Each year, the campus library sells off antiquated and withdrawn texts. This serves two purposes – to generate funds for future purchases, and to give new homes to books that would otherwise sit in silence on a shelf forever. Most libraries do this, and it’s always interesting to see what books make the cut (to be dumped), and which ones don’t.
As I perused the hundreds of books involved in this year’s purge, I came across this one: Cooking in Old Creole Days by Celestine Eustis (1904). This was part of a series of reprints issued by Arno Press back in 1973. Anyone familiar with Arno Press knows that their primary business was in reissuing older, out of print works – mostly in the social sciences. I’ve used many of their reprints over the years and they’re great, but until this moment, I wasn’t aware that they done anything with cooking or cookbooks. This particular title was a part of a series called Cookery Americana.
I don’t know why, but I love older cookbooks, although I prefer reprints or digital versions, though, because I’ve difficulty with ‘musty old book smell.’ Sorry, but that odor nauseates me. I know: TMI.
Cooking in Old Creole Days has approximately 175 recipes, although few are specific to either Creole culture or Louisiana (or the South, for that matter). It’s pretty standard turn-of-the-last-century fare, with extra spice thrown in. Recipes for pork, beef, and fowl, are all in abundance here, as are the required period cakes, pies, and tarts. As is the case with many pre-1950 cookbooks, there are also entries on basic household maintenance, but I wonder about the wisdom of including them amid the food – it’s weird, for example, to find “How to destroy flies,” tucked between “How to cook Mushrooms in a Chafing Dish half an hour before serving,” and “How to make a Caramel.”
I’ve never considered myself vengeful enough to want to destroy a fly; it’s not personal, it’s just business. Destroying mushrooms, however, I’ve few qualms with because I honestly hate those things.
Like many pre-WWII cookbooks, the user is only advised to “heat” the dish; no temperature information is available, and despite being a reprint, no attempt was made to provide any. No problem; it just makes cooking anything from it more of a challenge.
Actually, now that I think on it, a recipe to destroy flies intrigues me:
“To put one pint of milk add a quarter of a pound of raw sugar and two ounces of ground pepper. Simmer them together for eight or ten minutes and place it about in shallow dishes. The flies attack it greedily and in a few moments are suffocated. By this method kitchens may be kept clear of flies all summer without the danger of poison.” (p. 79)
Closing the window was apparently not an option. Seriously, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the South, and even with modern conveniences such as mechanical air conditioning, there are days that can be outright difficult to endure. So yea, closing the window is not a viable option. I’m not a biologist, but I don’t understand how this concoction will “suffocate” a fly. The sugar attracts the fly, but the milk and pepper? Are they mortal enemies to flies? I’ve never heard that before. No matter; I just don’t see how having plates of dead flies around your kitchen is a good idea.
(That said, the crime historian in me totally gets this recipe. Commercial flypapers of the 19th and early 20th centuries used arsenic – place a sheet of the paper in a saucer of water, and it released a sweet smell to attract flies, which was bound by arsenic, to kill them. Pretty straight forward product that would have been nice, had it not been used in so many late 19th century murders.)
The entry on sweet potatoes is more palpable. Rather than just a single recipe, however, there are four different ways to prepare those orange spuds. My favorite:
“Take the quantity of potatoes you wish to have, according to your family. Boil them until they are almost cooked, then peel and slice them. Sprinkle them with brown sugar, and fry in hot butter.” (p. 38)
This is interesting to me because it’s similar to the way my father’s family has always prepared sweet potatoes: Peel the potato and then cut it, either into discs, or lengthwise, about a quarter-inch thickness. Rinse them with cold water, drain (you want as little water in there as possible), put into a skillet with a stick of butter and about 3/4 cup white sugar. Cover, and set the heat for medium. You have to watch them closely, else the sugar will caramelize (and that’s not good); periodically, take out one or two to taste. If they’re soft, they’re done. If the potato is crunchy, or not limp, then let it cook for a bit longer. The thicker the cut, the longer it takes to cook.
It’s one of those “you’ve got to see it done” kind of things, I suppose. But they are so good!
So why all of this talk about this particular book? That’s right – I’ve toyed with the idea of getting back into the kitchen, and I think that now might be the time to do it. Can’t say that we’re talking full meals – maybe a dish here or there – but it’s worth doing.