One DOES like a nice cookbook, especially with a lot of holiday eating coming up. Some people buy cookbooks for the recipes (whether they take the book into the kitchen, copy the recipe into a computer file, or just take a picture of it with their phones) while others buy them just to read through the lists of ingredients they can’t eat any more and stare at the pictures. (Porn for dieters.) Still others simply enjoy reading the recipes for what they can tell us about a life and culture beyond our usual circle.
This is one of those. I knew I was in a foreign country when I read “Stick a knife or a straw in and when the dough don’t stick, it is done.”
We journey in this book to a world where you didn’t have a box of toothpicks in the kitchen for testing cake, when ovens were hot or very hot with no temperature settings, and broomstraw was always handy. We are in Chicago, and it is 1874, just three years after the fire. Yet the city had recovered enough that there were charities to support, and people who fought to raise money for them. A whole bunch of Chicago cooks donated recipes for The Home Cook Book: Tried and True Recipes, a fundraiser for the Home for the Friendless.
This runs to 288 pages, and also includes recipes for things like cough syrup and silver polish, but mainly the recipes are intended for the dinner table. There are a LOT of recipes, because, well, they weren’t as chatty as some of today’s chefs, and five to seven recipes fit on each page. Here, for example, is the entire recipe for “Delicate Cake”, contributed by Mrs. A.T. Hall.
“one cup of butter, two of sugar, one of sweet milk, eight eggs, three cups flour, one teaspoon of cream tartar, one-half teaspoon soda”
Presumably you knew enough to stir all these things together, put the result in a cake pan, and cook until done. There are, by the way, about fifteen different recipes for “Delicate Cake”, followed by three or four for “Feather Cake”. I get the idea: everybody ELSE’S cake is heavy, but yours is nice and light.
I presume the attempt to raise funds was successful (the book did not rely wholly on sales: ads run along the bottoms of the pages, and there are larger ones in the back.) There was a new edition in 1877, and a reprint edition in 1911. You couldn’t keep Chicagoans away from their Delicate Cake. (The later editions probably corrected some of the errors pointed out in the Errata Sheet at the front. Someone’s Transparent Pudding was listed as Transparent Pie, and one recipe asks you to add “one pint salt” when it should have been “one pinch salt”.)
This cookbook, like any good cookbook, has seen some use. It has been kept in excellent condition for its age and function—copies of this book for sale online are being held together by vintage tape, whereas this one is good and solid. J. Fred Waggoner was clever enough to include blank pages between chapters, so you could add recipes as needed. Several of these pages have been filled in (more cake recipes) and someone has tucked in recipes and cooking information from other sources. One newspaper recipe still has the date on it, so this book was still being used in 1927. There is also a delicate vintage ad, probably from about 1874, for an Oven Thermometer, a newfangled contraption designed to make life easier for these new brides who didn’t know how hot the oven should be for cake cooking. We can’t reconstruct the whole history of the book (the original owner acquired it in 1876 for a kitchen in Wisconsin) but it was used by someone who respected their books and probably produced many a cake for the church bake sales.
I will leave you to experiment with Mrs. Hall’s Delicate Cake over the holidays. It will give you something to do while resisting the temptation to donate books while the Newberry is closed. Though if you have another copy of the Home Cook Book, we’ll take it in any time. I didn’t copy down the recipe for Transparent Pudding.