Some people call them vintage. I prefer the term revival. They aren’t just classic recipes, and they go beyond the ones torn from the back of packages. These are the old, the odd, the extraordinary recipes culled from yellowed newspaper clippings, collected from fading notes jotted on paper scraps, and discovered randomly tucked in the pages of a used book.
These are the recipes that let us savor the unique culinary voices of the past. They preserve history through the specific and macro lens of home cooking. They let us spy on a household from another time, using ingredients in a way perhaps we have not considered or even forgotten. Often, they are relevant to our times. They deserve to be revived.
War Cake image via Albert R. Mann Library. 2017. Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition and History (HEARTH). Ithaca, NY: Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University. (version January 2005)
Take War Cake, for example. This recipe was distributed by the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., in 1918—the year of the United States entry into World War I. The point of the recipe was to enable home cooks to produce a moist delicious cake without using hard-to-obtain wartime foodstuffs: eggs, milk, wheat or white flour, or, seen another way, by using ingredients found in average households. You can find variations in a Depression Cake and a version developed during World War II. This simple cake is worth a try, too, for anyone on a dairy-free, wheat-free, or egg-free diet.
Poster image by Cushman Parker CC BY. 1917. LEARN NC, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (UNC-CH SOE). (version 2009)
Besides being a way to impress your friends at dinner parties, why are revival recipes worth, well, reviving?
For starters, food has secured its own niche in history. Who can forget Marie Antoinette’s admonition to her starving minions, prior to the French Revolution, to “let them eat cake?” Or, the promise of “peace, land, and bread” used by Lenin to gain power during the Russian Revolution?
Bread was important, if not as historic, for immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in the 19th and 20th centuries, as it was for revolutionaries. In 1913, Ellis Island was named the largest restaurant in the world. That’s because the government had, in the late 1800s, taken over food service there as a way to help the mistreated immigrants, who typically received paltry meals on their steamship journies to the New World and were served skimpy and unsanitary fare from profiteers once they arrived at Ellis Island. Rye bread was considered a staple as many immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe eyed white bread with suspicion. (You can find a good version in the Tassajara Bread Book.)
Bean soup, cheap and nutritious, was considered another staple at Ellis Island. Here is a recipe from the American Public Health Association’s 1890 volume called Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means: 1 pound beans, 1 onion, 2 tablespoons beef fat (vegetable suet is now available as a replacement for beef fat), salt and pepper. Add the following according to taste: a quarter pound of pork, a ham bone, a pinch of red pepper, or, an hour before serving, different vegetables, such as carrots and turnips, chopped and fried. Soak the beans overnight in 2 quarts of water. In the morning pour off, put on fresh water, and cook with the onion and fat until the beans are very soft, then mash or press through a cullender to remove the skins, and add enough water to make 2 quarts of somewhat thick soup.
The original recipe uses the word “somewhat,” which I find haunting; I suppose many people of “moderate and small means” didn’t experience the luxury of eating thick soup often. I want to taste this somewhat thick soup in the way my grandfather might have when he arrived in Ellis Island as an 11-year-old orphan. Revival recipes can connect us to our ancestors in a visceral way that books, movies, and TV mini-series do not.
According to Rachel Lauden, author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, there is a distinction, in the culinary world, between food history, which is “an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food (and the cultural, environmental, and sociological aspects),” and culinary history, which focuses on the origin and re-creation of specific recipes. Food history can cover dietary (what people ate in the past, usually based on calories/nutrients rather than on finished dishes); nutritional (how people’s diets affected their health and well-being); and history of foodstuffs (what people actually ate in the past), among others.
Not being an expert, I think a recipe for Huli-Huli Chicken covers most, if not all, of the categories.
The time was 1950s America. World War II had recently ended. Thanks to the American GIs returning from the Pacific arena, American housewives of the period began experimenting with Hawaiian cuisine. Pre-packaged foods emerged as both popular and convenient, and after the lean times of the Depression and war, many recipes became rich and elaborate. Sometimes the experiments went too far, as exemplified by this 1953 Better Homes and Gardens recipe for Liver Sausage Pineapple. (If you really want to, you can find the recipe here. But this may be one recipe that qualifies as unworthy of reviving. I’m just glad we found a photo of it.)
According to Hawaii Magazine, in 1955, Ernest Morgado of Pacific Poultry barbecued his version of teriyaki chicken for a farmer gathering. The chicken was cooked between two grills. The grills had to be flipped over. Since huli is the Hawaiian word for turn, the name Huli-Huli Chicken was born. An important feature of this recipe is to yell “Huli!” whenever you turn the chicken; chugging on a cold bottle of beer helps this process.
The sauce was such a hit that Morgado bottled his sauce under a trademarked name. Once he died, the recipe disappeared.
But the chicken lives on as a fundraising tradition in Hawaii; the chicken was so popular it was (and still is) used by many churches, schools, and other organizations to raise money. This version, considered to be true to the original, is from the blogger Ground Control to Major Mom, whose family lived in Hawaii when she was a child and attended one such fundraiser in the 1970s.
While I find the historical distinctions of revival recipes fascinating, sometimes I just appreciate a dish that is weird and cool, like Boy in Bag (courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West), a recipe developed by chuckwagon “cookies” in the 1800s. Chuckwagons were a type of “field kitchen” covered wagon used to store and transport perishable food across the prairies of the United States and Canada as part of a wagon train of settlers or workers.
Chuckwagon food typically included easy-to-preserve items like beans and salted meats, coffee, and biscuits. Boy in Bag was a dessert treat, similar to plum pudding; it keeps well and is a natural for camping trips. The really fun feature to this is that you cook the pudding in a flour bag. That’s one of the great things about revival recipes: you don’t deal much with plastic.
Personally, I’m glad that cooks and chefs from bygone years passed down their recipes to us, whether through handwritten notes, via family letters, in broken-bindered cookbooks, or simply by word of mouth. Through their efforts, we can taste the past. We can benefit their wisdom, their resourcefulness, their inventiveness. And use their tips: Don’t forget that to get more juice from a lemon, pour hot water over it before squeezing.
Rita Kasperek writes for UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, St. Louis Magazine, PC World, Terrain, Art Business News, Storyglossia, and many other publications. You can reach her via her website.
Recipe box photo by prettytypewriters CC BY-SA