I am simultaneously fascinated and horrified by my collection of cookbooks from the early to mid-twentieth century. Reading recipes for dishes like chipped beef in aspic or drinks made with clam juice, strained ketchup, and nutmeg (nope, not making that up!), I feel like I’m watching a train wreck. I know nothing good will come of it, yet I can’t look away. And chapter intros that ask “Are you doing right by your man” by adding a “soupçon of spice” to your family dinner somehow make me want to smack someone upside the head and tie on my apron at the same time.
I have long wanted to host a dinner or cocktail party featuring nothing these old-school recipes, a huge percentage of which rely on lime Jello or canned vegetables or aspic and meat assembled in a ring mold. Still, my courage fails me every time. Will I discover that “Potted Pigeons” are much tastier than I would have imagined, or will my guests blanch at the prospect of “Jellied Fish”?
Today I hosted a lunch for my mother-in-law and a few other guests before we sat down to an afternoon of bridge. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out some of these old recipes, especially since I have been assured by one of my books from 1938, Thoughts for Food: A Menu Aid, that “Down six hundred points won’t be nearly as serious a matter after one of these two-course meals which are guaranteed to put all in a most affable mood.”
But a trip to the farmers’ market yesterday changed the game. With all that beautiful spring asparagus and tender baby Tuscan kale spread out before me, there was no way I could justify making a meal out of boiled mackerel and canned lima beans. So in the end I decided to make asparagus tips with a roasted garlic aioli, risotto with shiitakes and dried porcini (foraged by my mycologist friend), and a kale salad dusted with grated ricotta salata.
Still trying to capture something of the original spirit of my idea, I decided that for dessert I would make a recipe that I recently came across in my grandmother-in-law’s recipe box from around 1930.
Here’s the recipe, as it’s tidily typed on an index card in her box.
Molasses Drop Cookies
1/2 cup fat [I used butter]
1 cup sugar
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup sour milk [I used low-fat buttermilk]
1 cup molasses
1/2 cup raisins
1. Cream fat and sugar thoroughly; add beaten egg.
2. Add sifted dry ingredients alternating with milk and molasses; add raisins.
3. Drop from teaspoon 3 inches apart on greased tin [I used parchment paper instead of greasing my baking sheet.]
4. Bake in a moderate oven.
Temperature: 375°F. Time: 12 to 15 minutes.
Once I gathered together the ingredients …
Everything came together in a jiffy.
Of course, I suspect grandma used a wooden spoon rather than a KitchenAid stand mixer, but there’s no reason to be a Luddite about baking, is there?
All in all, they were just right for an afternoon of bridge, even if I did skip one book’s suggestion to precede dessert with a “a gelatin ring salad of vegetables or fruit and small finger sandwiches.” I’m still working up the nerve for that menu.