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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cooking the 1887 way

A friend loaned me a copy of the Boston School Kitchen Text-book, published in 1887, revised 1909, by Mrs. D. A. Lincoln. True to the style of the day, that's how she was identified--by her husbands's name although someplace I did find that she was Mary J. Lincoln. This is not a cookbook so much as a book laying down the principles of cooking and housewifery, as they were to be taught in the school. Emphasis ws on the nature of food and proper combinations--no guesswork allowed. An early chapter stresses personal cleanliness: no touching of face or hair while cooking (how many times do you brush your hair off your forehead?), no using your apron as a towel.
Here's what you could buy for 25 cents back then: 1/2 quart oysters; 1 lb. butter; 1-1/2 lbs oleo (I didn' even know they had oleo then), 13 lbs. potatoes, 1/2 lb. beans, 8 lbs. "Indian" meal which presumably was corn meal.
There are lessons on Cooking, Food, Boiling or Cooking in Water, Invalid Cookery, Batters, Laying the Table and other essential topics--20 lessons in all, each with questions at the end.
Did you know that a salmi is a stew of game? I've cooked ragout and wondered what set it apart from stew--it's a stew highly flavored with wine.
 The section on Invalid Cookery interested me--it suggested toast, specifically milk toast; I remember my mother serving that to me when I was sick. She also sserved crackers crumbled in warm milk with butter, salt and pepper. Ice cream and eggnog are recommended, along with beef juice. To make the latter, you dice 1/2 lb. lean beef and put it in a widemouthed bottle on a trivet. Cover the beef with cold water and simmer two hours until the meat is white. Strain, and season the broth with salt and pepper.
There are recipes for cooking mutton chops and suet pudding, boiled mutton with gravy, baked heart. fried corn-meal mush (my mom fixed that too), baked crackers with cheese, and something called cracker brewis which is sort of like my mom's crackrs in milk only you bake it until the milk is absorbed.
It's fun to carefully turn these  yellowing pages and imagine the earnestness of the woman who compiled this, the care with which teachers must have followed her specific instructions--in laying the table, special care must be taken so that everything is provided, from butter plates to filled water glasses, and no one has occasion to leave the table (a good idea in this age when children tend to get up and wander around). In serving,  you must take care that  your thumb doees not touch the top surface of the plate. The knife is only used as a divider; the fork conveys all food to your mouth. I remember my British father insisting that you do not switch the fork from your left hand to your right aftr cutting meat. It was always awkward to me. So was the proverbial, "Butter your bread on your plate, not in the air." At the close of the meal, fold your napkin so that the table may be left in an orderly fashion. A lot to remember.
Sadly in these ancient pages, I didn't find anything I felt impelled to cook. Not even the chicken fricassee.


  1. What a wonderful post. I do remember "milk toast" vaguely. I have always been fascinated with the real history of cooking. This was wonderful. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Shannon. The book is kind of a glimpse into a more graceful way of living that we've lost these days. Made me a bit nostalgic for my dad's strict insistence on manners.