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Cooking Up History

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This post was written by Rachel Gordon, visitor services specialist at the Library.

The Library’s collections include thousands of cookbooks and recipes, including Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for macaroni and cheese and for ice cream, cookbooks dating as far back as the 16th century, and even Rosa Parks’s recipe for “featherlite pancakes.” Earlier this year, I recreated several simple and yummy recipes from the collections, which are organized as an “activity kit” on our new webpage for families. Given the weeks of time to fill without the usual camps, pools and playdates, it seemed like an ideal time to keep mining the Library’s holdings for ways to enrich our housebound summer.

Mary Wilkinson and daughter Isabelle
Mary Wilkinson and daughter Isabelle from the Home-Making Cook Book, c. 1910

In the Library’s extensive collection of what used to be known as Domestic Science, I came across a little book from 1910 titled “Home-Making Cook Book.” Written in 1910 by Mary McNamara Wilkinson and subtitled a “Cookbook for The Poor, The Rich, The Sick, The Well,” the book promises “A Reform from the Old Wasteful Methods to the Saving, Scientific and Nourishing Ones.” You can scroll through the whole book online via the HathiTrust. It makes for fascinating reading, as much for what is still relevant 110 years later as for the recipes and recommendations that strike a 2020 reader as outdated, amusing or just bizarre. I doubt anyone recovering from an illness nowadays would find her recipe for Toast Water (buttered toast soaked in boiling water, pg. 211) at all appetizing.

Mrs. Wilkinson’s suggestions about how and why to get children involved in the kitchen are still valid. Many modern parents will agree with her that it’s sometimes easier to do things oneself, “but it is not justice to the child, especially when they are learning to cook and do housework. Teach them the best method you know and allow them to originate some of their own. Make the work interesting and they will enjoy it” (pg. 218).

With that in mind, these few easy egg recipes can teach kids some cooking skills and keep them busy for a little while–included below with larger version available here.  As dripping, or meat fat, is not a kitchen staple nowadays, use butter or your cooking fat of choice.

cookbook page
Page 86 of the Home-Making Cook Book

The book can be the starting point for a conversation about family life past and present. In addition to its many recipes and holiday menu ideas, it provides hundreds of housekeeping and wellness tips. In an age of online news, we’re unlikely to need thirty-seven different ways to use up old newspapers, but other advice, such as “Have regular hours for sleep and never neglect them,” “Devote at least one half hour a day to your magazines and books” – preferably outdoors so you will be “getting fresh air, resting and educating yourself” (pg. 221) and “Each member of the family can be taught to wipe out the (bath)tub when through” (pg. 278), is evergreen. All this advice, of course, is aimed at women, who did all the work of caring for the home and family.

You can’t help but think that Mary Wilkinson would probably have adapted to five months of lockdown, even with her adorable daughter Isabelle, pictured above. She is prepared, after all, to let standards slide in some areas. “Once a week, or at least once in two weeks, the bathroom should have a thorough clean” (pg. 279). Some things, however, remain non-negotiable. Let’s end with one of her most emphatic instructions – “Never sleep in your underwear. It should be hung up so as to be fresh and aired for the next morning.” We may have COVID-19 – but at least we also have washing machines!

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