CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Old cookbooks are one of the things that perpetually hold my interest. They aren't just a source of old-time recipes that have been weeded out of today's cookbooks (like burnt sugar cake), but are a tiptoe through a different era and its unique views on society.
I was recently gifted with a copy of "The Modern Family Cook Book" written by Meta Given.
There are a few pages torn out from the front of the book, including the copyright page, so my best source of dating is the foreword, which is dated Jan. 1, 1942. This cookbook was released in the midst of World War II.
"Feeding the family has always been a matter of supreme interest to the individual; now, in the present emergency, it is a matter of national concern," the foreword reads. Feeding your family properly was patriotic.
This cookbook doesn't include just recipes, though. It includes meal plans for every day of the year. That's right, 365 meal plans. "Think of the hours of time and the brain-rackings this will save you!" it reads.
Sometimes forewords are the most entertaining parts of old cookbooks because that's where many of the juicy societal observations can be found.
The menus are planned for a family of five, and in 1940s pricing, that was estimated at $12 to $14 in grocery costs per week if the plans were followed strictly. The perspective of the book is described as seeking the middle ground between "slavish" adherence to "modern" diet notions and "the cheerful heedlessness of the old woman who'd ruther eat what she'd ruther." (Which explains why cookbooks older than the 1940s are even more fun.)
Each section opens with a detailed tutorial on the basics of whatever the topic is - breads, pie crusts, cakes; there's even an entire section on measurements. Its existence in this 1940s cookbook plays commentary to the fact that this was a time when people were beginning to move away in droves from rural environments to more urban and suburban locations, spreading out families and taking away the natural "teaching kitchen" of older family members mentoring the younger ones as they took on their own households.
Young women needed a book to tell them how to do things. And this book is absolutely directed at women, without any sense of sexism or shame. "This book is written for you, Mrs. Homemaker," the introduction states. (Yep, she's married, too. Single girls don't need this book -they're living at home with their parents!) And being a great cook is, with no equivocation, "the grand climax" of a woman's achievements in life. "Every woman should feel herself to be a hostess to her family." There is even a meal planner's creed at the beginning of the book.
The meal plans themselves are quite detailed. Here is a typical meal plan:
Breakfast - orange juice, prepared cereal with "top milk" (they were getting milk deliveries at the door in those days, and there would be cream at the top), toast with butter, jelly, coffee for adults, cocoa for children.
Lunch - grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, pineapple cabbage date salad, milk for all.
Dinner - stuffed beef heart, creamed peas and potatoes, baked acorn squash, head lettuce, Thousand Island dressing, bread and butter, apple pie, coffee for adults, milk for children.