Cooking up the past

In an earlier post, on vintage recipe pamphlets, I talked about how the “history and culture of food fascinates me – especially when it is represented visually”. But, what about the recipes themselves? Stripped down to the essentials, they are just a list of ingredients and directions for making something. What do they say about the history and culture of food? And moreover, what does a “gelatin salad” really taste like?

Before the internet and tools like Pinterest, a home cook’s personal recipes were often organized in recipe boxes or files. The recipes were handwritten on small index cards or were clipped from the local newspaper and filed according to subject.  Like family photo albums, recipe boxes represent a microcosm of a family’s social history.

recipe box
My great aunt’s old recipe box. Photo: C. Hagemoen.

My great-aunt was born in Italy, and I remember many (Italian) family dinners at her house. So, as I was flipping through this box (on loan from my mother) I was hoping to find a treasure trove of favorite Italian family dishes. I was a little disappointed to find recipe cards and newspaper clippings for more typical North American fare. But after some thought, I realized that the Italian food I enjoyed she didn’t have (nor need) a recipe for – it was all done from memory after many years of practice. These are the type of recipes that are passed down through families by observation or osmosis – you just know how to make it.

The Pasta Ladies – YouTube. (My great-aunt with her friends and family making pasta)

The recipes I found in the box were brief and had very sparse instructions, almost to the point of being cryptic. These recipes were from a time when most women knew basic cooking techniques and didn’t require (nor perhaps, desire) complex, time-consuming recipes. On many occasions, a recipe only listed the ingredients with no directions or method. It appears that there was an assumed level of skill and knowledge for the cook when using a recipe of this vintage.

unbaked chocolate cake
Recipe for ‘Unbaked Chocolate Cake’ submitted by Marg Kroeker for fundraising cookbook, ca. 1950-1970.  This recipe is simple and I think would be rather tasty. Photo: C.Hagemoen.

In addition to the recipe box (and some vintage food pamphlets), my great aunt had this quaint little book of simply bound recipes that was likely compiled and sold by a local group as a fundraising activity. Like the recipe box, it is a collection of simple and sparsely written recipes that were meant to appeal to the home cook – as they were written by other home cooks.

I have always wanted to try and make something from vintage recipes, but with sparse instructions combined with the lack of images, it was hard for a modern day cook, like myself, to imagine how they would turn out. I was also hesitant to cook with ingredients that were contrary to the way I like to eat today. For example, the recipe for “Jiffy Casserole” (below), which calls for a tin of cream of mushroom soup and potato chips, was ruled out.

recipe for jiffy casserole
Recipe for ‘Jiffy Casserole’ submitted by Ermy Robertson for fundraising cookbook, ca. 1950-1970. Photo: C.Hagemoen.

There is a satisfying charm about a physical object like a recipe card or book, particularly if it’s of a certain age and it bears the evidence of loving use and wear. I wish I had more family favorite recipes written down like this recipe for “Frosted Fruit Squares”.

Frosted Fruit Squares recipe
Recipe card for my great-aunt’s ‘Frosted Fruit Squares’, an old family favorite.

An unlikely combination of lemon Jello, 7-Up, mini marshmallows, fruit, whipped cream and grated cheddar cheese, these “Frosted Fruit Squares” are a sentimental journey to a simpler time. This recipe came from my great aunt’s collection and it was something she always made for festive family gatherings.  For the last two years I have made it for Christmas Eve dinner, and eating it has been a most enjoyable trip down memory lane.

I don’t have many family recipes chronicled, which is unfortunate, I guess this is why I started collecting vintage cookbooks. If you don’t have a collection of old family recipes then collecting and using vintage cookbooks is a great way to experience a personal connection with the past. Like clothing styles in photographs, you can often tell a recipe’s age by the type of ingredients listed (canned soup, potato chips), or even by the recipe itself – how many “gelatin salads” have you had lately?

So, inspired by another blogger at Vintage Home Helps, I decided to try my hand at making some vintage recipes. I recently acquired the Edith Adams Omnibus cookbook, so I decided to cook something from its pages. The Edith Adams Omnibus is an edited collection of readers ‘prize’ recipes sent to the Vancouver Sun’s Edith Adams Cottage. Recipes from BC homemakers would be submitted to “Edith Adams” and then, if selected, would be rewarded with a $1 cheque prize along with their recipe appearing in the newspaper. The appeal of having one’s recipe published increased when the Vancouver Sun newspaper began publishing a selection of the best prize recipes in an annual cookbook. Annual prize cookbooks were produced annually from the mid-1930s to 1950.

