Today's cooks have it easier

Convenience: A century ago, everything in the kitchen was prepared from scratch. And takeout pizza wasn't an option.

November 17, 1999|By Kelly Watts | Kelly Watts,Special to the Sun

We have it good in the kitchen these days.

But I never realized how good we have it until I started flipping through a cookbook filled with old recipes. Maryland's kitchens at the turn of the 19th century come alive with anecdotes and recipes found in a reissued copy of "Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), compiled by Frederick Philip Stieff.

Just reading the kinds of recipes -- dozens for making preserves, 10 recipes for curing meat and four recipes for cooking terrapin -- and their instructions (or lack of them) makes me happy, and thankful, to be cooking now.

Running a household kitchen 100 years ago meant making everything from scratch -- curing ham in the smokehouse, beating biscuit dough for nearly an hour to get airy results and spending hours making tomato ketchup, sauerkraut and blackberry cordial.

The quantities of these recipes' ingredients also boggle the mind: 1/2 bushel of salt for curing ham, 30 eggs for making a single cake, 125 pounds of cabbage shavings for the sauerkraut.

Imagine what cooks at the turn of the 19th century must have endured, especially for the holidays. A Maryland Thanksgiving menu, for instance, might have included smoked ham, roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberries, celery salad and rolls. Specialties like oyster stew, spoon bread, mince pie and white potato pie also were served.

This year, let's offer "thanks" for not having to make everything, or anything, from scratch. And a thanks for small, everyday con- veniences like bottled ketchup, canned sauerkraut, cooked ham and cake mixes.

Recipe quantities were often large because cooks a century ago had to plan meals months in advance. Tomatoes were available only in summertime, so if a cook wanted to have tomatoes in the winter, bulk amounts of tomatoes would have to be pickled, preserved or made into relishes while they were fresh. Multiply that amount of work by all of the different crops, such as peaches, raspberries, cucumbers, cantaloupe, bell peppers, pears and mushrooms, and it's amazing that the cook ever left the kitchen at all.

Here's thanks for not having to plan dozens of meals at once; planning one meal a day is more than enough. And another thanks for grocery stores, whose readily available produce, which seems to defy the seasons, means not having to eat pickled vegetables all winter long.

Obviously, cooking was not a choice. It was an important part of day-to-day living for our culinary predecessors. Family recipes were passed down from generation to generation. Cookbooks, less commonly used, relied on the cook's experience to know how to debone a chicken, remove the gall bladder from a terrapin and make a flaky pie crust. Usually, no instructions were given.

Measurements such as a gill (4 ounces) of cream, a dust of flour, a lump of butter the size of an egg, a glass of wine and a teacup of sugar were commonly used. Baking was done in a slack, moderate or quick oven -- no temperature given.

Here's a humble thanks for today's cookbooks, which spell out everything and use standard measurements and temperatures. And a huge thank you to Chinese takeout and pizza delivery, which make cooking an option, not a necessity.

When reading the recipes and stories of a bygone time, it's difficult to grasp that only 100 years separate those kitchens from today's. The older recipes seem ancient, and yet, they're not.

With the future looming ahead of us, as we move toward a new century and a new millennium, it's comforting to know that the past isn't that far behind us.

For this Thanksgiving, consider serving a couple of these older recipes with your usual turkey dinner.

It's a reassuring reminder of where we've been -- and how good we have it.

White Potato Pie (old)

1 pound Irish potatoes

2/3 cup country butter

3/4 cup sugar (good measure)

salt to taste

1/2 cup heavy country cream

1/2 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

juice and grated rind of 1 lemon

seasoning to taste with grated nutmeg and vanilla or 1/4 cup sherry wine

4 eggs

Cook potatoes, mashing them through a ricer when done. Add butter to hot potatoes and mix well; stir in sugar, salt, cream and milk, then baking powder, lemon juice and rind, nutmeg and vanilla or sherry.

Beat eggs well and stir into potato mixture. Line a pie pan with thin pastry and fill with the mixture. Bake in a moderate oven until firm and brown.

-- From "Maryland's Way" (Hammond-Harwood House Association, 1966)

White Potato Pie (newer)

1 pound red potatoes (about 2 medium-large potatoes), peeled

2/3 cup butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup sherry or vanilla extract and nutmeg to taste

4 eggs

1 frozen 9-inch deep-dish pie crust (unthawed)

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