Thursday, September 11, 2008

Recipes and More from a Bygone Era

Recipes and More from a Bygone Era
Compiled by: Betty MacKulaski
ISBN: 978-0-9819172-2-1
Publisher: Published by Westview, Inc. (2008)
Genre: historical documents, cookbook, education
Reviewed by Sarah Moore for Writers in the Sky (8/08)

I was asked to write a review of a book in which the only original writing by the woman whose name is printed on the front is the introduction. Beyond that, the book contains dozens of scanned recipes first written by a homemaker around a century ago. At first glance, such a task seemed nearly impossible. How do I critique “Add ½ cup of butter and stir until frothy”? Do I write, “Surely that woman must have realized the effect such an ingredient would have on her cholesterol?” Or, perhaps I could compliment the quality of her penmanship. After spending just a few minutes reading the pieces of history found in Recipes and More from a Bygone Era, however, I realized what a precious piece of crafted love I had in my hands.

So much of our family history is made in the kitchen. Generations of (mostly) women have gathered around the stove to pass down recipes and family history. In Recipes and More from a Bygone Era, Betty MacKulaski shares a cookbook that she discovered tucked away in an old bread box at an Illinois antique store. While the exact date of the book’s creation is not known, the glimpse into menus that were prepared before microwaves and drive-thru windows is fascinating. The homemaker who created this book so many years ago (my guess is very early 20th century) obviously put countless hours into making it a treasured keepsake, even if it was only intended for her own use. Not only are there the expected handwritten recipes on pieces of lined paper, but also related pictures and articles clipped from magazines that add to the reader’s enjoyment.

I particularly enjoyed the insights into this woman’s personality offered by her recipe scrapbook. For example, in preparation for the baking of an Old Time Pumpkin Pie, she instructs, “First you wash your face and then your hands. Put on your cook apron and get your stew pan.” She then goes to explain the entire cooking process in the form of a poem … what a great way to teach a recipe to young people! She also shows a sense of humor by cutting out drawing of pigs to surround her favorite ham recipes and finding pictures of women in high fashion magazines and inserting them in a decidedly unglamorous kitchen setting.

As a former history teacher, I embraced the rich primary source to be found on every page of this book. There are clipped drawings of women who have hair carelessly swept up and who are wearing simple checked dresses as they diligently stir the contents of a bowl. The smile on the face of the happy homemaker was a crucial accessory. There are the intricate recipes for creating jellies and jams, as well as homemade candies, for which time is rarely made in our modern kitchen. She also includes several articles that had little or nothing to do with the art of cooking. I learned how to “reduce flesh about the hips” (comforting to know this has been a problem throughout the generations), stop nose bleeds, and use water enriched with bran on my nice wood work. Like reading the Declaration of Independence or the journals of a Civil War soldier, cookbooks such as the one preserved by Ms. MacKulaski provide us a window into another time that never can be captured in a textbook.

We cannot be certain if the woman who put together this cookbook enjoyed the daily need to feed her family. Maybe she loved every minute of being a homemaker and felt blessed to have the opportunity to care for a family. Or, perhaps she dreaded the repeated dinner preparations and would stare out the window thinking about other opportunities the world had to offer.

Either way, I absolutely loved the way in which she found joy in her work. By putting recipes to rhyme, pasting amusing cartoons involving the animals she was cooking, or simply including pictures in the margin to make her own use of the cookbook more enjoyable, this woman kept her duties fresh and personal. I felt connected to her as I read through the recipes and hints (sometimes helpful, sometimes amusingly sarcastic) on each page, and was reminded of the need to embrace the fun of any situation.

I share Betty MacKulaski’s love of antique stores and unexpected insights into the lives of “ordinary people” from a previous time. Without even trying any of the recipes (yet!), Recipes and More from a Bygone Era already has become an important part of my book collection. I feel as if I got some insight on this anonymous woman and I really think I would have liked her. I certainly hope that Ms. MacKulaski will take the time to publish any future treasures that she discovers during her hunts. I know that I will pour over each new page with the fascination that I know she did upon opening that bread box.

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