Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
I worry I’m not leaving a legacy. I don’t have a handwritten, leather-bound recipe book — the kind I often unearth in archives, carefully written a century ago to pass down family dishes from mother to daughter. I don’t even have a box of recipe index cards, carefully typed and organized. All I have is a pile of pages torn from magazines, a folder of web links, and a Pinterest board. Without the permanence of pen and ink, will my digitized recipes be swept away?
These thoughts came to me as I sat with someone else’s kitchen legacy — a pile of typed index cards from the 1960s, bought as a lot from Etsy. I thumbed through the carefully curated recipes, yellowed with age, all selected and copied from the “Kitchen Klatter” radio show.
Kitchen Klatter was the longest running food show in radio history. It launched in Iowa in 1926, and remained on the air nearly 60 years, broadcasting daily in six Midwestern states. A family dynasty, it was consecutively hosted by Leanna Driftmier, her daughter and granddaughter. Those who remember it described it as a farmwife’s companion — a chatty half hour show about life, family, gardening, and cooking. The host and her guests would slowly go over the directions for one recipe or another, giving the listener time to jot it all down.
The recipe cards in my collection have little notes like, “This was recommended as especially delicious!” and feature titles like “Thrift Special” and “Busy Day Hot Dish.” The ’60s get a lot of criticism for the overuse of convenience food; housewives allegedly opened cans and boxes for dinner instead of preparing meals from fresh meat and vegetables. As I flipped through the cards, I did see some canned food-based main dishes, but I also found many simple recipes with simple ingredients that could be quickly assembled for a hearty meal — exactly the goal of a ‘60s working mom with places to be!
The first recipe that caught my eye was “Creamed Cabbage.” I know — not a recipe that generally leaps off the page. But I had half a roasted cabbage languishing in the refrigerator, and drowning it in heavy cream seemed to be just the thing. It was: the fat of the cream helped me appreciated the taste of the cabbage, which was meltingly soft after simmering with butter.
The next recipe I tried was “Scottish Potatoes.” I am a quarter Scottish, and saw very little about this recipe that spoke to my ancestral homeland. But I did notice that it called for ingredients I had lying around: potatoes, onions, and rendered chicken fat. This decadent ingredient is otherwise known as schmaltz, and it’s the bright yellow fat you skim off the top of chicken soup.
I melted a quarter cup of chicken fat in a cast iron skillet (bacon grease would be equally good here), and layered thin cut potatoes and onions with salt, pepper, and dried parsley in the pan, simmering them with beef bouillon. At first bite, the mouthfeel was a little slimy, but then the chicken-soup comfort of fat and salt and carbs washed over me, fortifying me against the cold fall weather. This would be an amazing Thanksgiving side dish.
Made brave after two recipe successes, I was ready for a real adventure, something classically 1960s: Hamburger Chow Mein Casserole.
Chow Mein and its forebear Chop Suey were invented in America, although they had Cantonese ancestors. The organ meats in the original recipes were gradually replaced by chicken and beef, and the garlic and soy was gradually toned down and sometimes replaced entirely by a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
This recipe took Chow Mein to a whole new level, relying on ground beef and canned chicken noodle and cream of mushroom soups. As I sautéed the beef, onions, and celery, I was delighted by the bright colors sizzling away in my pan. But as I dumped the soup over top, the mixture turned an unnerving gray. Frankly, it reminded me of sludge — a cheap-as-dirt poverty food invented by food writer MFK Fisher.
After thirty minutes in the oven, the Chow Mein looked appalling and tasted only slightly better: salty and gummy. My fiancé burst through the front door as the casserole came out of the oven. “It smells like my grandmother’s!” he declared, and dug into it with relish.
The woman who typed these note cards used them as a way to organize her recipe headspace. She always had her favorite frozen fruit salad at her fingertips. I do the same thing when I blog about recipes, sharing my successes and failures with an audience who celebrates and commiserates. My individual recipes become part of the vast collection of recipes online, which is as a whole is more prolific and memorable than any one recipe book could ever be. While not as intimate as a handwritten cookbook, it’s a legacy with infinite reach.
Do you write your recipes down?