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Vintage Cookbooks: 'Modern' gadgets the rage in 1923

Thursday, May 02, 2002

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the father of my children, prowling through a used book store in Denver, Colo., noticed a vintage cookbook published in Scranton, Pa., he bought it for my collection.

What he found was the "Woman's Institute Library of Cookery: Salads and Sandwiches, Cold and Frozen Desserts; Cakes, Cookies and Puddings; Pastries and Pies," published by the Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in 1923.

In the preface, the editors refer to salads, sandwiches and desserts as "niceties of the diet." They wrote, "Skill in their preparation signifies at once a modern housewife's mastery of the science of cookery."

Today, it's odd to think of people living in 1923 as "modern," but historians mark the close of World War I as the beginning of the modern era. And, for housewives of the flapper age, life must have seemed ultra-modern as improved kitchen equipment appeared in more and more homes and developments such as decaffeinated coffee (1923) and innovations such as paper napkins (1925) were introduced.

Food preparation became easier for homemakers during The Roaring Twenties or The Jazz Age, as gas ranges replaced wood- and coal-fed stoves, and refrigerators replaced iceboxes. While it took the next three decades for the full transformation in appliances to take place, small electrical "gadgets" such as turn-over toasters that kept the fingers cool were "all the rage."

In contrast to the housewife of the mid-1960s, almost 90 percent of whose food had undergone some sort of factory processing, the homemaker of 1923 prepared most of her food from scratch. There were exceptions. Some commercial canning was available, ensuring the use of a number of fruits and vegetables year-round.

We read in the "Library of Cookery": "An excellent way of using canned peaches or pears is to combine them with cream cheese for a salad. Mix 2 tablespoons cream and 1/4 teaspoon salt with a package of cream cheese and shape into balls.

"Place a ball between two peach halves and press together tightly. Place on lettuce leaves on a salad plate, pour salad dressing over the top and garnish with two halves of walnuts, or sprinkle chopped nuts over top."

The "frozen" desserts in the "Library of Cookery" -- a variety of ice creams still made in hand-cranked freezers packed with ice and salt -- might seem "modern" until we remember it was Thomas Jefferson who popularized ice cream in this country in the 18th century.

Electric stoves were around as early as the 1890s, but in 1923, stoves were most likely to be fueled by gas or even coal. The "Regulo" thermostat, still in use today, was invented in 1923, but control of oven heat was not accessible to most families for many more years.

Recipes for desserts in the "Library of Cookery" reflect the absence of oven temperature control. The baking instruction for pie, for instance, is "use a hot oven"; for macaroons, "a slow oven" and for rice custard, "a moderate oven."

Flapper's Rice Custard

2 eggs, well beaten
1 1/2 cups hot (but not boiling) milk
Scant 1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg (we prefer freshly grated)
2 cups cooked rice (To save time, we buy steamed rice from an Oriental restaurant; just make sure it isn't fried rice.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (a moderate oven).

Dissolve the sugar, salt and nutmeg in the hot milk. Blend the milk mixture into the eggs, then stir into the cooked rice. Place in a buttered baking dish set in or near a pan of warm water in the oven, to steam.

Bake just until the custard is set, about 35 to 45 minutes.

Serve warm or chilled with a sprinkling of raisins and whipped cream or half and half. Makes about 6 servings.

"Woman's Institute Library of Cookery," 1923

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