As a not-cook, I’m sometimes boggled by the number of cookbooks out there:  who uses that many?  As someone interested in American social history, I’m fascinated by what cookbooks tell us about what people ate in earlier time periods:  what was available?  How was it prepared?  It’s a given that cookbooks can tell us about the tastes and concerns of the time period.

More entertaining, though, are the recipes that drop out of the culture.  The fondues of my youth turned out not to be the wave of the future.  (I never knew anyone who fondued, anyway.)  And few turtle soups appear in 21st-century cookbooks.  Looking at earlier American cookbooks, I do wonder at some recipes:  did anybody make this?  Did anybody eat it?  Did they like it?

One of those recipes is for oyster ice cream, in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1860). Simple recipe:  “Make a rich soup, (see directions for oyster soup,) strain it from the oysters, and freeze it.” *   Did anybody ever do this?  Why?

My favorite what-were-they-thinking? recipe, though, comes from A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, a work by two home-economics teachers that usually is mocked for its title.  It’s a charming book following newlyweds through their first year and offering recipes and advice on frugality.  (It also features the early-20th-century version of the crockpot.)

I enjoy reading the book; it’s like watching someone play house.  But—ouch—the recipes!  “White sauce” on practically everything; vegetables cooked until they surrender.  And the strangest recipe for peanut butter sandwiches:

Peanut Butter Sandwiches
(Twelve sandwiches)

4 T-peanut butter
1/8 t-salt
1 t-butter
1 T-salad dressing
12 slices of bread
12 uniform pieces of lettuce

Cream the peanut butter, add the butter. Cream again, add the salt and salad dressing, mixing well. Cut the bread evenly. Butter one side of the bread very thinly with the peanut butter mixture. Place the lettuce leaf on one slice and place another slice upon it, buttered side down. Press firmly and neatly together. Cut in two crosswise. Arrange attractively in a wicker basket.

And, yes, that “salad dressing” is pretty much mayonnaise. Now, I wonder:  did anybody ever eat one of these things?  Did they enjoy it?  Do you tart up peanut butter with mayonnaise and lettuce to make it palatable for adults?  Was peanut butter a new food that people weren’t sure how to use?  I’d love to know.

And I’d also love to know what recipes we rely on that will drop out or will strike later generations with glee.  Cupcakes?  Something with kale (an extremely dull vegetable)?  Anybody got a time machine?


* Randolph’s oyster soup recipe is wonderfully profligate with the oysters; you need three quarts:  “Wash and drain two quarts of oysters, put them on with three quarts of water, three onions chopped up, two or three slices of lean ham, pepper and salt; boil it till reduced one-half, strain it through a sieve, return the liquid into the pot, put in one quart of fresh oysters, boil it till they are sufficiently done, and thicken the soup with four spoonsful of flour, two gills of rich cream, and the yolks of six new laid eggs beaten well; boil it a few minutes after the thickening is put in. Take care it does not curdle, and that the flour is not in lumps; serve it up with the last oysters that were put in. If the flavour of thyme be agreeable, you may put in a little, but take care that it does not boil in it long enough to discolour the soup.”

Still don’t want to come across it unexpectedly as ice cream.

Fred Clark (also the author of an entertaining shredding of the Left Behind books) posted Jourdan Anderson’s August 1865 letter informing Colonel Anderson that he probably wouldn’t be returning to work on the colonel’s plantation.  It’s a beautiful piece in the “screw you” genre which should be studied by everyone who wants to learn how to be polite and blunt all at the same time.

Just as good are the comments (as always on “slacktivist’s” blog), where some speculation that the letter isn’t genuine have so far led to a scan of the letter in the August 22, 1865 Daily Tribune, census information confirming that a Jourdan Anderson did live in the letter-writer’s town, and census information on the probable colonel.  Gotta love the Internet, which makes all this possible.

May 28, 2010

Merrycoz is new to blogging, though merrycoz.org has been online since 1999. (Eleven years! And people still can’t spell my name correctly!) The site is a growing anthology of works for (and sometimes by) children, from 1788 to 1873. Some works for adults also show up there, in a collection of whatever I feel like transcribing.

For the last 30+ years, I’ve cultivated an enduring interest in children’s literature, past & present. I teach children’s lit of the present in the English department of a state university. I collect American magazines and books for children of the past — hence the web site. It’s a place where I can post things, connect things, point out things.

I thought it might be fun to try a blog. Here I plan to announce changes to the merrycoz site, to keep track of what I’m working on for the site, and to comment on things having to do with children’s lit, past and present.

About me: I’m an English prof. I’ve been a reader since childhood and earned a B.A. in English lit from the University of Missouri–Columbia, mostly so I could read and earn a degree at the same time. Rummaging through the library stacks, I found Eleanor Cameron’s The Green & Burning Tree and realized that children’s books could be analyzed in the same way I was analyzing Shakespeare & Milton.

After a brief stint taking ID pictures at Mizzou, I went to Eastern
Michigan University, to earn an M.A. in English with an emphasis in
children’s lit. My last project there was an independent study project
annotating C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books — the manuscript of which I tried
to get published. Too late for that project (a couple guides were already being published), but it led to my first scholarly book: A Reference Guide to Modern Fantasy for Children — still in print; you should buy a copy.

The Reference Guide was written during my first two years earning a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. It was a nice, big project (the typing alone took an entire month of 11-hour days — soap operas helped) which made writing my doctoral dissertaion seem like an interesting little paper (written in six months — and, yes, soap operas helped). Switching from the program in English to the program in American Studies turned out to be one of those marvelous life-changers: American lit! American culture! American (gulp!) history! All those lovely, lovely books! (And an excuse to read E.D.E.N. Southworth novels!)

Meanwhile, I’d had another pivotal moment. Writing a piece on the
Youth’s Temperance Advocate for R. Gordon Kelly’s Children’s Periodicals of the United States (never have I wanted to drink as much as I did while researching that little temperance magazine, which kept mentioning “ruby wines” & “sparkling wines” & tempting liquor…), I realized that I absolutely adore this stuff. It’s poorly written, it’s sometimes-outlandish, and it’s just the most fascinating stuff on the planet. So my dissertation just had to be on a 19th-century children’s magazine.

I chose Robert Merry’s Museum. (The updated dissertation is online at merrycoz.org.) And I’ve continued to choose it, again and again. It’s the nucleus of my research and of my book collection. Since 1985, I’ve collected pre-1873 American magazines and books for children; works by and about the Museum‘s founder, Samuel Griswold Goodrich; little bits and pieces created by 19th-century American children; and works that appeared in the Museum. I spend far too much money on the collection and far too little time on research.

But, hey: I get to read.