Sunday, February 14

The Succesfsful Housekeeper

About 10 years ago I went to an estate sale in Pasadena. It was in a small, quaint house on a tree lined street. I remember the house very well because it was an older house with tons of charm. I also remember the garage, or more likely, the carriage house. A pack rat of a man had spent a LOT of time in there with his woodworking tools. I would have loved it but it was dusty and full of rusty tools so I made my way back into the house. It was obvious that an older person had lived there and recently died. You know how older homes sometimes freeze in a favorite era? This house was sort of frozen in the 60's or 70's. The family had hired a company to run the sale and were just trying the clear the place out.

I came in from the garage and made my way into the living room. There I found an old, water damaged book that I HAD to have. It was called The Succefsful Housekeeper (that's no typo, the cover spells it that way). It was a fascinating book on it's own since it was clearly very old. What made it irresistible to me was the fact that a woman had spent so much time on it. The former owner had kept hand written recipes in it and had carefully glued newspaper clippings into every spare space in the end papers. The recipes are written on all kinds of scraps of paper; parts of old envelopes, receipts and magazine solicitations. A few of the scraps are dated from 1887 - 1907. The hand writing is elegant but heartbreaking because the newer recipes are written with a shaky hand, presumably when she got older. This woman seems to have kept this book her whole life. Every time I come across it I wonder about who she was. Many of the scraps of paper come from Pennsylvania. Did she come to California or was her book given to a relative or friend who came here? Was she happy? What was her life like? I suppose she was the mother or grandmother of the person who left that house behind.

I don't know who she was, not even her name,there is no name anywhere to be found. The book was damaged and I knew it would end up in the trash somewhere. I asked how much they wanted for it and they said "A dollar". It's probably the fastest purchase I've ever made.

I took some pictures, they aren't the best but I think you'll understand why I cherish this book.

Look at the detailed embossing on the cover!

Here is the inside cover flap where several recipes are tucked away.

Many of the recipes are written with a fountain pen. I love it!

Oh, this is a good one! It's difficult to read but it's a smallpox cure. It says "I am willing to risk my reputation as a man, if the worst cases of small-pox cannot be cured in three days, simply by the use of cream of tartar." Yikes!

Here is a shot of the clippings that have been glued into the back of the book.

This may be my favorite. It's a lemon pie recipe with a little drawing of a man and a dog. Look at his coat... It's just all so cool.

Some of the recipes are faded while others are written in a newer hand that is, frankly, very difficult to read. I wanted to include a recipe so I'll take one from one of the clippings. This one it titled "Shortcake Like Mother Made". It is written in the old style. Wasn't it Fannie Farmer who first started writing the ingredients first? Well, here is how recipes used to be written. I think you'll agree that the 20th century way of writing recipes is a huge improvement over the past.

I've reproduced the recipe exactly as it appears in the clipping. It is dated 1898. Apparently editors didn't watch punctuation or typos back then.

The recipe begins with a long drawn out story then finally gets to the recipe with: "Here is it, just as I have written it down:
One quart flour, two heaping teaspoons baking powder, small cup lard or butter, a little salt. Mix all together thoroughly and stir up with milk, to which has been added one egg and the yolk of a second, well beaten. Mix rather stiff, but do not roll, spread out on a long thin, oblong pan. making a cake not two inches thick when done. Cook in a quick oven, split with a silver fork and butter generously, and put together one layer on top of the other, the crusts down. Cover both pieces of shortcake with berries which have been slightly mashed and allowed to stand for a short time in sugar. They can be placed on the shortcake whole if desired and fresh sugar sifted over them. The white of the egg left should be stirred up with sugar and spread over the berries on top. Serve hot with rich cream. This is good with other berries, and specially good when made with ripe peaches."

I would like to try it but I have too many questions. What is a "quick oven"? How much milk would I use? Why a silver fork? Also, I don't think I'd enjoy the strawberries mashed and certainly not with raw egg whites in them. If any of you test this recipe I hope you'll let me know what you think. I wish you luck.

I'm mostly obsessed with additions to the book but The Successful Housekeeper is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of women in the 19th century. You can take a peek right here.

I keep this book with my cookbooks. It's very fragile but I like to pull it down every once in a while. It feels like spending a little time with the woman who kept it so well. I like to think she's happy that I rescued her little book and that I love it so much even though I'm too chicken to try most of her recipes. I hope that makes her smile.


shandon said...

I think Norman was right about the "f" actually being a stylized "s" -- it's called, appropriately enough, the long s, and it was commonly used by typographers for lowercase s's that appeared in the middles of words.

As for the egg whites mixed with sugar: If you whip those whites and sugar fast enough, you end up with meringue. I'll bet that's what the recipe-writer was trying to convey. Meringue is yummy!

kb said...

When you think of all the time this woman had obviously put into this, I think it is wonderful that you rescued and purchased it. How sad to think that this could have ended up just being tossed away. She probably has come back to haunt the person who sold it for a dollar, though!