with a Saucer. Fill with Apple Sauce, double over the Crusts and pinch the Edges. Fry in smoking Fat. To be eaten hot for Supper."
Having a salad then usually meant growing or foraging your own greens, so the recipe begins, "Let the Herbs be fresh-gathered ..." The "sauce" is much like our dressing, made from olive oil, hard-boiled egg yolks, cream, butter, mustard, salt, vinegar and sugar.
For the soup course -- Cream of Cauliflower -- we'll dip into "The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook" from 1963, part memoir and chock full of recipes, a scant few using Pepperidge Farm products, and delightful illustrations by children's book illustrator Erik Blegvad. Mrs. Rudkin is a knowledgeable and amiable companion as she guides us through her growing-up years in New York City; how she began her business in 1937 selling her homemade, stone-ground whole wheat bread to the local grocer; and life on her husband's ancestral farm in Ireland, which they purchased in 1953. The bonus is that Mrs. Rudkin devotes an entire section to "Cooking from Antique Cookbooks," beginning with the first printed cookbook, "De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine" ("On Right Pleasure and Good Health"), published in Venice in 1475.
"What fascinates me is that so many of the same foods we use today were being used then in practically the same way," she writes.
For our main course, I'm tempted to follow Andy Warhol and Suzie Frankfurt's recipe for roast pig, from their "Wild Raspberries" cookbook written and lavishly illustrated in 1959 and published in 1997: "Contact Trader Vic's and order a 40 pound suckling pig to serve 15. Have Hanley take the Carey Cadillac to the side entrance and receive the pig at exactly 6:45. Rush home immediately and place on the open spit for 50 minutes. Remove and garnish with fresh crabapples."
But even my fantasy kitchen lacks an open spit, so let's make Braised Chicken Stuffed with Noodles from "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook" of 1954, which vividly recounts the years she spent with Gertrude Stein in France. The noodles (only homemade will do) are cut in narrow strips and mixed with grated parmesan and Swiss, heavy cream and small mushroom caps. The bird is stuffed, trussed and browned in butter, simmered for an hour in a cup of chicken bouillon then covered with Sauce Mornay -- bechamel with cheese, in this case parmesan -- and placed in a hot oven to glaze.
Our vegetable side is fresh okra, done the way "The Yearling" author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings taught me to do it in "Cross Creek Cookery" -- boiled for exactly seven minutes and served with Hollandaise sauce. In this anecdote-laced 1942 cookbook, she documents the way she and her hired help cooked in the 1930s at her Cracker-style farmhouse in Cross Creek, Fla. It's Southern backwoods eating, what with the cooter soup, grits and all.
Dessert, from Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book of 1950, is "Inexpensive Sponge Cake," with a rich taste and firm texture that belie its name. We'll serve it with fresh raspberries and whipped cream, but before we tuck into it, we'll raise our coffee cups to the real Betty Crocker, Marjorie Child Husted, who for 20 years led the General Mills Home Service Department and the cookbook's production.
Still wondering what a cooter is? Think soft-shell turtle. Mrs. Rawlings advises, "Scald the feet and rub off the skin."
First Published December 10, 2009 12:00 am