An old, dog-eared newspaper, oxidized and sun-yellowed, brings with it a certain nostalgia. There's the date on the page, of course, but there's also the advertisements inside for businesses that have long since closed their doors (Hazel's Beauty Salon, Cissie's Ladies' Apparel, Woolco) and for products (Florient Deoderizer, Sun Spun Ice Cream, Seamprufe) long forgotten by Mr. and Mrs. Homemaker. Even the fonts in the old ads pull at the heartstrings; no longer in use (except when an advertiser is purposefully going for an "old-time" feel), they seem quaint to us, a relic of bygone eras.
Turn to the recipe and homemaking section -- or, as it's called in the July 25, 1958, issue of the Charlotte Observer, the "For and About Women" section -- and the time-travel continues. Recipes for bygone food fads like pineapple slice roasts, goulash, chop suey and Bavarian ham squares remind us just how closely our palates follow our thinking patterns (or is it the other way around?). Dishes such as those described above were new and exotic at the time, and carried with them a little mystery, an aroma of intrigue and the whisper of new possibilities. Fast-forward to today, and within a 15-minute drive from the heart of downtown we now have loads of ethnic food options: restaurants and little markets carrying everything from German to Vietnamese, Malaysian, Dominican and Ethiopian cuisines.
What we seem to be losing more and more, however, are those recipes from our own past, whether handed down by a mother, father, church group member or neighbor. The perusal of old, handmade- or limited-run cookbooks and vintage newspapers can be a great way to bring history back to life. Simply assemble the listed ingredients, follow the directions (mind the pencilled tips in the margins) and -- voila -- a time machine. It's not the easiest thing to explain to a kid how life was for your great-grandparents. However, a meal prepared to their specifications can be historical preservation on a plate, if you will. Hoisting a forkful, you can almost believe you are there at the table with Grandma and Grandpa, tasting the very same things they did so many years ago.
To test this theory, a friend of mine recently prepared a dish (macaroni loaf) taken from the 1936 edition of the Watkins Cook Book (the Watkins Company was a pioneering direct-sale/mail-order company back in the early part of last century). The recipe wasn't without its roadblocks (scalded milk? Egg yolks and whites beaten and blended in separately?) But the finished product turned out, by all accounts, rather tasty. While the cream mushroom sauce could easily have been replaced by a can of cream of mushroom soup, the result of doing it the old-fashioned way turned out to be rather like the wartime meal it was likely designed to be: frugal, made with readily available products and filling. It was not unlike a macaroni-filled souffle, in fact (a description which no doubt would have been blasphemy 70 years ago), and would work fine as a breakfast food, albeit without the cream sauce.
It was a meal that none of my friends had ever tasted before, yet we all agreed it was interesting enough to make (and eat) again, perhaps with a few changes here and there to account for a 21st century palate. (Most notably, it seems American folks' tastes have gotten much spicier over the years; very few of the old recipes surveyed contained anything other than salt and pepper and the odd bit of paprika or celery salt.)
These books and clippings also provide a look into the history of our own hometowns. A December 12, 1969, edition of the Charlotte Observer contains a story about one Debbie Queen. Debbie -- "an attractive 14 1/2-year-old who invests her spending money in building up a collection of prized cookbooks" -- decided that her United Nations project was going to be a culinary tour of the globe. Preparing such dishes as Hungarian ham, empanadas and brioche, Debbie's presentation was the hit of Mr. Lex Hood's history class. Debbie said all the students came over for seconds. One boy reportedly became so excited that he announced he would "marry a girl that could cook like Debbie."
A lot has changed since '50s and '60s, of course. Women aren't necessarily expected to be the primary food preparers anymore, and mega-sized grocery stores allow us to prepare most any kind of meal we set our minds to. Fancy kitchen gadgets are as hot-selling today as Hotpoint Electric Ranges were back in the '50s. Heck, we even have entire cable networks devoted to food, with some of the biggest celebrity chefs earning tens of millions of dollars to say things like "bam," with vigor.
However, food itself -- as well as the stories it can tell us -- hasn't changed all that much, when you get down to it. Like our ancestors, we work to do the best we can with what we have in life (as well as the cupboard), and when we prepare meals with a healthy dose of love and affection, we often find, even a half-century or more later, that it's usually more than enough.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Life, among other publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.