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"2 calf’s feet" … you’ve got to be kidding!

This was just the beginning of my adventure with the Montreal cookbook entitled Clever Cooking for Careful Cooks put together by the ladies of the Church of St. John the Evangelist and printed and published by John Lovell and Son in 1888. It has been over five months, and I am still going in circles.

I did not think it was going to be this hard. The title spoke to me immediately: I like to think of myself as relatively clever, and I certainly am careful. Measure twice and cut once, that’s me. Perhaps I even take careful a little too far in that I do not take too many risks with my culinary palette, clearly excluding forays into the realm of unplucked fowl, cow heels, stewed pigeons and forcemeat balls. (You really don’t want me to comment on this last, do you?).

So I keep going back to the advertisements often included in community cookbooks, which intrigued me. I love history and these ads essentially tell the story of Montreal's commercial history in the late 19th century. The businesses are all located in what was then the commercial heart of Montreal: Notre Dame, St. Lawrence, St. James, St. Catherine, McGill, Victoria Square, Craig and Bleury streets. I get more than a little sentimental when I see addresses on Craig and Bleury as it was at this very corner where my own family set up shop in the early 1900s. In 1888, at the time of publication of this book, though, they were still peddling their wares in a small village in Romania.

Back to the recipes. The preface states that some recipes were over 100 years old in 1888, or over 225 years old today! It also states that the raison d’etre for the book is “to give young housekeepers practical and economical hints, which, if faithfully followed, will make of them not only careful housekeepers, but clever cooks” (3).

I try to find the two-century-old recipe. Maybe “mock turtle soup” (7), “soup for luncheon” with mushroom catsup (8-9), “mince collops” (26), “bread and suet pudding” (38) or could it be the plain old “doughnuts” (70) where the dough is just “thrown into boiling lard till brown” (70).

I look for the “clever” and “careful” tips and find that “soups are an economical addition to a bill of fare, and material that is often considered useless, and consigned to the crematory of the kitchen stove or refuse heap, might, with a little carefulness and knowledge, be used in the preparation of a tasty and nourishing soup (5) “-”. What are such items? Beef remnants, gristle, drainings of gravy from dishes, and bones. Also, prepare your soups the day before so that the fat can be skimmed off the cold stock. Certainly this is still valid today. But wait, it gets better as there is a recipe for hare soup that instructs you to preserve all the blood after cutting the hare up for use later in the soup.

The terminology and ingredients were certainly different back in 1888. There was a sharp fire and a slow fire and a hot oven was “brisk”. Some measurements have since gone by the wayside. When, for example, was the last time you measured a “dessertspoonful” or “saltspoonful” of anything? And have you ever measured butter based on “the size of a pigeon’s egg” or used a “peck” of tomatoes or a “gill” of milk? Have you ever used a blade of mace, Harvey’s sauce, or saltpetre?

The longest and most complicated recipe was for “A Boned Jellied Turkey” (28-29). Suffice it to say that I did not try this recipe, but and because it involved boning a whole turkey (carefully explained), stuffing it with a parboiled corned tongue, six pounds of fresh pork, and a cut up fowl (if desired).

Carrots, onions, celery, turnips and potatoes were plentiful and used in a myriad of recipes. Some things never change and you can bet these vegetables will still be the basis of many recipes another 100 years from now. Oysters and lobsters had not yet risen to the haughty position they hold today and appear in recipes for pies, soups, and patties. Suet, lard, mutton necks, mutton kidneys, veal knuckles, and mealy potatoes were once held in higher esteem and certainly used more often. Worcestershire sauce has withstood the test of time, having been invented in 1837 and is of course still popular today.

Failing to find anything enticing to try, I go once more to the advertisements. The businesses of L.E.N. Pratte Pianos and Organs; Andrew Baile City Coal Depot; D.H. Welsh, confectioner; Geo. R. Prowse Wrought Iron Cooking Ranges are all here. Don’t forget about the Mme. Leblanc’s ostrich feathers, Henry Gray, the family chemist, Lorge hatters and furriers and of course, Armstrong, “the leading undertaker and practical embalmer” in Victoria Square, and the Canada Truss Factory where their tagline reads “the lame made to walk, the deaf made to hear”. If only!

I don’t think I will have too much luck finding something to try in the fish section either. Firstly, I am not a huge fan of fish and my repertoire consists of breaded tilapia and grilled salmon. The head and tail must be out of sight and the bones must be gone. Wouldn’t you know it, the first recipe in the chapter is called “Cod’s head and shoulders” (11)! I am instructed that the “fish should be perfectly fresh and thoroughly cooked , or it will be very indigestible and sometimes poisonous” (11). Then I am to rub with salt, boil in salted water, skim and serve on a napkin (yes, a napkin) with melted butter or oyster sauce.

I hope that I will have better luck with the chicken chapter as I used to eat so much of it growing up that my father would say that one day I was going to sprout feathers and fly. Well, decades later, I still eat chicken about three times a week and I am still featherless.

In this chapter, I learn how to choose a turkey. It should be young, and I am instructed to look for one with black legs and short spurs. I must then carefully pluck it and be careful with the gall bag as the contents can impart a bitter taste which is hard to get rid of. Should I tire of turkey, I can try “Boiled Fowl” (24) in which I should “pluck, draw, and singe a nice plump fowl. Cut the feet off at the first joint and tie up the legs closely to the breast , cut off the head and neck leaving sufficient skin to skewer back” (24). I can also find recipes for goose, duck, partridge, and pigeon. After reading through this section, I think I have had my share of poultry for this week…maybe next week?

