When amateur cooks—and even some chefs—read cookbooks written before the mid 20th
century they are often dismayed by what they perceive as incomprehensible recipes, or “receipts” as they were commonly called. Often, only a list of ingredients is supplied, without any directions on how to assemble them into an edible or drinkable result. Sometimes the ingredients have no accompanying quantities and are not even written in a way we could consider “in order.” This flummoxes most cooks nowadays, since we expect an itemized list of ingredients followed by detailed step-by-step instructions, including a specific temperature and length of cooking time. In general, home cooks in a less literate and technologically reliant age were more knowledgeable and skilled because they relied on memory, instinct, shared experience, and hand-me-down instruction between generations. “Spice to your taste” or “bake until done” or “thicken with a little flour” or “scald the milk” did not confuse most of them. Many descendants marvel that Grandma didn’t need written recipes since they were all in her head after long years of repetition. Not that everyone was a good cook, of course, but most middle-class and working-class housewives, daughters, and servants had a better grasp of culinary basics than their microwave-reliant counterparts today. So, if you do want to tackle an old recipe, first you read it carefully and make notes, such as reordering the ingredients if necessary. Reading other recipes similar to it in other cookbooks, including modern ones, is obviously helpful. Then you plunge in and make it. Maybe it turns out just fine, but if it doesn’t, you assess the possible reasons why, and make it again. And maybe again. Keep notes as you go. Practice and experience eventually makes it easier to understand the language of old recipes. Mrs M. E. Porter, The New World’s Fair Cook Book and Housekeeper’s Companion
, originally published in 1891 and reprinted in 1974. Pour boiling water upon bruised cranberries, let them stand for a few hours, strain off the liquor and sweeten to your taste. This forms an agreeable and refreshing beverage. Cranberryade was called Cranberry Tea in other cookbooks, especially if it was placed amongst the medical recipes. Mrs Porter’s New World’s Fair Cook Book
was originally an American book published in Philadelphia in 1891; in fact it was an enlarged version of an 1871 book. In Toronto it was published under the auspices of William Briggs, Book Steward of the Methodist Book Room. With the approval of the Methodist Church, Briggs used his own name on the secular books that the Book Room sponsored. The “World’s Fair” of the title was in Chicago in 1893. Thinking ahead two years, Mrs Porter repackaged her 1871 book for that 1893 event. After experimenting with various proportions of cranberries and sugar to boiling water, I have found this combination to be the best. I started by establishing how intense the cranberry flavour should be, then modifying it with some added sugar. You may prefer it sweeter or tarter. Yield: 6 servings. Can be doubled easily. Pour the boiling water upon the bruised
cranberries. Let them stand for about two hours, or more, until the water is pink and tastes brightly of cranberry. Strain off coloured and flavoured water, and discard cranberries. Stir the sugar into the water. Serve cold, with ice, and with cranberries as a garnish. Five Roses Cook Book
, a cookbook originally published by the Lake of the Woods Milling Company in 1915, and reprinted in 1999. Into a saucepan put one quart of nice clean cranberries and ¼ cup water. Allow this to boil ...
For over 21 years Fiona Lucas has worked in Ontario’s historic kitchens with historic cookbooks. She is President of Culinary Historians of Ontario and editor of their quarterly newsletter, Culinary Chronicles.