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Vintage Cookbooks: Old-style 'heirloom' recipes invite skepticism

Thursday, January 02, 2003

By Alice Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sometimes you can't judge a book by its title. In 1963, Beatrice Vaughan compiled "Yankee Hill-Country Cooking: Heirloom Recipes From Rural Kitchens." My son, who lives in New England, found it at a used book sale and sent it to me.

While the recipes, such as Buttermilk Popovers, Vermont Fritters, Beanpot Baked Chicken, Horehound Candy and Maple Popcorn Balls, sound like heirloom recipes, and although Vaughan asserts she has made use of "old handwritten cookbooks," there is really no way to verify the origins of any of the recipes because Vaughan doesn't make it clear where any of the recipes actually came from.

Dishes such as Old-Fashioned Head Cheese, however, are fun to read. The recipe uses a salt-and-peppered hog's head, "well trimmed and quartered." The head is boiled about 3 hours, partially cooled, then drained. The bone, fat and gristle are separated from the meat, which is then chopped fine, packed into bread tins, cooled to congeal into loaves and later sliced. According to Vaughan, "Wonderfully good, especially in a sandwich."

It's not clear what era or even which of the New England states Vaughan might be referring to when she talks about the "olden days," "our forebears," and "the early housewife of our hill country." It's all so vague.

And when Vaughan relates her un-named great-grandmother's method of freezing soup for the winter, I feel compelled to swallow the tale with more than a grain of salt:

"[Great-Grandmother] made a huge kettle of meat and vegetable soup which she set in the frigid back pantry. In the center of the kettle she stood upright a wooden paddle having a loop in the end of its handle. When the soup had frozen to granite hardness, great-grandmother warmed the outside of the kettle just enough to slide the icy lump out intact. The frozen mass was hung by the handle over a nail in a high beam. When soup was needed, she chopped off a hunk with the hatchet and heated it up."

The soups and stews Vaughan includes in her collection do have the stamp of old-style country living: Salt Cod Chowder, Green Pea and Tomato Soup, Baked Bean Soup and Parsnip Stew.

Her chapter on vegetables makes the point, probably true enough, that country gardens of the past provided an important part of folks' meals in the summer and that preserved produce was essential to health and survival in winter.

But there is no way to verify Vaughan's assertion that "It was considered a poor year if less than four or five hundred quarts of vegetables and fruit were not put away down cellar."

Dandelion Greens and Potatoes with Cornmeal Dumplings, Fried Squash Blossoms and Cranberry Pie -- the names sound so authentic -- but without some hard facts about sources, we just can't be sure where they came from or if they are, indeed, heirloom recipes.

Cabbage With Sour Cream Dressing

According to food historian Barbara Norman, cabbage is one of the oldest known vegetables eaten by ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Belief in the curative powers of cabbage persisted through the 16th and 17th centuries. Among other things, it was said to cure hangovers, to give milk to wet nurses and to keep hair from falling out. We know for sure, cabbage is a good source of vitamin C.

  • 1 medium cabbage, cut into shreds (about 6 cups)

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar (we used wine vinegar)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cover the cabbage in salted water, add the soda and boil for about 5 minutes.

Drain, cover with freshly boiling water and simmer 10 or 15 minutes more or until tender, then drain very well.

Combine sour cream, vinegar and sugar and pour over the hot cabbage, mixing it in thoroughly.

Add salt and fresh pepper to taste. Serve at once.

Makes 6 servings.

"Yankee Hill-Country Cooking: Heirloom Recipes form Rural Kitchens," compiled by Beatrice Vaughan, 1963

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