Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Canadian Farm Cook Book: The Good Stuff

My Canadian Farm Cookbook, dated 1911, has 401 pages of recipes for food. (There is a small chapter of miscellaneous items after that.) On page 198, the section on canning fruits and jellies begins, and from there to the end of the book there are mighty few recipes that do not call for sugar or other sweeteners. From Canned Fruits and Jellies, it passes on to Pies and Pastry, Puddings and Desserts, Cakes (by far the longest chapter in the book) and Candy. This was clearly what it was all about.

Of course, then as now, people tended to use their body of knowledge about cooking to put together whatever they had on hand as the main part of their diets on a daily basis, without reference to a recipe. Desserts and sweets are made less often and require more precision to execute, and so recipes were and are more likely to be written down for them. However, this was also a new era of cheap refined sugar; cheap enough that even the poorest could afford it. Previously, white sugar had been available mainly in loaf form (cones of varying sizes actually) and it was not only expensive but also a labourious process to grate or pulverize it for use for baking. Not only did sugar become cheaper and easier to use towards the end of the 19th century, but so did chocolate, cocoa, vanilla, gelatine and many other such ingredients. At the turn of the century, cook books exploded with sweet dishes, many of them very sweet. I generally make it a rule to reduce the amount of sugar called for in these recipes by at least one-third and often half. Actually, I don't think it was until the 1970's that the idea occurred to people that it was possible to improve a dessert by putting less sugar in it.

Anyway, recipes:
"CARROT PIE. - Cook yellow carrots until soft, then sift and make as pumpkin pie with milk, sugar and eggs; season with ginger, cloves and cinnamon or allspice. This can hardly be distinguished from real pumpkin pie. - Mrs. C. M. Harvey, Box 144, Knowlton, Que."
No doubt handy when pumpkins had a limited shelf-life and canned pumpkin wasn't regularly available. I shall have to try it sometime; I don't see why it wouldn't be good. Although I admit I'm always a sucker for chocolate.
"CHOCOLATE PIE. - 1/2 teacup Cowan's Perfection Chocolate (grated), 1 1/2 teacups hot water, 1/2 teacup sugar, butter the size of an egg, 1 tablespoon vanilla, the beaten yolk of 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, mix well and cook on top of stove until thick; stir constantly, pour into the shell, let cool, beat the whites and spread on top, brown in oven. - Miss Jennie Bulding, Arthur, Ont."
And at this time of year I should be using up my stash of maple syrup (so I can replace it with new!) so how about
"MAPLE SYRUP PIE. - Put crust on tin, then beat together 1 1/4 cups maple syrup and 3 eggs, put in pie and bake in a moderate oven. - Mabel Begg, Payne's Mills, Ont.
2. - 1 cup maple syrup, 1 cup water, 2 eggs (whites for frosting) 2 small tablespoons flour, butter size of a walnut. Bake the crust and cook custard in double boiler. - Mrs. Milton Fennell, Kars, Ont."
It's interesting to see that the printer lumped these two recipes together, in spite of their being quite different from each other. Also, measurements are in some ways reasonably precise but definitely not standardized.

I should get on and post some puddings and cakes, but I can't resist this pie, even though I haven't even touched on any apple pies, of which there were numerous examples.
"SPRING MINCE PIE. - 1 1/2 cups chopped raisins, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup molasses, 1 cup warm water, 1/2 cup vinegar, 2 well-beaten eggs, 5 crackers pounded fine, stir all together, and season with spices as other mince pies; bake with rich crust. For the top crust roll, then cut in narrow strips and twist and lay across. This will make 2 pies. - Mrs. A. Scott, Acton's Corners, Ont."
Oh, but wait! There are no fewer than 6 versions of butter tarts, and they do indeed all hail from Ontario. This one looks interesting, if remarkably abbreviated.
"3/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter melted, 1 cup currants, and 1 egg. - Mrs. W. W. Beelby, Thornton, Ont."
Okay, some puddings:
"APPLE BIRD'S NEST PUDDING. - Apples, sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, 1/2 pint milk, 1 egg. Pare and core apples, fill cavity with sugar, pour over batter made with 1 tablespoon flour, 1/2 pint milk, 1 egg, and sugar to taste. Bake 1 hour. - Mrs. A. Christie, 88 Birge Street, Hamilton, Ont."

"BATTER PUDDING. - 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 cup white sugar, 1 egg, 3/4 cup sweet milk, 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar and 1 teaspoon soda; put any kind of fruit in bottom of dish and pour over it this batter and steam 1 1/2 hours. Add sugar on fruit as desired. Serve with cream or any sauce, as you please. - Mrs. T. H. Higgins, Maccan, N.S."

