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Learning how to cook in the early 20th century was not a matter of choice for women. It was a matter of survival. Women were expected to cook for their families, but what were they cooking and how were they preparing it?
“All the food that we ate when I was a child in the early 1900s had to be fresh and freshly prepared because there were no fridges; and all the cooking had to be done on a coal fired cooking range,” Florence Cole, who was born in 1906, said. “If you bear this in mind, you will understand why our menus for the week were more or less fixed, although of course there were always the slight variations and treats.”
Cole’s family did not have much variation in their diet, as they were working class. The higher up the social strata one went, the more menu options were available.
Our Ancestors Were Healthier
We are often told that we — those living in such technically advanced times as the 21st century — are the healthiest people who have ever lived. I disagree. Yes, we have vaccinations, antibiotics, organ transplants, and heart and lung machines. But our quality of living is much less than 100 years ago.
Why do I say this?
Consider, 100 years ago:
- People ate food that wasn’t processed and full of preservatives.
- Fruits, vegetables and meats were grown locally or didn’t have far to travel.
- Things like candy and cookies were treats for special occasions.
- Almost everything was homemade and cooked from scratch.
- Salt and sugar were used sparingly.
- People were more physically fit. Walking and cycling were an effective way to get around, and lifting cast iron cookware, for example, builds muscle.
- People could pronounce all the ingredients in their food. Nothing was produced in a lab.
- People ate smaller portions.
- Hardly anyone was overweight yet alone obese.
- Very few people died of cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
- Very few people suffered from multiple sclerosis, lupus, fibromyalgia and other chronic diseases.
Cook Like It’s 1917
I recently read a book called A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband available from Dover Publications. Despite its titillating title, A Thousand Ways is a cookbook, originally published in 1917.
Dover describes the book as “a delightful look at homemaking before the advent of sophisticated appliances and fast food as well as the modern reality of women’s work outside the home. Unintentionally funny and historically revealing, the whimsically illustrated narrative abounds in simple and surprisingly relevant recipes.”
It reads like a novel with recipes, following young newlyweds during their first year of marriage, and offering scores of menus for different occasions. The wife, Bettina, is an excellent housekeeper and cook. Her friends, however, are not. Throughout the book, Bettina shares with her friends a variety of tips homemakers at the time needed.
Glimpse at Menus Past
A Thousand Ways is great historical research into the life of everyday individuals, and it provides a glimpse into middle class women’s work.
New technologies played a role in cooking in 1917. An entire chapter is devoted to buying an icebox, and much is made of the new “fireless cooker” that allows food to cook all day so it’s ready by evening. Presumably, a fireless cooker is the forerunner of the slow cooker.
The cookbook strengthen my belief that people 100 years ago were healthier:
- There are more recipes dedicated to vegetables, soups, and salads than there are to meat.
- The portion sizes are small.
- Breakfast was an important meal.
- Nothing artificial was ever used.
A Sample Recipe
This is a recipe from A Thousand Ways for cottage cheese.
1 quart sour milk
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon cream
- Place thick freshly soured milk over a pan of hot water, not boiling.
- When the milk is warm and the curds separate from the whey, strain off the whey in cheese cloth.
- Put into a bowl, add salt, pepper and cream to taste. Stir lightly with a fork.
My family has loved every recipe in the cookbook I’ve tried. In some cases modern kitchen equipment needs to be substituted for appliances no longer in use and cooking times need modified. When I’m up to the challenge, I’ll try homemade bread or sweets.
Do you believe we are healthier or sicklier than we were in 1917? Leave your comment below.
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Updated: 4 July 2018