Cuisine a la Can

In my perusal of mid-20th century cookbooks, I’ve noticed the recipes contain a stunning array of canned foods.  It’s my guess that when the modern convenience craze began rolling in a big way and homes were being filled with “labor-saving devices,” food manufacturers jumped at the occasion with a little too much enthusiasm.  (The very fact that food could be considered “manufactured” should have given someone a glaring clue…)

I suppose housewives, enthralled by the idea of spending an extra hour or two at Mildred’s bridge party, thought they could come home, open a few cans, gussy them up, and ta-da!  Dinner!  This sort of cuisine delighted no one, ever, and thankfully, many of these tinned wonders disappeared along the way as manufacturers stopped canning everything they could squeeze into a cylinder.

If you had been cooking in the 1950s, take a look at these oh, so convenient canned wonders you could have chosen for your main dish (and all these are really found in the “Jiffy Cooking” section of the 1958 Mary Margaret McBride Encyclopedia of Cooking):

  • beef and kidneys
  • tongue and tongue loaf
  • chicken fricassee
  • chicken a la king
  • codfish cakes
  • Welsh rabbit

And for side dishes,

  • canned cooked rice
  • canned tomato aspic
  • canned dandelion greens

And for dessert, how about some canned fig pudding, complete with that tinny taste?

And don’t forget potted meat, the particular delicacy still easily found in stores and, I confess, my cupboard. Not everyone has a thoughtful sister-in-law who cleans out the potted meat shelf at the local scratch-n-dent store and gives it to you for your birthday.

As I walked past the freezer section at the grocery store today, I saw frozen pre-made single-serve tubs of oatmeal. (What better way to entice you out of bed in the morning?)  A few shelves away were packages of frozen mashed potatoes.  And then there’s the pre-cooked, vacuum-packed bacon, milk in a cardboard box, frosting and cheese in tubs–shelf-stable for years, and a vast number of other foods preserved and packaged for maximum storage time at the expense of nutritional quality and most notably, taste.

Hmm. The cans may not be as popular these days but maybe some things haven’t changed after all.

As we re-learn the old ways of preparing and storing food, I hope that these technological wonders we have accepted as food will one day be as unappetizing as the early canned experiments.

photo source

“Trees” and “Knees” – 1930’s and 1960’s

Are you familiar with the poem Trees, by Joyce Kilmer?  “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…”?  It’s a classic poem teachers have long assigned to their students for memorization.

In case you didn’t know that the poem had been set to music, here is an unforgettable version, whose haunting melody will do just that.  Haunt you.  You’ll never be able to hum it in key ever again.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that I recently discovered an alternate version of that revered poem in the May, 1968 issue of Women’s Household magazine.  This poem seems fitting as we head into the summer season, when knees (and just about everything else) are on full display.

I think that I shall never see

A thing as ugly as a knee,

Above whose gnarled and knotted crest

The mini-hemline comes to rest.

Or one that’s even worse than that

When padded with repulsive fat.

A knee that may in summer wear

Nothing at all, but be quite bare.

Behind whose flex there oft remains

A network of blue and broken veins.

Some knees continue to perplex–

How can they form the letter “X”?

While in another set one sees

A pair of true parentheses.

Small nuts write verses such as these,

But greater nuts display their knees!

-Anonymous

Making a Household Inventory, 1884

…And the first thing…you want to make a list of all the housekeeping articles in the house, and the condition they are in. Women usually keep the run of such things in their minds; but it is more businesslike, and makes matters clearer to know what you have in writing.” -1884

It’s embarrassing. It dawned on me this spring that I’d never done a thorough cleaning of our linen cupboards. Our house has more cupboards, closets, and built-in drawers than we will ever use. So when we moved here, taking the house over from relatives, I just put my linens in the front of the cupboards, never using the ones left behind in the back of the deep shelves.

Anyway, I dug everything out of the cupboards and piled them on a couple of beds so I could look through them. …I was kind of appalled. This didn’t even include any of the master bedroom bedding and the few more blankets I found later. This also doesn’t count the bedding already on the beds. Needless to say, I lost interest in the project after I saw the size of the piles and called it a day. It took me several afternoons of sorting by size, then sorting by quality, then sorting by need and want before I finally finished the job.

So why was this inventory useful? First, it allowed me to analyze and clear out the items I don’t use or need. (My donation pile was massive!) I can clearly see what I have in the cupboards and things will no longer get shoved to the back and forgotten. Second, I now have a clear idea of what I own. And when I know what I need, I’ll be more aware and able to take advantage of a sale, making me more efficient, or, as the author wrote, “more businesslike.”  

Incidentally, I thought that I needed a new mattress pad and sheets for the double bed in the guest room, but happily, I found both. Sorting through everything confirmed that I need absolutely nothing in the way of bedding, especially when it comes to pillowcases. All this time I’ve been running a haven for orphan pillowcases and I didn’t even know it.

No Dollar Signs on Women’s Work, part 2

A couple of months after Unknown’s” letter first appeared, a response was written by a woman from Ohio, who signed her letter “Well-known.” She disagreed with the perspective of “Unknown”, the beet farmer’s wife, writing, “I think Unknown and her men do not realize how far a clean, comfortable, pleasant home goes toward getting that beet check.”

Mrs. Well-known went on to say that “it is only through the economy of the homemaker that most taxes are paid, that there is money for beet seed, etc.” She asked Mrs. Unknown, “What would the beet check amount to if there were not three wholesome meals every day? How far would it go if the homemaker did not bake the bread, finish the ironing, care for the children and the chicks, and do the other things ‘too numerous to mention’?”

Nearly every year around Mother’s Day, someone writes an article trying to calculate the worth of a stay-at-home mother. If someone were to hire a woman (or several!) to do all the tasks of a typical mother and factor in the overtime hours she works, her annual salary is estimated from $75,000 all the way up to $143,000! (Suddenly, that beet check isn’t going very far…)

For another modern-day example, my husband knows how to cook but dislikes it. He mentioned earlier this week that if it weren’t for me cooking for him, his meals would consist of cold cereal, frozen pizza, takeout dinners, and even worse, a tube of saltines with a jar of peanut butter. Without me cooking our meals from scratch, grocery costs would easily be triple our current budget and I think it’s reasonable to conclude that his health would be questionable.

Mrs. Well-known included this little story in her letter:

The wife of a prominent lawyer in our city was congratulated one day by a leading physician on her husband’s success, and denied any part in it. “You do not realize, “ the doctor answered, “how far a pleasant, sympathetic environment at home goes toward making a man’s success.”

Just another example of the incalculable value of the housewife, and happy are the husband and wife who know it!