A library dinner party

By Sarah Jennette

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Photo courtesy of the Conversant.

After cataloging a batch of community cookbooks several weeks ago, I immediately started to come up with ideas on how to feature them on our blog. Instead of just discussing the recipes on the page, or uncovering the histories of the organizations responsible for compiling the works themselves, however, I wanted to approach cookbooks in our collection differently than what’s been done before on the blog. This time, I wanted to use the books the way they were meant to be used. I decided to make the food instead of just reading recipes off the page, to show results instead of discussing recipes as I came across them, and most importantly, include my fellow librarians in my plan. It probably doesn’t come as a shock that I didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm too hard at the mention of a dinner party. The fact that we got to try out recipes from books in our collection was the special bonus once we were finally able to formalize a date for the event.

Community cookbooks are a genre of cookbook compiled by local community organizations, usually with a religious or civic purpose, and sold to raise funds for their efforts. The books frequently contain information regarding the mission of the organization, culinary traditions, and histories of the surrounding region. For this blog idea, we used four different community cookbooks, all published during the early to mid-20th century.

Our task was not as easy as it might sound. We all have been spoiled by the explicit details included in our modern recipes. We take for granted things such as precise measurements, necessary cooking tools, cooking temperatures, and so on. Nowadays, we expect cookbooks to include documentation for each step in the directions, and even more importantly at times, a photograph of the final product. We search for recipes on the internet that have YouTube video tutorials, or we watch a cooking show to see how a trained professional would prepare something. The recipes for this post included some of the recipe guidance that we’re used to, but not always. When left to deal with a mysterious ingredient or a measurement we weren’t quite sure about, we attempted educated guesses and hoped for the best.

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On the left, the final touches get added to our punch recipe. On the right, our dessert sits on a baking rack to cool before the last touches are added. Photo courtesy of Conversant.

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Ingredients for chicken wings and dessert. On the left, the katakuriko was used as a dry coating to dredge the chicken wings prior to frying. Photo courtesy of Conversant.

The two recipes that included the most guess work were also, thankfully, two of our favorites:  our drink and our dessert. Both recipes come from community cookbooks published during the early 20th century in New England. Our drink recipe actually wasn’t even a traditional recipe at all – it was a poem titled Connecticut Colonial Punch.

CONNECTICUT COLONIAL PUNCH

Of oranges four and lemons two

You make the juice to make your brew;

Eight tablespoons of sugar fine

A quart of good red Bordeaux wine,

A large spoonful of choice Jamaica

Will give you a flavor delicious later

Then a generous wine glass of old Cognac

Will make your lips begin to smack,

But wait until you add the sparkling champagne

A pint at least or your labor’s in vain

The recipe for Connecticut Colonial Punch, written by Elisabeth Seeley from Bridgeport, Connecticut, came from the cookbook Connecticut, 1635-1935: Ye Tercentenary Cook Book . Phrases such as “a large spoonful,” “a generous wine glass,” and “a pint at least” prompted some guessing. The addition of “choice Jamaica” also involved research. We weren’t able to track down exactly what “choice Jamaica” is as an ingredient, but for our purposes, we thought to use nutmeg, given that the measurement of a “spoonful” seemed to indicate a dry ingredient. Other New England-style punches at the time also often used nutmeg or similar spices.

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We unanimously agreed that a two-drawer card catalog was the perfect stand for the punch. Photo courtesy of Conversant.

Our dessert was a strawberry shortcake recipe from The Pilgrim Cook Book, published in 1907 by the Ladies of the Centre Methodist Episcopal Church in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

Into 1 quart of flour sift 3 teaspoonfuls of baking powder; add 1 tablespoonful of white sugar and a little salt. See that these are all thoroughly mixed with the flour. Before wetting it chop 3 tablespoonfuls of butter into the flour, when thus prepared add 1 egg beaten light, and 1 large cup of sweet milk, turn into the flour and stir all together as quickly as possible, and handle lightly. Roll into two sheets 1-2 inches thick and bake in a well greased pan. Split the cake and butter. Put a thick layer of strawberries between the cakes with granulated sugar. Butter the top and put on berries.

