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Cooking the books

A Year with the Berlin Cook Book

  • Carolyn Blackstock

Corps de l’article

Figure 1Photo courtesy of Joseph Schneider Haus and Gallery

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Figure 2Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 3Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 4Photo by Candice Leyland

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Opening the pages of a cookbook is always an adventure for me. I begin to imagine how each recipe will smell and look and taste. Opening a cookbook from another time is an even greater adventure. Will I recognize the ingredients? Are they still available? Can I understand the instructions? Would I want to eat the result if I prepared the recipe? Every day for an entire year I opened the pages of one particular cookbook: not an ancient cookbook, nor one from some far-off place. Instead, I prepared recipes from a cookbook published in my own community. Every day I walked into a world both familiar and unfamiliar: one expressed by/within The Berlin Cook Book, published in 1906 by the Berlin News Record.

In 1906, Berlin, Ontario, was a town on the verge of becoming a city with a population of 12,151. [1] Official cityhood celebrations took place in 1912, and just a few short years later the city’s name was changed to Kitchener. To mark the 100th anniversary of cityhood in 2012, I decided to cook from The Berlin Cook Book and to write about this experience in a daily blog.

I took on this self-imposed challenge, using the proposed ingredients and methods, in the hopes of coming to a better understanding of the context from which these contributors and intended audience came.

Most of the ingredients and equipment were familiar – things like butter, eggs, milk, flour, sugar, frying pans, sauce pots, and cake tins. Others were less familiar or were difficult to locate. I had purchased yeast cakes, Grape Nuts cereal, and doughnut cutters twenty years ago, but they were no longer easy to find. Recipes using five cents worth of oil of lemon or a box of raisins as measurements presented other challenges. And I have yet to find a few items like sheep’s tongue ...

What I didn’t expect was the emotional connection I began to feel with women I’d never met, and who are long gone. As I prepared their recipes and researched their lives, I felt I knew them. That their world was changing is reflected in the recipes. Some women came from wealthy families or were married to men with successful careers. Other women lived in or near poverty or had their lives changed dramatically when a spouse died or deserted them. Some of the women were single and worked in factories or were beginning careers in nursing, teaching, or business. There were young women and old women; women caring for children or elderly parents; women born in the United States, Germany, France, Scotland, England, or Canada; Catholic women and Protestant women; all contributing their special recipes for a fundraising cookbook.

My own world was also changing dramatically. My home was turned upside down for months on end as the result of a broken water pipe in April, and so I cooked in hotel rooms, friends’ kitchens, and in my own disordered house. But every day around 7 pm I stepped back in time to select and prepare a recipe, research its contributor, and write about it. The choice of recipe and subsequent blog entry reflect what was happening in my life. This was not my original intention. I’d expected to carefully plan for each recipe. Instead I used this cookbook in much the same way a woman in 1906 might have used it. I picked a recipe based on the ingredients in my house, time available, and any special occasions. After a few months, I started to make an assessment of the recipe contributor based on her [2] recipe. There were noticeable patterns in other words. If a recipe mentioned exact or level measurements the woman was probably young and had been exposed to a domestic science education. Recipes with casual measurements and vague instructions, or with ingredients like rosewater, were inevitably from older women. Some recipes included brand names and likely originated with a promotional recipe booklet from that company.

I chose to prepare these recipes using the same type of equipment available at the turn of the twentieth century. My kitchen basics became a few pottery bowls, some wooden and metal spoons, knives, forks, teaspoons, and tablespoons from my cutlery drawer, a teacup and a few mugs that measured about a cup. I stocked up on flour, sugar, dried fruit, whole nuts, butter, and eggs. I put away my electric appliances and used a whisk and an egg beater again. My only concession to modernity was my electric stove and a fire extinguisher.

Prior to this project I had little experience with deep fat frying. However, with all the croquette, doughnut, and fritter recipes in The Berlin Cook Book, I became more comfortable − though I still keep the fire extinguisher close by. One of my favourite recipes over the year was a delicious deep fried treat called Dainty Crullers. [3] They have a nice hint of orange and are crispy on the outside and light inside. I liked them plain and with a dusting of icing sugar.

At first glance the recipe (included below) appears simple, but it required a few decisions. Did the recipe writer mean I was to add four tablespoons of lard AND four tablespoons of butter or was it four tablespoons in total? What sort of milk? What size of eggs? What kind of flour? What order for mixing? How big were oranges in 1906? How to fry the crullers? I decided the writer meant to use four tablespoons of lard and four of butter. In order to recreate the milk of 1906, I used 1% milk from the grocery store. To be truly accurate, the milk would not be pasteurized or homogenized. I used medium eggs, except when the size was specifically indicated in the recipes. Unless the recipe called for a specific type of flour I used all-purpose flour. Store advertisements in the local English language newspapers of the period as well as a grocers’ handbook indicate that oranges were available year round and came in different sizes. [4] Generally, I used basic juice oranges, since I was not sure if navel oranges were available in Berlin. Although shortening was available in 1906, and is used in some recipes in the cookbook, lard was still the common fat. It seemed to work best for these recipes but shortening or oil are suitable substitutes.

