I love me some vintage cookbooks. Both for the morbid “look at all this Jell-O ham salad” atrocities, but also for a unique snapshot of culture a few decades ago. There’s High School History 1954: Brown v. Board of Education, polio, McCarthy, Kerouac. Then there are the fine details of living, cooking, and eating in this era. A cookbook, by way of subtle and not-so-subtle cues on every page, gives more color to the picture of a time and place. Here are my favorite 1954 moments from The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book. The previous generations didn’t start the fire—but they did cover turkeys in fat-soaked cheesecloth in the oven (see item 9), so that’s a miracle.
1.“Split pea or lentil soup always tastes better with a topping of frankfurters cut in one-inch lengths.”
2.“Sometimes children think they don’t care for soup, but a sprinkling of fluffy white popcorn over the soup gives them an urge to find out what is underneath the popcorn.”
3. “Years ago most people thought that deep-fat-fried foods were unhealthy, and so, though they yearned for the crunchy tastiness of these foods, they tried not to eat them too often.Today we know that deep-fat frying, or French frying, as it is sometimes called, can be a healthful way to cook foods as long as the fat does not become too hot so that it makes the foods indigestible, nor too cool, so that it soaks into the food. We are now able to eat these wonderful foods with a hearty appetite and an undisturbed conscience.”
4. You’ll also notice that in 1954, a vegetable soup starts with a full pound of ground beef:
5. … And “Mexican Style” soup contains zero ingredients iconic of Mexican food. “Ethnic” recipes in vintage cookbooks almost always consist of a standard American recipe (9 times out of 10, it’s a casserole), plus a splash of soy sauce. This is just flat-out impressive. Navy beans! Noodles! Parsley!
6. “This [chicken casserole] makes a wonderful Sunday dinner, because the chicken can cook while you are at church.”
7. Again, church. So much church.
8. “Turkey is available the year around due to the great development in turkey breeding and raising. The turkeys we find on the market today are uniform in quality: tender, plump, and juicy, with a wonderful flavor.” Things have changed a little.
9. Then there’s this mummy-inspired method for keeping poultry moist as it cooks: “Brush a piece of clean white cheesecloth … with melted fat. Lay over the turkey. Make certain the edges of the cloth are inside the shallow pan, otherwise you may get a smoky kitchen.” (Editor’s note: this basting technique is actually very effective, though yes, smoky kitchens are awful. Tuck that excess cheesecloth in the pan!)
10. Some aspects of cooking were more limited than today, but some were quite the opposite. Take the poultry options, for example: “The common classes of chicken are: broiler, fryer, roaster, pullet and hen, which is also sometimes called a stewing chicken. Capon is another class which may be found in some markets.”
11. This vegetable-cooking advice is surprisingly intense. Violent boiling! And that air, all up in your business, destroying all your vitamins.
12. ?It wouldn’t be 1954 without Weird Gender Stuff. “It was not too many years ago, however, that most men claimed that all they wanted was meat and potatoes, with perhaps a pie for dessert. Things are not so today. Men—and even boys—are not only eating salads, but insisting upon them as a part of the meal! There is probably a good reason for this change in attitude. In the first place, women have learned to use a little more imagination in making salads.”
13. A quick rundown of cheeses takes a heartbreaking turn: “Brie: soft, almost liquid center. The thick, moldy crust should be removed before eating.” Hello, Julia? It’s 1954. Come save us.
14. The cake chapter doles out some tough love for the aspiring baker: “Nowadays, we cannot blame a faulty or temperamental oven if our baking fails but must admit that we have ourselves made some error in measuring or mixing.” The cookie chapter follows up with: “Poor cookies will be nobody’s fault but your own if your pan is too large or too black.” Again, Julia, come save us from our self-loathing.
15. Of course, the book is not without its retro charms: “A favorite nephew of mine said that he really only cared for two kinds of pie. This seemed a little unusual, since pie is a favorite with most men. When questioned as to the two kinds he liked he said, ‘One crust and double-crust pies.’”
Entertainment aside, there is plenty of valuable advice in the The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book. Here’s one piece of wisdom—among many—that is timeless:
There is no mystery about being a good cook. All one needs to do is:
1. Study the recipe carefully and be sure you understand it.
2. Check all recipes before actually starting to cook, to make sure you have all the necessary ingredients.
3. Be accurate in your measurements.
Some practices never go out of fashion.
Danguole Lekaviciute cooks, eats, and drinks in Portland, and also really needs to know if you’re gonna eat that pickle spear. You can check out her food blog here, or come say hi on Twitter.