"BLACK PEPPER PUDDING - 1/2 pound suet, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, a little salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper; mix stiff with cold water and tie in a floured cloth and boil 2 hours. To be eaten with all kinds of hot meat dinners. - Mrs John Archer, Newbury, Ont."
Okay, no sugar in that one! Is it in the right place? It might be; it is a pudding, after all. No sugar in this one either;
"CHEESE PUDDING. - Cut in inch squares stale bread and butter evenly, put 1 layer in pudding dish, then add a little salt and pepper and 1/3 cup grated cheese; repeat this, but for the top layer use 2/3 cup grated cheese. Beat 1 egg, add 1 pint sweet milk, pour over bread and bake 1/2 hour. Serve hot in place of potatoes. This is delicious and is a good way to use up stale bread and dry cheese. - Mrs. Menno S. Weber*, R.R. No. 1, Waterloo, Ont."
This one is kind of ominous sounding:
"CHILDREN PUDDING - 1 cup brown sugar, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons syrup, 3 tablespoons melted butter, 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup currants, 1 teacup buttermilk, 1 small teaspoon soda, 4 cups flour; boil in a cloth for 2 hours, serve with sauce. - Mrs. Robt. Johnston, Carlyon P.O., Ont."
What kind of sauce? That's the question.
"RICE WITH DATES. - Wash 1/2 cup rice, cook in large quantity of salted water until nearly tender, drain thoroughly and put into double boiler with 1/2 cup pitted dates; cook until tender. Serve with cream. This is a very wholesome and palatable dish for dessert. - Mrs. Annie Rodd, Charlottetown, P.E.I."
You know; I can't help but feel desserts are like jokes. If you have to tell someone they're good, they're just not.

Okay, cakes at last, or at least some frostings.
"CHOCOLATE ICING. - 2 cups brown sugar, butter size of egg, 1/2 cup sweet milk, 1/2 cake chocolate. Let it boil until it begins to harden. - Mrs. Erwin Snyder, Box 135, Baden, Ont."
"MAPLE CREAM ICING. - 3 cups sugar, 6 tablespoons milk, 1 tablespoon butter; boil, stir until cold. - Mrs. M. C. Armstong, Mount Albert, Ont."
Mrs Armstrong didn't feel the need to point out that that there would be maple sugar which is, after all, cheap and easy to find. Right? Right? Pick yourself up off the floor. Bananas, on the other hand, are presumably a bit pricey:
"BANANA CAKE. - 1 cup sugar, whites of 3 eggs, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sweet milk, 1/2 cup cornstarch, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 cup flour. Cream butter and sugar, separate eggs, beat yolk, add to butter; sift flour, baking powder and corn starch, add to butter, mix and add milk; add whites of eggs well beaten. Just before serving put a layer of sliced bananas between layers. - Mrs. Ezra Snyder, Blair, Ont."
I can't help but think she's left out a step or two there. But I guess if you don't know what you are doing, you shouldn't be making cake.
"BELFASTS. - 1 egg, 1 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1 cup buttermilk, 1/2 nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 cup seeded raisins or 1 cup currants, 1 teaspoon soda, 2 1/2 cups Graham flour. Bake in gem rings. - Annie M. Whalen, Kilsyth P.O., Ont."
They sound rather like a rich raisiny muffin. Note that "1/2 nutmeg" is not a typo. The next one has "try" written next to it, but alas no report on the results:
"BIRTHDAY CAKE. - 1 cup sugar, 1 cup sweet cream, 2 cups flour, whites of 3 eggs, 2 teaspoons paking powder, small teaspoon salt, a little nutmeg. Beat sugar and cream together first, add flour and baking powder next, the salt and nutmeg, last the whites of the eggs well beaten and mix quickly and bake in 3 layers. For the Filling. - 1 cup sweet milk, 1/2 cup sugar, 2/3 cup cocoanut; boil all together; when boiling, stir in 2 teaspoons cornstarch wet with cold milk. - Mrs. T. C. Sabin, Box 197, Newmarket, Ont."
Here's one that sounds a little odd, but interesting. A spice cake of the old school;
"BLACK PEPPER CAKE. - 1 cup currants, 1 cup blackstrap, 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 2/3 cup sour milk (sweet will do), 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves, 1 teaspoon soda, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, a little over 2 cups flour. Bake in layers. - Mrs. J. E. McKenney, Bishop's Mills, Ont."
This one too, although I'm pretty sure that as usual some steps have been omitted. (Like baking it maybe. You think?)
"BOILED CAKE. - 1 cup sugar, 1 cup raisins, 1 cup water, 1/2 cup lard. Boil it and then cool, add 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon cloves, salt, 1 teaspoon soda. - Mrs. Blake Sharp, Hay Bay, Lennox and Addington Cos., Ont."
For the next one, do you suppose they mean "George Brown"? They actually had 2 "Brown George" cakes listed. I can't decide but I think it most likely. And 1/2 teaspoon spice! Such extravagance!
"BROWN GEORGE CAKE. - 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, 1/2 cup mixed butter and lard, 1/2 teaspoon spice, 1/2 cup molasses, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon soda dissolved in a few drops of water. - Elizabeth Sibbald, Leith P.O., Ont."
As for this one; small and plain but no doubt a good, cheap hit to the cake spot.
"GOOD CHEAP CAKE. - 2/3 cup white sugar, 1 small tablespoon butter and 1 egg beaten together, 2/3 cup milk or cream, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/2 teaspoon salt; sift with flour enough to make cake stiff. Use any flavoring you wish or not at all. - Mrs. R. G. McLeod, Lansdowne Station, Pictou Co., N.S."
But most people, if they are going to have cake, are prepared to spring for some chocolate, eggs and butter and make it an even better one;
"CHOCOLATE CAKE. - 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 3 eggs, 3/4 cup milk, 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1 ounce unsweetened Cowan's Perfection Chocolate**. Cream the butter and sugar and add the well beaten eggs, then the milk; sift the flour, cream of tartar and soda together twice and mix thoroughly with the above; warm the chocolate over teakettle and stir in the butter. Bake about 35 minutes in moderate oven. - Mrs. J. F. Nelles, Decewsville P. O., Ont.

