Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.
Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially). It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.
Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings, it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority. I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way, but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.
The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.
For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.
A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen? Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…
In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event. She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen. She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.
And that affected everything.
Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by. One of those rules concerned women. Women simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air. It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air. This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.
Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide. As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.
Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on, so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.
There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.
Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis. But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch). It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.
Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.
Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”
As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.
Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.
After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing. Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life. Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.
Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking… Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places. That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…
How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)
In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.
If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail. In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.
Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks. In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season, it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.
It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too. It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.
Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA
12 phyllo pastry sheets
2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
Salt to taste (optional)
1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)
1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.
Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…
At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.
Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.
Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.
Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.
Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.
Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,
then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).
Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts, prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.
Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.
It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.
Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.
It’s either fondly loved or fearsomely loathed. It’s a hodgepodge of color and creativity. It’s wiggly and jiggly. It’s sweet or savory, saucy or solid. And depending on how you prepare it, it’s silky and smooth or chunky and lumpy.
Today in the Vintage Kitchen we are talking about gelatin. That powdered concoction of collagen that originated in the boiled hooves of calves back in the 1700’s and now can be found in slim paper envelopes, dry and granular, in grocery stores around the world.
Food suspended in a translucent, quivery clump doesn’t necessarily sound or look appealing to our modern selves but there was a time in history when this type of dish was considered the essence of elegance. For centuries, gelatin has been used in cooking but in the 1930’s aspics, mousses and molded gelatin salads began to rise in mass popularity among both the upper class and the lower class for two entirely different reasons. Affluent, upper-class society enjoyed such dishes for their delicate and artistic composition while lower working classes, struggling to get through the Great Depression, valued gelatin as an inexpensive source of protein that came with an added bonus of being able to disguise and transform leftovers.
Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are not big on wasting food nor on cooking up unappealing vintage recipes for the sake of mocking their unpleasant attributes. For decades throughout the 20th century people of all ages, income levels, races and genders ate and adored gelatin recipes, so it is in that vein, that we set out to explore these beloved concoctions to see how they might stack up in today’s foodie-conscious culture. Will our modern palates love them just as much as they did decades ago? Or have we become more finicky in the way we approach, prepare and taste our contemporary everyday fare?
In this post, we are diving head first into three vintage gelatin recipes steeped in the culture of mid-century America. Gelatin may have seen its rise to fame in the 1930’s, but its absolute height of popularity came in the 1950’s where two of our recipes originate. In that decade, more women worked outside the home than ever before making time a newly juggled commodity. Gelatin-based salads, desserts, and main entrees were quick to prepare, could be made well in advance of the dinner hour and retained their shape and consistency for days in the refrigerator. This was the perfect meal-planning solution for busy women acting as wife, mother, career professional and caretaker all in one. Companies like Kraft Food (makers of Jell-O) responded to the demands of mid-century women by continuously creating and rolling out a plethora of newly invented flavored gelatins during the 1950’s that, in-turn, spawned thousands of unique recipes ranging from sweet to savory. It was a heady decade full of potential and possibilities for both gelatin companies and creative home cooks!
By the 1960’s, the novelty of putting odds and ends into a gelatin mold had worn slightly. Gelatin aficionados were getting a little bit more sophisticated in their creations as well as their flavor pairings. They weren’t as apt to throw-in the leftovers, or disguise a boring vegetable but instead were creating recipes that were more about flavor than thrift. Food pairings were suggested, wines were recommended and serving situations thoughtfully addressed.
It is these two interesting decades in food culture that became the foundation for our very first experimental food challenge featuring four blog readers (plus two from the Vintage Kitchen), three states (representing the East and West Coasts) and three mid-century gelatin recipes.
Our goal for this challenge was to fully embrace the experience of making and tasting these past populars. Would we discover that they were difficult, time-consuming and confusing? Or would they be effortless, creative and full of flavor? Each team received the same recipes with the same ingredient list, but each team could choose whatever food brands they wanted and whatever specific types of ingredient they wanted. For example – one recipe called for 1 1/2 cups of shredded cheese, which left it open to interpretation as to what type of cheese. Finished product presentation was also left up to each team, even though some recipes offered serving suggestions or style notes.
MEET THE COOKBOOKS…
MEET THE VINTAGE RECIPES…
– Jellied Cheese Ring Salad (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)
– MoldedCucumber Mousse (from The Blender Cookbook, 1961)
– Spanish Cream (from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)
MEET THE TEAMS…
The only requirements for this project were that each team take one photo of the ingredients they used in each recipe and one photo of their finished product. They also answered a set of questions about the experience, since working with gelatin in this format was something rather new for everyone involved. The teams did not communicate with each other at all during the process of making each recipe, nor had any collaborative influence over food styling or interview interpretation, which made for an interesting variety of visual appearance when it came to the finished products. Let’s look!
Harpie & Manny, RetroRevivalists from New Jersey, made their Cucumber Mousse using bottled lemon juice and dried parsley and decorated it in a ring of cucumbers with sliced tomatoes.
Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we used fresh lemons and Mediterranean sea salt along with parsley and organic cucumbers from the farmers market. We added our own bit of color by styling it with purple cabbage and fresh parsley. Just like Harpie & Manny we also used cucumber slices in the finished presentation.
Note how Harpie & Manny’s cucumber mousse has a lovely even consistency throughout. Our mousse in the Vintage Kitchen, had a two-toned effect with a bright green gelatin ring at the top. Not sure, why this happened but it did give our mousse an extra dose of wiggle.
Overall this recipe was very interesting. It was light, airy and creamy. Harpie thought it was a breeze to whip up in the blender but found the ingredient interpretation a bit tricky when it came to the onions. “The directions are challenging to interpret: should we add a slice of a medium onion, or slices of a medium onion? I settled for something in the middle.”
In the Vintage Kitchen we struggled with this same issue, was it one thinly sliced medium onion or one thin slice of a medium sized onion? For the VK version we finely sliced a whole medium onion, but after tasting the finished product, would definitely cut way back on the onion to about one slice. All that onion led to a strong taste which wasn’t terrible just tangy! Having said that, if you are a fan of cold cucumber soup then you would love this recipe. It’s refreshing and summery and pretty in color. The original recipe suggested pairing it with cold poached salmon or trout, which would be really good. It would also be delicious served on of top of smoked salmon and crackers or smashed with avocado on multigrain bread with lemon and fresh herbs. Both Harpie and Manny and the Vintage Kitchen would make this mousse again, experimenting next time with a bit less onion. Harpie thought it made an excellent alternative to lettuce leaf salad.
RECIPE No. 2: JELLIED CHEESE RING SALAD(from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955 edition)
For this recipe, you’ll note that the cheese was left up to interpretation. Marianne and Olivia, a mother/daughter duo from Redmond, WA used honeyed goat cheese and topped their ring with orchard peaches, prosciutto, and fresh basil. Very creative!
In the Vintage Kitchen, we made our ring salad with Havarti Dill cheese, organic farm eggs and milk and smoked paprika. We also chose not to ring this one since we initially thought about cubing it and serving it on top of crackers. We decorated it with a simple sprig of rosemary and served it on an age appropriate plate made by Garden City Pottery in San Jose, California in 1951.
We loved how Marianne and Olivia added a bevy of extra flavors to their cheese ring, which really opens up the possibilities of offering a sweet or savory appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. In the Vintage Kitchen, we hemmed and hawed over various cheese possibilities (blue, cheddar, gouda, cream cheese, brie, camembert, parm etc etc etc) for this recipe for an entire day before deciding on Havarti dill. There was a lot to consider here as far as color, texture, and taste, and while we had big hopes for it, the jellied cheese turned out to be pretty uninteresting in the flavor department. The Vintage Kitchen version had the consistency of a slightly damp sponge and had absolutely no smell. The combo of the smoked paprika and the dill made it taste sweaty like room-temperature buttermilk or old socks. Definitely not quite what we were expecting!
Marianne and Olivia said their version featuring goat cheese made the ring somewhat grainy, so that wasn’t ideal either. While they didn’t hate it they wouldn’t rush to make it again. Perhaps it’s easier and more delicious to just eat a piece of cheese, in this case, instead of ringing it in jelly! But here in the Vintage Kitchen, we love a good challenge. We haven’t quite given up on this guy yet. The right cheese and the right mix of spices might yield something magical, so we are going to continue working on this just to see if we can come up with something palatable for football snacking season.
RECIPE No. 3: SPANISH CREAM(from the Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book, 1955)
Creativity really ruled the roost with this recipe Harpie and Manny added an elegant drizzle of chocolate sauce and fresh strawberries to theirs.
Marianne and Olivia topped theirs with a dollop of homemade blackberry jam and served it on a gorgeous antique plate.
Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we topped our Spanish Cream with the last of this season’s sweet Ranier cherries. We served it on a vintage JAJ Floral Pyrex plate that was made in England in the 1960’s and dusted each piece with a sprinkling of cinnamon.
Each team agreed that the Spanish Cream was by far their most favorite recipe of the three and definitely one to be made again and again. Harpie loved that it was sweet but not too sweet in taste, silky smooth in texture and refreshingly cool in the heat of summer.
Marianne liked the fact that this recipe was made up of a few simple ingredients that turned into an eye-catching, delicious treat. “I think jellied foods first appealed to people because they were pretty and a bit of a novelty. Take the Spanish Cream for example. All you need is milk and a few eggs to make a really special looking dessert. Top it with some fresh berries or jam and you have an elegant dish from ingredients most would have on hand.”
Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we loved that the consistency of the Spanish Cream was light and airy, making it a great dessert choice following a heavier meal. In taste we found it to be most similar to flan or rice pudding but not as dense in texture. Marianne likened it to a cold marshmallow or even a tapioca pudding. Because of its simple combination of basic ingredients, there is lots of available room to add your own creativity by adding extra flavor enhancers and playing around with the styling, which makes this dessert completely customizable to each cook’s preference. Next time Marianne and Olivia make it, they will be experimenting with a coffee version. Harpie and Manny will throw in an extra dose of vanilla and top it with maraschino cherries. And next time we make it in the Vintage Kitchen, we will be experimenting with a local honey and Greek yogurt version.