For this recipe, we were less surprised about ingredient terminology (turns out a modern substitute for “sweet milk” is just whole milk!) and more interested in the actual directions. Two crucial elements for any baking recipe were missing from the directions—cooking time and oven temperature. We set the oven temperature to 350 degrees and baked the cakes for a little over 30 minutes. Also, a modern strawberry shortcake recipe, no matter how you might choose to assemble its components, usually has whipped cream. For our version, we followed the recipe for the cakes almost exactly (except for the addition of more milk because the dough ended up being pretty dry), but added whipped cream when we served the final dish because there are some modern twists that you just can’t sacrifice.

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Another modern recipe convenience? Serving amounts. The shortcake recipe did not include any serving amount information, but we solved that mystery fairly easily. One shortcake was more than enough to serve four, so the whole recipe should work for about eight servings. Photo courtesy of Conversant.

Our other dishes ended up being much more straight-forward and successful. The most modern recipe that we made came from the cookbook Heritage of Japan: Favorite Recipes. The book was published in the late 1970s by the Pasadena Buddhist Women’s Association in Pasadena, California, and we used one of their recipes for sweet-sour chicken wings.

SWEET-SOUR CHICKEN WINGS

Section 3 lbs of chicken wings ; sprinkle with garlic salt and ajinomoto. Let stand 2 hours. Batter: 1 cup katakuriko, 2 eggs, beaten. Put wings and katakuriko in a bag and shake. Dip in eggs. Let excess eggs run off. Deep fry. Sauce: ¾ cups sugar, ¼ cups dashi (stock from wing tips), 5 Tbsp catsup, ½ salt, ½ cup Japanese rice vinegar, 1 Tbsp shoyu, 1 tsp ajinomoto. Boil sauce slightly. Lay wings in pan and pour sauce over. Put in 325-350 degree oven for 30-35 minutes. Turn wings over for 10 minutes.

The chicken wing recipe was one of our more precise choices. We had an oven temperature and a cooking time to work with this time, and we were very thankful for it. The chicken wings ended up being our overall favorite for the entire meal.

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Photo courtesy of Conversant.

Two more highlights from the meal were traditional popovers and a potato casserole recipe. The potato recipe left a lot of the details out, but the combination of potatoes, bacon, veggies, and cheese is difficult to ruin, so the final product turned out just fine. Both recipes came from Hamilton Hall Cook Book, published by the Chestnut Street Association of Salem in 1947.

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Photo courtesy of Conversant.

POPOVERS

1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, 1 tbsp melted shortening, ½ tsp salt, 2 eggs well beaten. Sift flour and salt into mixing bowl. Add milk gradually, then eggs and shortening. Beat batter 5 minutes with egg beater — 3 minutes with electric mixer. Preheat iron muffin pan while oven is being heated to 450 degrees (Glass or earthen-ware custard cups may be used). Melt butter or other fat in pan until sizzling hot. Pour batter into pans, bake for 30 minutes at 450 degrees. Do not open door for first 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 10-15 minutes longer. Will make 5 to 6 popovers.

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Photo courtesy of Conversant.

ALLEN HOUSE POTATOES

1 cup chopped ham, 1 chopped onion, 2 cups cooked and chopped potatoes, 3 tablespoons chopped green pepper, ½ cup grated cheese, salt, milk. Fry onion and pepper in butter, Add potatoes and ham, mix well. Put in baking dish and pour in milk to show. Cover with cheese. Bake until brown.

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And finally, our table before we helped ourselves to a library collection inspired meal.

This post first appeared on Conversant, the blog for the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Sarah Jennette joined the Phillips Library shortly after receiving her M.L.I.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. She also holds a B.A. in History as well as Gender and Women’s Studies from Plattsburgh State University. Prior to the Phillips Library, she was a Cataloging and Acquisitions Assistant for the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She also interned for the State Library of Massachusetts Special Collections Department and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum with their oral history collection. As an Assistant Cataloger, she not only enjoys the technical service aspects of librarianship, but also the opportunity to work with the eclectic and diverse collections at the library. 

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