Also contributed by Mrs D. Brown, Hagerman, Ont.; Mrs. Nelson Wagg, Claremont, Ont.; Mrs H. McPhee, Eady P. O. Ont.; Mrs L. H. Lipsit, Staffordville, Ont.; Mrs W. Anderson, Edgeley, Ont; Mrs. S. Steinmann, Brunner P.O., Ont."
I don't know that they all provided that exact cake necessarily; it might have been one of the three chocolate cake recipes that proceeded it, or perhaps some other chocolate cake that didn't make the cut. Chocolate cake was perhaps not as ubiquitous then as it is now, but it was plainly an extremely popular flavour nevertheless.

And you know what? I've only started in the "C's" but I'm running out of steam. You get the picture; there are a lot more cakes to come. And cookies and candy too. Haven't even looked at them. (If there's anything you would like to ask about other - or previously discussed - sections of this book, please do!)

One final story about the importance of desserts. My father has told me about going to stay with his aunt and uncle in Pictou County (home of the above Good Cheap Cake you may note) during the summer and eating, for an entire month or longer, boiled potatoes, boiled green beans and boiled salmon for every single supper. They were in season. That's the sort of thing that gave seasonal cooking a bad name. And Auntie wasn't much interested in cooking. But she made a mean blueberry pie, and if Dad would pick 'em, she would bake 'em. Needless to say, Dad was out there picking every chance he could get. He still doesn't care much for either salmon or green beans, strangely enough.

I suspect there were a lot of women out there cooking like my great-aunt. They did it not because they were all that interested, but because, by virtue of their sex, it was their job - one of their many, time-consuming jobs. Consequently, there was an awful lot of indifferent if not downright bad cooking out there. Throw in the fact that spices were few and far between, prepared foods pretty much unknown, and the general repertoire of foods much more limited than today and it's not surprising that people turned to desserts for satisfaction in eating. After all, if you can't make things like sugar, butter, eggs, cream, fruit and chocolate taste good, you really are a truly dreadful cook and there is no hope for you.

*What are the odds that there's a Mrs. Menno S. Martin living on R.R. No. 1, Waterloo, right this minute? Maybe no S. What are the odds that there's more than one?

**The contributors to this book call for Cowan's Perfection Chocolate with such consistency that I have to suspect that words are being put into their mouths by a commercial sponsor... hm, who could it be?


M@ said...

I love the cookbook walkthrough! Although I note the (*) good lady's name was Mrs. Menno S. Weber; I suspect you might need to go as far as St Jacob to find someone of that name.

(Wait -- actually as far as Elora. The Webers have spread far and wide!)

Ferdzy said...

Thanks, M@.

Keep in mind, the Webers do not necessarily have phone listings. I'm pretty sure there is at least one Menno Weber in Elmira, for example, and I'm pretty sure I've seen the name on other mailboxes too.


Kevin Kossowan said...

My dad grew up on a pig farm. But I heard little about it my whole life. A few years ago, I eagerly asked my 92 year old grandmother to share some fantasticness about pig cookery. Not so much. To her, cooking was one of many chores, and having enough was more important than having diversity or quality. Dang.

Ferdzy said...

Kevin; yeah, exactly.

(Mind you, I think much of the fantasticness of pig cookery happens at the butcher and smoke-house anyway.)

My grandmother was all about combining cake-mix with Jello.