Old recipes I: Mrs. Curtis

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky has been posting bits from Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book, by Sidney Levi Morse and Isabel Gordon Curtis, a roughly century-old book of household advice and recipes that was a gift to her from Steven Levine. Entertaining, sometimes puzzling, occasionally alarming.

Elizabeth has a 1914 edition, with two books in one: Household Discoveries: An Encyclopaedia of Practical Recipes and Processes (mostly by Morse) and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book. The earliest edition of Morse and Curtis I’ve been able to find references to is from 1903; a 1909 edition of the Morse alone is available on-line in an easy-to use format.

Household Discoveries provides a view into an earlier domestic world, which lacked appliances that we now take for granted and where make-it-yourself was the rule. Elizabeth posted recipes for shoe polish, green paint (with powdered yellow arsenic!), and an alarming toothache remedy:

use the oil of cloves or equal parts the oil of cloves and chloroform…. Meantime soak a small piece of absorbent cotton in chloroform and insert it loosely in the ear on the affected side…. Care, of course, must be taken not to be overcome by the fumes of the chloroform.

But most of her postings are about food and drink. For the most part, the recipes are in the familiar three-part form: a name, a list of ingredients, then directions for preparation. For instance,

Chocolate Sirup, To use in emergency for making cool drinks.

2 ounces Runkel’s chocolate
2 cupfuls boiling water
2 pounds sugar
2 tablespoonfuls McIlhenny’s Mexican vanilla

Put the chocolate in a double boiler and let it melt gradually, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and water. When thoroughly dissolved, stir and add the vanilla. Bottle and keep in a cool place until wanted.

Note the brand names. A vintage tin of Runkel’s:

(McIlhenny’s Mexican vanilla seems to have vanished without leaving a visual trace.)

Some aspects of preparation are folded into the list of ingredients, and some ingredients aren’t listed because they’re taken for granted:

Lemon-and-Raisin Pie

1 cupful chopped raisins
Juice and rind 1 lemon
1 cupful water
1 cupful sugar
1 teaspoonful cornstarch

Boil the mixture 10 minutes; bake between double crusts.

Yes, you chop the raisins and juice and zest the lemon (note the verbings juice and zest), and since this is a pie, you’ll have made pie crust. And since the ingredients are for pie filling, you don’t need to be told to put the filling in the crust. And of course you know how long to bake a pie, in how hot an oven.

Geranium Cake

1/2 cupful butter
1 cupful sugar
2/3 cupful water
1/2 teaspoonful salt
1 teaspoonful Calumet baking powder
2 cupfuls flour
Whites 4 eggs

Mix flour, salt, and baking powder. Cream butter and sugar, add alternately the water and flour, then whites of eggs, and whip hard 5 minutes. Line loaf pan with buttered paper and rose-geranium leaves. Bake in a moderate oven. The leaves can be pulled off with the paper.

This one is more explicit (though the instruction to separate 4 eggs and use the whites is folded into the ingredients list). Still, the rose geranium leaves (which lend their scent to this white cake) and the buttered paper just turn up in the instructions. And no baking time (or, of course, temperature) is specified.

At this point, Ellen Evans remarked, “They didn’t go in for a lot of detail, did they?”, and Elizabeth replied:

The recipe for German Cherry Pie starts “Make a cherry pie as usual…”

And the recipe for gingerbread cake with chocolate glaze includes no instructions relating to the glaze at all, apparently on the assumption that it will be obvious to you that you should then make a chocolate glaze and apply it to the cake.

No, not a lot of detail. Also the lists of ingredients are rarely comprehensive.

In the same vein,

Fig Pie

1/2 pound figs
1 cupful water
Whites of 2 eggs
2 tablespoonfuls sugar
1 tablespoonful lemon juice

Make a rich bottom crust. Chop figs fine, cook with cupful water. Sweeten and flavor with lemon. When the figs are smooth, put into crust and bake. Make a meringue of whites of 2 eggs, beaten stiff, with 1 tablespoonfuls powdered sugar, flavor with McIlhenny’s Mexican Vanilla, and as soon as the crust is baked spread this over the top; let brown a minute or two.

Once again, the pie crust is presupposed, and the baking time as well. And the powdered sugar and Mexican vanilla just turn up in the directions; the 2 tablespoonfuls of sugar in the ingredients list are presumably for sweetening the filling.

Sometimes the ingredients list and directions are combined into a single narrative:

Lemon Cocoanut Fudge: Boil together for 12 minutes 1 lb granulated sugar, juice of 2 lemons, grated rind of 1 lemon, 1/2 cup cocoanut and a lump of butter the size of an English walnut. Remove from the fire and beat to the consistency of cream. Pour to cool into buttered tins and cut into squares to serve.

“The size of an English walnut” and “to the consistency of cream”: inexact, but sufficient for the experienced cook.

[A family story: my mother, who was very much a by-the-book cook, occasionally tried to extract precise recipes from her mother, who cooked intuitively. These exchanges rarely went well. My grandmother would say to add some water, say, and my mother would ask for a measure, which her mother was at a loss to provide. It made my grandmother testy. Pressed for an exact amount, my grandmother would resort to imaginative measures: “an ashtray full” (there was an ashtray on the kitchen table), or, most memorably, “about a mouthful”.]

The frugal Mrs. Curtis provides quite a few things to do with stale bread. Chapter 31 covers Stale Bread, chapter 56 Stale Bread and Cake Puddings. From chapter 31:

If there are children in the family who like “rusk”, the old-fashioned New England name for browned crumbs sprinkled into cold milk, reserve the coarser crumbs for this purpose.

and in the section on toast:

Plain toast is a favorite in most households; then there are milk toast, cream toast, dropped eggs on toast, water toast, and the excellent dish of bread soaked in egg and milk which has all sorts of names, French, Spanish, German, and Scotch toast, but more properly egged toast.

Elizabeth noted that the only one of these the book supplies an actual recipe for is milk toast. Water toast?, you ask. From the 1896 Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book:

Water Toast

Dip slices of dry toast quickly in boiling salted water, allowing one-half teaspoon salt to one cup boiling water. Spread slices with butter, and serve at once.

Then, in Mrs. Curtis’s chapter 56:

Lemon Meringue Pudding

2 cupfuls stale-bread crumbs
2 cupfuls water
1 lemon
2/3 cupful sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cupful chopped suet
3 tablespoonfuls powdered sugar

Soak the crumbs in water 30 minutes, then add the juice and grated rind of the lemon. Beat the yolks of the eggs until thick and lemon-colored, add sugar and suet, and mix thoroughly. Add the other ingredients. Bake an hour. Beat the whites of eggs to a dry froth and make a meringue with 3 tablespoonfuls powdered sugar. Heap lightly on top of the pudding, dust with powdered sugar, and brown delicately. Serve with a liquid sauce.

A detailed recipe, though you might want some suggestions about an appropriate sauce. Elizabeth noted that the recipe would have to be adjusted for vegetarians (and for those who don’t want to have to deal with fresh suet); apparently, there is a vegetable suet available in the UK.

To come: more old recipes.

2 Responses to “Old recipes I: Mrs. Curtis”

  1. Old recipes II: Libby Daingerfield « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Old recipes I: Mrs. Curtis […]

  2. Old recipes IV: George Leonard Herter « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] for some really old recipes (see here, here, and here) — like the Virgin Mary’s recipe for spinach. As relayed by George […]

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