I notice that meat gets boiled quite often, as a matter of fact, boiling seems to be the most common cooking technique and can go on for as long as six hours at a time as for “spiced beef” (23). Here is a recipe for “brawn” (32) that instructs you to “take a pig’s head and feet, thoroughly washed and cleaned” before boiling for many hours. Today I shall choose to be kosher.

The vegetable chapter is pretty tame in that I do not notice too many ingredients that I would shy away from. But I am warned to never cook with hot water straight from the tap as there is a great danger of lead poisoning. This warning is still bandied about today in cities with older homes based on the premise that in homes still containing lead plumbing, the hot water dissolves contaminants, such as lead, more easily than cold water. These contaminants then infiltrate the water and damage the nervous system. No progress on this front in 125 years!

I come upon over 30 recipes for pudding, many requiring suet. I originally thought suet was the intestinal lining, but now know that is similar to lard and is the raw hard beef or mutton fat found near the kidneys or loin. “Hard Times Pudding” (40) calls for treacle, “Bachelor Pudding” (42) requires grated bread, and “Mysterious Pudding” (44-45) ends with the admonishment that “everything depends on the cooking”.

Another dessert entitled “Calf’s feet jelly”(48) calls for isinglass that is a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of a fish. Are you still wondering why I cannot find a recipe I want to try?

I have to admit, that of all the chapters, the one for desserts is the one that I could relate to the best, not just because desserts are my business, but because there are few ingredients that I had never heard of or would not be adventurous enough to try. “Mise en place” was most important and the unfamiliar measurements were finally explained in the “Table of Weights and Measurements” (64). I now know that two “gills” of a liquid is one cup, “butter the size of an egg” is 2 oz or ¼ cup, and a “wine glass” of liquid is 4 tablespoons. Of course, neither oven temperatures were given nor baking times. Rather, I was instructed to use either a slow or fast oven. To test for doneness, use a straw as a cake tester and your common sense based on the look and feel of the cake. (Yes, this method is still a good idea today, and yes, the straw was invented in late nineteenth century, made of paper.) The recipe for spice cake simply lists the ingredients such as flour, sugar, butter, eggs, sour milk and some spices (66) and then you are on your own as to what to do with it. I guess people were intuitive and did not have to be told which ingredients to mix together in what order, what size pan to use or for how long to bake the cake.

After jams, salads and sandwiches, there is a final chapter on Invalid cookery. I had to google this because I was not sure if the subject was invalid, the adjective, (as in something that is not valid) or invalid, the noun, (as in someone who is infirm). Well, back in the days before medical specialization a good housewife was supposed to know how to cook for those who were ill as most healthcare was provided at home. There were indeed whole cookbooks devoted to “Invalid Cookery”. If you were sick, you could be served boiled flour gruel, peptonized milk, and of course the old standbys of jellies, beef tea and chicken broth. All I know is that I would have made a bad housewife -- when my husband is sick, it’s take two pills and sleep in the spare room.

I am almost at the end of my voyage and am left with a few helpful hints on how to destroy ants (turpentine) and black beetles (cucumber parings), remove stains from carpets, and store furs. The instructions for this last one reads furs “may be successfully protected from moth, by first beating and shaking well; then sewing up in newspapers, and then in brown cotton or old sheets. They seem to have a horrror of printer’s ink” (97).

Let’s face it, my primary reason for delving into this cookbook was not to find the next great dessert to sell to my customers or to find the next great meal to serve my dinner guests. It was to go back in time before the days of molten chocolate cake and glazed Sichuan beef. I tried, really I did. I went through the recipes at least half a dozen times. I found a benign recipe for broiled mushrooms I was ready to try but felt very inadequate when a friend mentioned she was procuring hops (as in those used to make beer) to make some sort of 19th century bread. Not wanting to be shown up, I went back to the book. I tried the chocolate caramels (81); all of five ingredients with measurements by weight (the only way to do it) and boil 20 minutes. All seemed fine until I tasted it as it was boiling and it seemed too sweet. The recipe called for “Baker’s chocolate” which in retrospect must have been the original unsweetened variety and here I was using semi sweet. Oh well, guess I am not too clever after all!

The fact is that I have indeed turned into a chicken (Dad, you were right!), afraid to try offal and extremities I have not acquired a taste for. But here is what I did realize: everything old is new again as in nose to tail eating and using local ingredients. In 1888, they attempted to make use of every part of the animal, from the cow’s heels to the pig’s head as this was extremely economical. Today, nose to tail eating is promoted by some of the city’s finer dining establishments. In the late 19th century, they were locavores as well and you can bet that the meat, vegetables and dairy products were very local, maybe even from the backyard. Today, buying local is the thing to do, if for no other reason than you get better tasting ingredients while supporting your local businesses.

I hope the descendants of the ladies of the Church of St. John the Evangelist who put this book together are not too disappointed in me. Their ancestors seemed to have put their heart and soul into the cookbook with such good intentions and a wide variety of recipes. If it makes them feel any better, I have not made any headway in the recipes my most beloved grandmother left behind. I sit here with her yellow plexiglass recipe card holder on my lap and pull out recipes for Velvetta cheese squares, lamb pizza roll and Carolina Yam-coconut custard pie. I doubt I will attempt to try any, but I will enjoy the memories!