The homestyle recipes are written with sparse directions and don’t offer serving amounts. [are you noticing a theme here?]  As well, many strayed from the traditional recipe format and were written as prose. Case in point, is this 1938 cookie recipe I found in the Edith Adams Omnibus Cookbook:

60 Seconds Cookie

Into an enamel mixing bowl melt ⅔ cup of shortening, butter preferred. To this add 1 cup rolled oats and ½ cup sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix all together with 1 well-beaten egg and add 1 teaspoon of flavouring. Spread this in a greased 10-inch square pan and bake until quite brown in a moderate oven 350°F for about 30 minutes. Cut at once any size desired, remove from the pan as they become very brittle on standing. Part of the rolled oats may be replaced by coconut.
These cookies take about a minute or two to mix, therefore their name.
They won a prize for Beatrice Drummond, North Vancouver.

From the 1938 Edith Adam’s Prize Winners 5th Annual Cook Book

cookies cooling
My attempt at the “60 Seconds Cookies” recipe from the Edith Adams Omnibus. Photo: C.Hagemoen

What appealed to me was the simplicity of the recipe and the fact it didn’t contain anything I really didn’t want to cook with (no canned soup in this one). I was also intrigued by the fact that this recipe didn’t use any flour! Considering the trend toward gluten-free foods, I thought this recipe had real modern day potential.

One thing that confused me, was that you baked the cookies in one cake pan and then had to cut the whole thing into squares. I think it would have been easier to make them into individual cookies straight away (thus reducing the baking time), and that is exactly what I intend to do the next time I bake them. This recipe is a keeper.

I had high hopes for the next recipe I tried – Fisherman’s Pancakes.

Fisherman's pancakes
My 2013 “Fisherman’s Pancakes” from a 1937 recipe from the Edith Adams Omnibus. Photo: C. Hagemoen.

Fisherman’s Pancakes
Make a batter of the following:
1 egg beaten
⅓ cup milk
¾ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
in to this well-beaten batter fold:
1 cup cooked salmon, boned and flaked
1 slice of cooked and minced bacon
Fry on a slightly oiled griddle until bubbly, turn and fry to a golden brown. Serve at once.
Here is a pancake recipe which is ideal to serve at lunch time if your breakfasters have time for only toast and coffee in the morning. It is also a good way to use up any left over cooked salmon. This won a prize for Mrs. J.W. Lloyd, Nanoose.
From the ca. 1937 Edith Adam’s Prize Winners 4th Annual Cook Book

For my attempt, I used whole smoked salmon and even added another slice of bacon. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite turn out the way I expected.

Most basic pancake recipes call for a little melted butter, or oil in the mixture – I think this would have made a better batter. I also think the addition of some corn kernels or diced bell pepper or sliced green onion would have complemented the richness of the salmon and bacon nicely. However, these additions might not have been realistic for the time in which the recipe was created. In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a real need for economy in the kitchen when rationing restricted purchases of meat, sugar, and butter. People in general ate more simply, whether by necessity or by design.  When it came to food and eating, there was simply less choice and variety. Or, as my often father recalled from his childhood, “you got what you were given, and liked it”.

My ultimate vintage recipe goal is to make a gelatin salad or aspic – there is something truly otherworldly about them. However, first I need to procure a nice gelatin mould… and perhaps a little courage!

Gelatin salad
Gelatin Salad ca. 1958. Is it dessert? Is it really a “salad”? No one really knows. Photo from the July 1958 issue of McCalls.




9 thoughts on “Cooking up the past

  1. That video is incredible! I want to be in the room. Where’s the tardis? Plus, I never heard that nightmarish jello-cheese-marshmallow dessert (no, I did not like it, but appreciate the nostalgia) called “Frosted Fruit Bars”. How did the 60 Seconds Cookie taste? What are the blobs inside that green jello mould? Quail eggs?
    Fantastic blog… thanks C.!


    1. Thanks P! The cookies tasted like oatmeal cookies…but a little crispier. I also used some grated unsweetened coconut for some of the oats as suggested in the recipe. I always loved that jello-cheese-marshmallow dessert…but I didn’t know what it was actually called til I saw the recipe card – it was likely a recipe put out by the jello or 7-up people. I am sorry to say I have no idea what those blobs are… maybe melon? or grapes?

    2. I’ve got that apron.
      What did we call the jello dessert? I know our little brother loved it and could have eaten a whole one himself.

      1. I can’t remember what we called it. I loved it too, that is why I am starting to make it again. It is actually really light after a heavy meal!

  2. I’m totally going to make the 60 second cookies! They sound really good – I love crisp oatmeal cookies with coconut 🙂 That jello cheese thing sounds a little too oddball for me, but then I’m not a fan of jello!

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