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

Rest Where You Are, 1925

With the exception of one aspect, I have truly loved my 40+ years of being a housewife. What is my one exception? The following old saying states it best: “A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s (housewife’s) work is never done.” Since my home is my workplace, my many duties are always in plain sight staring at me, begging to be done! Although I knew that I needed a change of perspective rather than a change of job, I was never able to grasp a solution to my problem until now. A teenage girl from Nebraska, born more than a century ago provided me with the answer.

I am a high school girl and know the meaning of hard work. My mother is an invalid and I have five brothers and sisters and so have housework and school work both to do.

I want to tell you of some magic words I found. Maybe you will not think they are magic if you read them casually. I don’t know who wrote the verses but I do wish every harassed house mother and others who are overworked, might try their potency. Read them slowly with the idea of getting their full meaning. There is something almost mysterious about the way they fit each hard day.

“When spurred by tasks unceasing or undone,
You would seek rest afar

And cannot, though repose by rightly won,
Rest where you are.

“Neglect the needless, sanctify the rest,
Move without stress or jar,

With quiet of a spirit self-possessed,
Rest where you are.

“Not in event, restriction or release,
Not in scenes near or far

But in ourselves are restlessness or peace,
Rest where you are!

“Tasks, unceasing or undone,” which spur you unmercifully on–isn’t that sometimes true of housework? If you cannot be spared for a vacation, why “rest where you are!” I know it can be done.

“Neglect the needless” and half of your load is lifted. “Sanctify the rest.” After all is there any office on God’s green earth so well worth filling as that of caring for your home?

“Move without stress or jar,” in other words, take your time and do not worry. Now say the rest slowly. It is magic!

I may be little but I have found the magic within which makes me bigger than the biggest day’s work that ever comes my way.

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.