Dinner on a Dime, From a Vintage Cookbook 

Chef Troy Graves tries out a 115-year-old cookbook, but skips the squirrel.

"This is a Cook Book by the people and for the people." So begins the preface of The Chicago Record Cook Book, published in 1896 and reprinted the same year under the title The Daily News Cook Book. Like cookbooks put out by parishes, schools, or civic organizations, The Chicago Record Cook Book was comprised of recipes from homemakers—but on a grander scale. The newspaper, the morning counterpart of the afternoon Chicago Daily News, conducted a contest beginning in 1895, asking the women of America to submit menus for an entire day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. According to the first page of the volume, 10,000 manuscripts came in, and the "cream"—1,100—were included in the book, which has complete bills of fare for every single day of the year.

Most winning menus also appeared in the daily editions of the Record, along with "meritorious" nonwinners, with a cash prize of $5 for the day's best. The rules were simple. Dishes had to be within the means of a family able to spend a maximum of $500 a year to feed five people—the size of the average family at the time. And each bill of fare was to be similar in form and treatment to those already published. "Preciseness and conciseness are desirable qualities and will be considered in the award," the paper added. Contestants were asked to send all communications by mail, addressed to the Household Editor. (Copies of the book I've seen don't list an author or editor, but a few sources credit Mary Mott Chesbrough, the daughter-in-law of Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, who designed Chicago's water intake and sewer systems.)

The two-page preface not only stresses that the cookbook is for "families of moderate means"—the only exceptions to the $500 annual expenditure rule were Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day dinners, each budgeted at $5 for ten people—it also urges readers to "get out of the ruts that lead to dyspepsia" and reassures them that "the gastronomic surprise that became so necessary to one of Balzac's characters can be obtained without the aid of a French chef."

At a time when measurements were just being standardized, the preface indicates that "in all cases the cup is the five-cent tin measuring cup of one exact half-pint; the teaspoon the standard one that will pick up 60 drops of water, of which the tablespoon is four times and the saltspoon one quarter capacity." After noting that the measures should be level, it adds a special caution about baking powder and soda—"whose excessive use is the bane of American cookery."

The preface refers readers to the "complete classified index" (organized into "animal food" and "vegetable food") to fill in any gaps and ends by explaining that, to avoid redundancy, daily menus don't include recipes for all the dishes. This, coupled with techniques that have been lost over the last 115 years and "conciseness" that can be confounding, make the book a challenge for anyone who tries to cook from it nowadays. Exacerbating the problem, recipes are written in paragraph form, and ingredients aren't listed separately. Also, cooking instructions are for coal- or wood-burning stoves, whose temperature was hard to regulate, so temperatures simply aren't given.

Nonetheless, the book is a wonderful window to the past packed with still-useful recipes and revelations. Troy Graves, executive chef at Eve before it closed earlier this year, has been exploring it since he picked up a copy for a buck or two at a garage sale a couple of years ago. "I was initially attracted by the bold cover illustration," he recalls, "and when I looked inside and saw that it was organized like no other cookbook I'd ever seen and written in a kind of language I only remembered from my grandmother—who used a teacup for measuring—I was hooked."

At first, Graves tried to make a whole day's recipes—specifically Monday, November 1, from Mrs. J. A. Herron of Creston, Iowa. He says that breakfast—rice, ham, eggs with milk, baked potatoes, Yorkshire breakfast cake, coffee—was easy; the Yorkshire cake was much like a pancake, only thicker. The chopped-ham salad with cream dressing featured at lunch reminded him of his aunts', only he left out the sliced cucumber pickles used as garnish (along with hard-boiled eggs) because his girlfriend doesn't like them. He hit a snag at dinner, however: the main course, after an opener of bean soup (one of more than 150 soups in the book), was squirrel pie—and a recipe wasn't provided. "I just made a chicken pie instead," he says, adding that he's found ingredients he can't get or has never heard of on almost every page.

Lately he's been experimenting with individual recipes such as mock turtle soup with forcemeat balls and veal or mock duck fashioned from pork tenderloins that are flattened, stuffed, and sewn together. One of his latest is a creamy "terrapin" veal stew finished with chopped hard-boiled eggs. He substituted sauteed fresh mushrooms for mushroom "catchup" (cooked, pureed, strained mushrooms).

A thrifty beverage that caught Graves's fancy, though he hasn't made it yet, is crust coffee: "Boston brown bread browned until hard," crushed with a rolling pin, then boiled with water and steeped in hot milk.

Graves cooked up an asparagus dish from the May 4 menu for the Reader. Here's the original recipe, followed by his version.

Asparagus in Ambush

First, take one large bunch of asparagus: chop and boil in just water enough to cook it tender. Second, have ready a half-dozen stale biscuits or rolls, from which you have cut a neat top slice and scraped out the crumb; set them in the oven to crisp, laying the tops beside them, that the cavities may be well dried. Third, put into a saucepan one-half-pint milk; let it come to a boil and add two well-beaten eggs; stir until thick, then add a spoonful of butter and season with a saltspoon of salt and pinch of pepper. Fourth, add the asparagus and stir until very hot, but do not let it boil. Fifth, fill the rolls with the mixture; put on the tops, rub butter over and set in the oven for three minutes.

Troy Graves's Asparagus in Ambush With Prosciutto-Parmesan Biscuits

Biscuits

3 cups flour

1/2 t baking soda

2 T baking powder

2 t salt

9 T butter

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

1/3 cup Parmesan

1/8 cup diced prosciutto

Combine all dry ingredients and mix together. Saute prosciutto so it's crispy then add to dry ingredients. Add all the other ingredients to the dry and mix well. Knead until all ingredients are incorporated together. Let rest for an hour. Roll out so the dough is 1 ½ inches thick and cut into circles. Bake at 375 degrees until browned, about 15 minutes.

Asparagus

1/2 bunch asparagus

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1/4 cup Parmesan

salt and pepper to taste

Cut the asparagus and blanch until tender

(about one minute) then shock in ice water. Whisk the eggs well. Bring the milk to a boil. Slowly add the milk to the eggs then put back on stove. Cook on low heat and stir constantly until thickened. Stir in the butter and Parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Add the asparagus and put back on stove to heat; do not boil. Cut the tops off biscuits and scoop out insides. Put bottoms in oven for a few minutes to toast. Spoon asparagus filling in biscuit bottoms, place tops on. Bake on a cookie sheet for three minutes on 375 degrees.

Note: the egg and milk mixture scrambles easily, so low heat and constant stirring are critical.  

Copies of the 1896 Chicago Daily News Cook Book can sometimes be found on eBay or Amazon.com, and several vintage cookbook dealers have them, including oldcookbooks.com.    

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