Alas, last Sunday I did not have a choice. I had a few hours to prepare my dishes before our latest meeting of the Historical Cooking Group. When I first conceived of this project, I imagined myself tackling the most intricate and outlandish recipes each month. For those of you who have been following the blog, you know that this is not the case. I often make some sort of cake or bread. These choices have not necessarily been a cop-out, especially due to my love of baking and past job of creating wedding cakes, but they were never the hardest recipes in the book. Usually Emili and Carolynn take on the most challenging dishes.
After Carolynn suggested that our cookbook for April be Escoffier’s work, I thought that I could really use this opportunity to buckle down and do something elaborate… And then I looked at my schedule for that week. Beverages and appetizers it had to be.
As a first-year doctoral student preparing to take my comprehensive exams in two weeks, perhaps I have been too hard on myself. Soon I will have more flexibility in my schedule to work with some of the harder recipes. Plus, being a vegetarian does limit some of my choices from month to month, depending on the time period we are working with. Now I don’t want to let myself off of the hook too much, but I recently came to an important, though seemingly obvious, realization:
People of the past got tired too.
One of our jobs as historians looking at cookbooks is to contextualize the book within its own time period. As Barbara Wheaton has stated when discussing her work as a culinary historian in her article “Finding Real Life in Cookbooks,” cookbooks can tell us a lot about the past. We can learn about what ingredients were available, the kinds of technologies that people of the past used in their households, and better understand gendered work roles. Wheaton importantly reminds us though that just because something was in a cookbook doesn’t mean that it was actually a dish that people cooked. Even thinking about the cookbooks we use today, how many of the recipes do we really use? Don’t many of us find a few of our favorite dishes and make them over and over? This winter I made the Baked Alaska from “The Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.” I doubt that 1950s American housewives were carrying that treat to the table on a regular basis.
It’s important to remember that when we bring the dishes that we cook from these cookbooks to our meetings that we aren’t necessarily assembling a typical meal of the period. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with our group’s approach to have each person experiment with the recipes that sound most interesting to them. However, for our readers and for ourselves, I think that if we are to truly get into the mindset of cooks from the past, we need to allow ourselves those days when we are tired, or those days when we don’t use the entire recommended amount of an ingredient because it is so expensive (Saffron, I’m talking about you).
Our cookbook for this month was not for the average cook. As Carolynn and Emili wonderfully explained, Escoffier was writing for chefs. Now being that I am not a chef and had only a few hours to prepare and knowing that I had to transport whatever I made in my backpack for my 9 km bike ride to Kathleen’s house, I chose to make Orangeade and Shrimp Toast.
I also thought I would attempt the mock tomatoes, but since the recipe didn’t tell me to blanche the tomatoes first, my attempt to remove their skin resulted in this disaster.
I followed the simple recipe exactly for the Orangeade, except I didn’t strain it at the end for no reason other than laziness and because I have a preference for pulp in my juice.
I added the sparkling water just before serving (having to pick up a bottle from the local Depanneur just outside of Kathleen’s apartment as trekking to the store before beginning the process seemed like too much work and anyways it was the final step).
Everyone seemed to enjoy the flavor and said that it reminded them of Orangina without the artificial taste. I’ll call that a success.
For the shrimp toast, I first had to make shrimp butter.
I boiled some frozen shrimp, started to mash them up into the butter and when that was taking too long, I just cut the shrimp into tiny chunks and melted the butter (which you aren’t supposed to do), and I poured that butter onto the circles of toast I had prepared.
I was quite pleased with my decision to use the lid of a can to cut the perfect circles of bread for the toast, as I could not find my cookie cutter.
I, then, decorated the shrimp toast somewhat in the manner according to Escoffier’s advice. Rather than employ capers, I used the kalamata olives in my fridge. Yes, I know. Shame on me. Tsk, tsk. But remember, people of the past made substitutions too… right?
Here is what the plate looked prior to bike transport.
Now for my favorite innovation of the entire experience: here is how I transported the decorated plate for the bike ride.
If Escoffier saw my choices, he would probably scoff at me. Oh well.
As historians it is important that we never forget the humanity of our subjects. As Nancy Partner reminds us in her article, “No Sex, No Gender,” we are going to radically distort our analysis of the past if we forget that we are talking about real people who had their own experiences and their own conceptions of themselves.
Cookbooks are valuable tools to us as historians, but they are not rulebooks. If we want to understand the cooks of the past, we cannot impose false rigidity upon ourselves and expect ourselves to execute each recipe with perfection. Meanings and discourses change over time. Even if I followed every recipe to the T, it is highly unlikely that my interpretation would be the same as my historical subject’s. It is okay to play with our methods, as long as we are upfront about our decisions.
This Historical Cooking Project is highly valuable to my work as a historian because it reminds me of the humanity of the people I look at in my own research. In having to actually try to make these recipes, I am reminded of my subjects’ individual agencies. Working with cookbooks makes me a better historian.
(written by Alex Ketchum)