January 19, 2012

Tuna loaf and love: Sadie Stein on the peculiar joys of period recipes


At The Paris Review, Sadie Stein writes about her eccentric teenage interest in preparing the meals described in the 1917 narrative cookbook A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (with Bettina’s Best Recipes). The book’s protagonist is determined to run an “economical” household and to cook meals within a tight “budget” and is full of tips and tactics (for readers and her husband Bob) on how to keep costs down (buy in bulk, make your own mayonnaise, and on the rare occasion you eat steak, make it last for several meals). Here’s Stein’s example of a standard dinner menu for Bettina and Bob:

Creamed Tuna on Toast Strips
Canned Peas with Butter Sauce
Rolls        Butter
Strawberry Preserves
Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows

For weeks, Stein subjects her friends to her faithful replications of the cuisine of the teens, serving them “white sauces,” “prune whip,” and “weak coffee.” “In a spirit of verisimilitude,” Stein writes, “I insisted we dine at six P.M.”

She writes about the strange appeal of period cooking:

ATWtPaH‘s appeal as a cultural artifact is obvious: the menus are like time capsules….I justified my youthful experiment on vague grounds of historical research and sociological study. But the appeal was more elemental than that: like any young bride of 1917, I wanted to enter into Bettina’s perfectly ordered existence. (Besides, I was curious about just what those boubons would taste like.)…Unlike other forms of historical recreation, when you eat vintage food there is no pretending involved.

I’ve been increasingly encountering an interest in period food. (Perhaps the trend story has already been written. You tell me.) At a Christmas party, my alcohol-snob friends got very excited about period punch recipes. The recent New Yorker profile of Lucy Worsley, the author of  the book (and BBC miniseries) If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, describes how Worsley engages in “experimental archeology”—re-enacting historical practice in much the same way described by Stein. “Food and drink,” the article points out, “are perhaps the most effective of her tools for revivifying the past.”

Anyone interested in eating their way back in time is in for a treat at the end of the year when Melville House publishes an amazing 1930s-ear culinary artifact: a cookbook created by an eccentric Italian Duke who, convinced of the utopian necessity of vegetarian cuisine, created meatless versions of over one thousand classic Italian meals. When it comes out, perhaps we can convince Ms. Stein to give the Duke’s recipes a try… and taste the revolutionary spirit of these meals—meals, by the way, that are infinitely more flavorful than Bettina’s endless white sauces.