So enjoying two out of three of these vintage recipes wasn’t so bad! Each of us embarked on this challenge with our own pre-conceived notions about jellied foods. Harpie and Manny weren’t sure that a gelatin dish could taste good if it was anything other than sweet. “Could savory jello recipes be tasty? Or are we too ingrained in that jello is supposed to be sweet and fruity? Coming from the 1990’s baby background that the Retro Revival staff was born in, jello desserts were only fruit flavored. Anything that wasn’t fitting of that description was considered unpalatable. Once we tried the cucumber mousse (which was the first recipe we made), our feelings immediately changed. Unlike what we expected – suspended savories in a flavorless blob – we got a light and tasteful alternative to boring green salads.”
Marianne addressed the preconceptions about the congealed consistency factor. “I think many people are afraid of gelatin or they don’t realize that it can be used to create something of a creamy texture. The expectation is that it will create something solid and jiggly. But it has so many uses beyond fruit gelatin desserts. Initially, by participating in this challenge, I was interested to see what kinds of textures would be achieved. Would jellied cheese be better than it sounds? Would I find the next “wow” dish to bring or serve at my next dinner party?”
Here in the Vintage Kitchen we were excited too at the possibility of discovering something new in these old recipes. We were curious to find the attraction of this type of cooking and to understand why people would prepare and eat jellied foods. We went into this project thinking that vintage gelatin dishes were going to be primarily a flavorless mix of strange ingredients. We were pretty certain that our modern palate, so trained on enjoying and seeking out fresh whole foods, would reject the idea of tucking into a quivery conglomeration of cold cut-ups.
Surprisingly though, after completing the challenge, we were all pleasantly enlightened. Gelatin was no longer the oft-putting substance we once thought it was and it taught each of us a new way to look at how it ties together the consistency of food in a variety of formats. It was also really fun to work with. Each recipe was quick to make and exciting to style. Like blank canvases, gelatin offers an artistic form of expression combining simple, tactile arrangements of food, texture and color. As you can see from our above photographs each team presented their finished dishes in entirely different ways. Other than decorating a cake there are not that many types of food that yield such widely diverse creativity in the presentation department.
Marianne brought up a good point about the availability (or in this case the non-availability of ingredients back in the 20th century that aided the aspect of artistic merit. “Vintage cooks used everyday ingredients to make something special. Today we are so accustomed to getting exotic ingredients from all around the globe. Vintage cooks didn’t have that option. So, for special occasions, they used what they had and elevated them to a new level with gelatin. Appearance must have been very important. By today’s standards, the original recipes aren’t what most people think of as visually appealing but you have to admit they are all kind of show stoppers.”
Would we rush out and buy boxes and boxes of gelatin tomorrow and eat it every day from here on out? Probably not. But we wouldn’t run away from it now either. In this cooking experiment, we discovered a valuable place for the humble gelatin recipe. The powder package still holds up (no pun intended!) carrying with it the same essence of possibility and potential that it had in the 1950’s and the 1930’s and the centuries before.
Harpie and Manny thought we were still a few years away from seeing a gelatin resurgence in popular American cooking. Marianne and Olivia thought that with a good marketing campaign and better names for dishes (for example, Honeyed Goat Cheese Mousse with Yakima Peaches, Sliced Prosciutto and Basil instead of Jellied Cheese Ring Salad) that people would be more willing to experiment with and accept a jellied food dish. Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we think this is the perfect time to see gelatin rise in popularity again. Watch any episode of Chef’s Table…
and you’ll see professional cook’s experimenting with all sorts of materials to elevate their food to a new level of sensory experience. Gelatin has all the attributes of attaining something truly marvelous with a modern approach. We may not be as apt to enjoy Jellied Eggs with Prunes or Olive-Studded Ham Loaf but we don’t HAVE to eat those combos anymore either. As Marianne said we have the world at our finger tips so the set of ingredients for our next jellied dish is limited only by our imagination. And that, dear readers, is the true novelty of a good gelatin.
Cheers to our brave and industrious kitchen experimenters Harpie & Manny and Marianne & Olivia, for joining us on this fun-filled cooking challenge through the wiggly world of gelatin. Keep up with Harpie and Manny on their Retro Revival blog here. Find both of the vintage cookbooks (plus many more unique mid-century ones!) in the shop here.
A Special Note on the featured cookbooks in this post: The Blender Cookbook (1962) features over 275 pages of vintage recipes intended entirely for creation in the blender. You will never believe the wide range of inventive and innovative recipes that these two Paris trained Gourmet magazine food editors turned authors came up with for all meals of the day! The Silver Jubilee Super Market Cook Book (1955) celebrates the 25th anniversary of the opening of America’s first supermarket. We previously featured this cookbook in a post about supermarket founder Michael J. Cullen, which you’ll find here.