Useful bonbons

Today I read this beautiful sentiment: ““Pure candy is a useful food, when eaten at the proper time, at the close of a meal.” Useful for what, I did not learn, but I have my own ideas.

This quotation is from a 1941 book designed as a textbook for seventh, eighth and ninth grade cooking classes in Connecticut public schools. There followed recipes for chocolate fudge, peanut brittle, and popcorn balls.

The endorsement of sweets as “useful” in a healthy diet reminded me of a mystery that has long bothered me.

Ever since the 1940s it has been fashionable to rail against “scientific cookery” as the denial of all that is pleasurable about food. M.F.K. Fisher, America’s most famous food writer, warned, “to be passed by quickly with a shudder of recognition are cooking-school manuals.” Yet nowhere in my years of research into American cookbooks have I found one book that advocated the eating of just what was healthy and not what was flavorful.

The Connecticut Board of Education’s Outline of Cooking reaffirmed my sense that tasteless scientific cuisine was a straw man in the kitchen. This week’s featured book, The American Woman’s Cook Book, published first in 1939, is a triumphant melange of nutritional wisdom and pure deliciousness, 1940s style. Far from being bound by the dictates of health, the book bursts with sugar, cream, butter, and even wine.

It is important to remember and respect that the culinary aesthetic of this book is of a particular era, not our own. I think it is too easy for modern readers to mock the molded salads and sandwiches-disguised-as-cakes and to miss the fact that this food was fun for the people who made and ate it.

Given free will and fully-stocked supermarkets, would Americans have bought the cookbooks and magazines that told them how to make these treats if they didn’t want to eat them? Would they have prepared them for company and for group events?

The dominant culinary aesthetic of today (if there really is such a thing) does not emphasize display in the style captured in these photographs from the 1943 “Victory” edition of the American Woman’s Cook Book. We may think of food and fun as connected to each other, but our sense of both terms has changed over time.

The American Woman’s Cook Book was prepared by Ruth Berolzheimer, a prolific cookbook compiler of the 1940s and 1950s, as a revision of the Delineator Cook Book, a book put together by the editor of Delineator magazine with the help of the directors of the Department of Home Economics at Cornell University.

The book is “scientific” in that it provides basic instructions, tables of measurements, and basic temperature guides for cooking a wide variety of foods in many different ways. It also includes a guide to the different food groups as they were understood at the time, “What Food Materials do For the Body,” and “Where to find these building and protecting foods.”

Like M.F.K. Fisher (shudder though she might), the authors of the book encouraged thinking about nutrition over the course of the day, rather than packing all necessary elements into each meal: “the food for the entire day is the real measure of good nutrition.” In her wartime cookbook, How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher wrote, “Try this simple plan: balance the day, not the meal.” The American Woman’s Cook Book does include the kinds of sample menus that drove Fisher crazy, but for someone curious about nutrition, they could be very useful. And they conveyed the important message that to think about health was not to forgo pleasure.

The menus are also interesting to look at now as they give an idea of what was considered normal food. Picking randomly from the menus, I could start my day with

Breakfast: Stewed apricots, corn meal mush, buttered toast, coffee, and milk.

I might work for a while before stopping for Lunch: cheese fondue, vegetable salad, bread, and cereal pudding with dates.

And then at the end of the day, enjoy Dinner: Fish chowder with water wafers, grapefruit salad, graham bread and butter, and Queen of Puddings.

I can’t remember the last time I had two puddings in one day.

Although the menus above are very much in the accepted culinary mainstream of the Anglo-American middle class, the book also features a section on French cooking, where I found an “Economical Vegetable Soup” very similar to the one Fisher calls her “sludge … my streamlined answer to the pressing problem of how to exist the best possible way for the least amount of money” in the essay “How to Keep Alive.”

So, while the American Woman’s Cook Book does offer the unappetizing suggestion to keep in mind “the most satisfactory conditions of digestion and elimination” while planning my menu, it also reminds me to think of textureappearance and flavor, teaches me how to choose and cook with wine, and offers me this final thought:

“Cheese with wafers, fruit and a mint julep promote good conversation in the late afternoon.”

So why is it that revealing the science behind food overshadowed all the honey hermits, franconia potatoes, buttered fennel, and “luscious dinner” of pot roast with carrots and onions?

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