Corps de l’article

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.

Cranberryade – 1891

Mrs M. E. Porter, The New World’s Fair Cook Book and Housekeeper’s Companion, originally published in 1891 and reprinted in 1974.[1]

Original Text

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.

Historic Information

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.

My Modern Equivalent for Cold and Refreshing Cranberryade

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.

750 ml/3 cups

fresh or frozen cranberries, lightly crushed

1.25L/5 cups

boiling water

185 ml/¾ cup

white sugar

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.

Cranberry Pies – 1915

Five Roses Cook Book, a cookbook originally published by the Lake of the Woods Milling Company in 1915, and reprinted in 1999.[2]

Original Text

Into a saucepan put one quart of nice clean cranberries and ¼ cup water. Allow this to boil about ¾ hour, then add two full cups granulated sugar. After this has boiled about 15 minutes, stir in a piece of butter half the size of a nutmeg and one-half teaspoon of cassia. Then set to cool.

Historic Information

This lovely cranberry mixture was both sauce and jam. Of her similar recipe, Catharine Parr Traill in the Female Emigrant’s Guide of 1854/55 wrote: “This jam is usually served with roasted venison, mutton and beef. It makes rich open tarts, or can be served at tea-table in glass plates, to eat with bread.”[3] No cornstarch or flour thickener is used. Cassia is cinnamon.

The Five Roses Cook Book was first printed in 1913, but is best known in its 1915 illustrated edition. Selling over 950,000 copies, a remarkable number, it was one of the most popular cookbooks. Many of the recipes were submitted by Canadian women, while a few were taken from other printed sources. A French edition, La cuisininère Five Roses, also appeared in 1915.

My Modern Equivalent for an Open Cranberry Pie

1.25 ml/5 cups

fresh or frozen cranberries

50 ml/¼ cup


500 ml/2 cups

white sugar

10 ml/1 tsp

salted butter

5 ml/½ tsp

cinnamon powder

Enough short crust for bottom layer only

Yield: 1 open pie of 23 cm (9”) diameter

Combine cranberries and water in a large saucepan. Simmer gently for 40 to 45 minutes or until many cranberries have burst and juice has started to thicken. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Stir in white sugar and boil for 10 to 12 minutes to thicken. Remove from heat and blend in butter and cinnamon. While cooling, prepare a short crust and line a pie plate with it. Pour cool filling into crust. Bake in pre-heated oven (180˚C/350˚F) for about 30 minutes or until pastry is browned nicely. Cool on rack for a couple of hours before serving.

Recipe copyright Fiona Lucas