In 1906, a woman in Berlin, Ontario, could buy pineapple fresh from Hawaii, live oysters, meat, and vegetables in tin cans, and brand-name staples for her pantry, but there was still no effective treatment for tuberculosis and diabetes. Children died of illnesses now preventable. These sad events are part of the lives of the women contributing recipes to this cookbook. Using the tools of genealogy, I’ve tried to piece together their stories.

The recipe for Dainty Crullers appears on page 218 of The Berlin Cook Book and was contributed by Mrs. Helen Krug Arnott. This is an unusual detail: the use of a first name and maiden name. Most of the married women are credited using their husband’s name rather than their own first name. And there is no mention of their maiden names. Helen Bell Krug was born in 1870 [5] and grew up in Tavistock, a small farming town in Ontario, where her father had a successful store. The Canadian Graphic magazine called the store “a veritable ark where the customers’ wants from a pin to an anchor can be satisfied.” [6] The family was comfortable and lived in a large home officially called The Maples [7] but nicknamed Krug’s Castle. [8] Although she’s listed as Helen in the cookbook and in the 1911 census, she’s called Ellen in official documents such as her wedding certificate.

Ellen was the eldest of nine children in a family that seemed to easily combine their German and Scots heritage. In 1899, when she was 28, Ellen married 36-year-old Dr. William Joshua Arnott. [9] William was a doctor in Berlin, and opened the Arnott Institute for Stammerers, advertising in directories and special booklets including Berlin Today 1806–1906. It is unclear how they first met, although Ellen’s father had lived near Berlin when he was young.

The couple’s first child, a son, was born a year after the wedding, and the 1901 census finds the family living in Berlin with a young German-born servant named Kate. [10] The second son was born in 1903. [11] Two years later, Ellen contributed her recipes for Potato Croquettes, Dainty Crullers, and five other desserts. Suddenly, before the cookbook was published, Ellen’s life changed dramatically. On December 12, 1905, a few days after his 43rd birthday, Ellen’s husband, William, died of meningitis. [12] She was approximately three months pregnant with their third child, a son born in Berlin soon after the cookbook was published. [13] Ellen and the boys moved back with her parents to the family home in Tavistock. The 1911 census shows a large extended family – Ellen’s parents, sister, and brother, her 93-year-old maternal grandmother, Ellen and her children, plus a servant. [14] Ellen never remarried but did return to live in Berlin. She died in 1953 at the age of 83. [15]

There are many stories in a cookbook, especially a long forgotten community cookbook such as this. There is the story of its creation, of its decline, those stories that emerge from the recipes, the ingredients, and the contributors: women who were prominent in the community and others who seem to have left no trace except in The Berlin Cook Book. They have all provided an equal legacy of interesting and often delicious recipes that can still be enjoyed today.

Readers inevitably leave their mark on The Berlin Cook Book, by asking questions, making adjustments and annotations, and trying the recipes.

This blog writer, cookbook enthusiast, and recipe maker has also left a mark – and has not been left untouched by this book and its community of contributors.

Figure 5Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 6Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 7Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 8Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 9Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 10Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 11Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 12Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 13Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 14Photo by Candice Leyland

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Figure 15Photo by Candice Leyland

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Original Recipe

Dainty Crullers

4 tablespoons melted butter and lard, 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder, flour to make a soft dough, flour with the grated rind of an orange, salt to suit taste. Fry evenly and they never fail.

Modern Interpretation

Dainty Crullers

  • 4 Tbsp. melted butter

  • 4 Tbsp. melted lard

  • 2 eggs (medium size if available)

  • 1 cup milk

  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar

  • 1 heaping tsp. baking powder

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • Dash of salt

  • Grated peel from 1 orange

  • Lard, shortening, or oil for deep frying

  • Icing sugar (optional)

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs well and add the milk. Add the melted butter and lard. In a separate bowl, blend the flour, cream of tartar, baking powder, and salt. Add the grated orange peel. Mix the liquid and dry ingredients together and stir well.

Heat lard or shortening or suitable oil in a deep pot or deep fryer. Test the temperature using a small amount of the batter. When fat is ready, carefully drop in tablespoons of the batter. Turn each cruller over until they are evenly brown. Remove from the fat and drain on paper towels. Crullers can be rolled or dusted with icing sugar or left plain. Eat immediately.

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