Until recently, I wasn’t aware of “The Kansas Home Cook-Book,” an 1874 publication by the “Ladies of Leavenworth” (with recipes contributed by cooks from other cities and towns), but was glad a reprint of the book is still available. In the tech-focused times we live in — and I often resist — a chance to dip into the kitchens of 19th-century Kansas cooks has been a welcome diversion.
I learned a few things while perusing — and even cooking from — the book’s more than 250 pages, some handwritten. Spanning the wide range of kitchen magic that existed in those days — from making a proper cup of “dyspeptic coffee” (using cornmeal and molasses to relieve any potential gastrointestinal issues) to advising foot baths for quarter crack in horses — the book offers some takeaway lessons — in history, life and cooking:
Cooks operated by instinct with more relaxed modes of measure. Some instructions were minimal or even nonexistent. You may find directions, as in the one for a Sally Lunn bread recipe, that read, “For supper at six make up at twelve o’clock.” It was expected that you brought your own know-how to whatever you were doing. Obviously, you won’t find any oven temperatures in “The Kansas Home Cook-Book.” Stoves and ovens of the time were likely cast iron and fired up via wood or coal. You’ll see things like “quick oven” or “slow oven” or “rapid boil.” The measuring of ingredients, too, was more instinctual and relied on using quarts and pints and pounds of items and other modes of measure, such as using “butter the size of an egg” or knowing that a cup of sugar was sometimes, literally, “one teacup sugar.”
Times change, when it comes to favored dishes. The book has lengthy sections on breads, cakes, pies and cookies, while the vegetable section is somewhat scant. There also seem to be an infinite array of pudding recipes — from “Transparent Pudding,” a soufflé-like dish served over fruit, to “Apple Snow,” cooked apples beaten with granulated sugar and egg whites — that show this soft, spoonable and often steamed dessert was a favorite at the time and maybe a carryover tradition from European heritage. In contrast, the book also features recipes for wild salsify, snipe, prairie chicken and venison, reflecting the hunting and gathering ways of the settlers.
“New” old terms offer a time-capsule vocabulary lesson. Have you ever heard of “frugolac”? It was a syrup made from fresh fruit, blended with milk and mixed into cream for a dessert. “Spinage” was the word for spinach; it was “cold slaw” instead of coleslaw; “potage” was a term for soup, “gruel” for cooked cereals and “gem” or “gem pans” referred to muffin-style breads baked in a particular cast-iron pan. The bread section also featured such unusual recipes as those for “Puffet” (a light batter bread served with tea) and “Rusks” (a bread with more density).
Unexpected ingredients were used to make familiar things. The cookbook has several recipes for “catsup” (not ketchup) made from plums, gooseberries, currants and cucumbers. Marmalade was made from grapes, which were also pickled to make “mock olives.” “Oysters” were created from corn by frying it in little fritters. It was clear that, as adventurous as today’s cooks claim to be, our forebears were more resourceful in re-imagining their ingredients and using what they had available.
No matter what the meal, thought was put into the menu. I love old cookbooks offering menu suggestions, which give an idea of what was laid out on the tables of the time. A “Company Tea” in the “Bills of Fare” chapter might include a spread of tea, coffee, chocolate, biscuits, oyster patties, cold tongue, cake and preserves. A sample breakfast includes broiled spring chicken and an egg omelette, as well as rolls, corn bread, mashed potatoes, coffee and chocolate.
Old cookbooks offer help beyond cooking. The “Kansas Home Cook-Book,” like many older cookbooks, served as all-purpose guidance in many matters, such as providing thrifty cooking ideas in “Economy Dishes,” like “Hotch Potch,” a meat and bread mixture baked into a pie. There are sections on “Diet for the Sick,” as well as “Medical Hints,” e.g., for cuts and burns, use “equal parts burgundy pitch, beeswax and lard melted together.” The “Useful Hints” chapter gives advice on how to make a canary sing (rock candy in its water), to how to make everything from “vermin exterminator” to cologne.
But it is the “Table Etiquette” section of the book that reflects the hard-won pride and humility of early Kansas settlers still found today: “Food served gracefully, and without confusion, renders the plainest meal a season of enjoyment,” advised the Ladies of Leavenworth. “Be hospitable, even if it is a crust and a cup of cold water and is clean, and good of its kind, there is no reason to blush for it; and with sincere friends, the hearty welcome will make amends for the absence of rich viands.”
“The Kansas Home Cook-Book: Consisting of Recipes by Ladies of Leavenworth and Other Cities and Towns,” was originally published in 1874 by the Board of Managers for the Benefit of the Home for the Friendless. It was reprinted and published by the American Antiquarian Society and Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, in 2013 and is available through Amazon and other booksellers.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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