Cookbook, by Louise Bennett Weaver, Helen LeCron. Published ,New York, 1917;
It's late afternoon, and you've just gotten a phone call from your loving husband, Bob, that Mr. Dimwittie, his widower boss's boss, coming over for dinner. Moreover, unbeknownst to him, Eleanor, the old spinster head of the Church Youth and Temperance League will be stopping by after dinner to discuss the annual Candlemass Firelight Social. You haven't time to get to the market, money has been getting tight lately, and your pregnant Persian is showing signs of her water breaking at any moment now.
What's a new bride to do?
With a proud sweep of her hand, she surveys your pantry. A quick-cooking salmon timbales will do the trick, along with canned peas in a easy butter sauce and an impressive, jellied, Perfection Salad. After dinner, surprise them with mini fruitcakes, made in muffin cups. And do you know how a nursing cat should be fed?
"By jingo, I've forgotten what a good home-cooked meal could be like! What with my dear wife being long gone, my servants and my clubs and fancy restaurants and whatnot, it takes me back to the days of my youth , when I, myeelf, was a struggling lad such as I see here."
Eleanor unexpectedly turns out to be an accmplished cat doula, and steps up to assist in the Blessed Event while Dimwittie bonds with her about old days back on Granpa's farm...
By the end of the piece Bob will have gotten that raise...and a promotion...the Firelight Social will have the use of Dimwitties baronial fireplace and dining room...and isn't it great how Dimwittie and Eleanor got along? Gee, they look like they could really be warming to each other...
Bob can only stand back and marvel.
The book shows signs of being a collected newspaper column. In short, it's extremely repetitious. A cooking situation comes up, either good (a Washington's Birthday Tea!) or bad (we're snowed in-- with both sets of in-laws!), Bettina rises to the occasion (often with Radum Age high-tech such as home and commercial canned goods, the useful-but-expensive gas stove, the fireless cooker, and the ice box), and Bob applauds.
Of course, she also has splendid advice to give, about how canned pineapple is the only form you can use for aspics, conserving gas, and general home management, given in an authorial voice that sounds like a walking home economics textbook. Indeed, the secondary characters, such as Alice (a bride-to-be), and the various relatives show more signs of life than does Bettina, who sounds like she popped out of her mother's womb in 1893 remarking that she thrived best on demand feeding for the first six weeks and how to get chafe-free diapers.
Nonetheless, it's fascinating to see one of the earliest cases of what most Americans would recognize as a "typical suburban family" being portrayed in print -- the house is an at-the-time inexpensive Craftsman bungalow 'starter home' (the ragtime era split-level or ranch), there are conspicuously no servants, meals are modest main-dish and two or three sides (with, however, in most cases, a substantial dessert), instead of the Victorian regime of multiple courses for all meals (including breakfast). Bettina is not too proud to spend a hot afternoon in a housedress on the verandah with a magazine (quite possibly scanning new technical developments in home economics), instead of sweating behind closed doors where the neighbors can't see. While not quite a Stepford Wife, Bettina displays a great many of the qualities we would later ascribe to a 1950's "homemaker".
Then, too, there are the little things -- how do you make a Perfection Salad (it's cabbage and peppers in a sweetened vinaigrette aspic --and better than it sounds!), the campy menus for the various holidays (Washington's Birthday, where everything is either made with cherries or looks like a tree or a hatchet, for instance), seasonal menus and a million ways to jazz up canned or leftover stuff with other stuff to make passable and sometimes downright tasty meals. It's worth taking a look at the online editon: the illustrations alone are a treasure and a delight.
True, it's easy to poke fun at this cookbook -- given its title, it could nowadays be just as much a parody sex manual.
" Let the primal shrieks and growls of your cat suggest a Jungle theme for the evening!A simple before-dinner handjob will turn the trick for both these men -- while Eleanor might be amenable to a sizzling impromptu sex show. Simply suggest this impressive strap-on double dong, and she'll warm up lickety-split..."
But would it tell you how to brew and serve a perfect after-dinner coffee using only the residual heat from the main course? I think not!