JUNE 21, 2018

Cookbook Review: Food for the Settler

Sometimes it can be surprisingly educational to pick up an old cookbook at a used bookstore even if it is ‘faux vintage’ like Food for the Settler (Crabtree Publishing 1989) by Bobbie Kalman.

This black and white childrens’ cookbook, a hodgepodge of styles and intentions, does in a roundabout way answer some questions that I’ve had ever since going through The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen, which takes a modern and well-trained approach to hand-me-down recipes from upper Midwestern ‘settler’ family collections.

What did kitchens look like and what were some of the staple ingredients found in a common two-room homestead cabin?

How was food preservation handled pre-refrigeration? (think pemmican and pickling).

What were some of the kitchen gadgets like compared to our own modern versions?

How much time did householders actually spend on food preparation anyway?

These are interesting questions for all kinds of cultural reasons, not the least of which is the common modern sentiment that we just wished we had more time to prep and cook! A section midway into the book is a great example of the romanticized settler cookbook as two things at once – mildly informative but also so unrecognizably innocent and patient that it appears be a spoof on history. “Bread made with a loving touch” is shown as a costumed role-playing sequence. “Making bread the pioneer way is a good way of reaching back into the past. We spent a day exploring the warm, friendly, kitchen of Gibson House, which was the home of settlers in the 1850’s. It took nearly a whole morning to make bread and butter. But what a wonderful time it was!” The dough is shown to be made by the children and grandmother at an old farmhouse table then let to sit to rise near a smoldering fire on the hearth. The removing of the bread from above the fire ‘on a peel’ is very fascinating considering the likely difficulty of maintaining an even temperature and then the delicate slipping of the peel under the brown loaf.

It’s quite a history lesson looking at the ‘Gadgets galore’ section. We can easily see the origins of many small kitchen accessories and staple pantry items.  There is a nutmeg crusher, no larger than a small child’s hand, cones of sugar (that is how they were sold in those days), a lard press (used for cutting), also used to smooth flower petals, sweetly useful cinnamon sticks, elaborate tin molds, wooden lemon squeezers and even a mechanized apple corer.  We are really left to wonder if they weren’t a little more useful then than now. We are also left to wonder how many food trends today are attempts at harkening back to those basic “Dishes brought from different lands?” Recipes like  “Dandelion greens salad,” “French Pea Soup,” “Scotch Eggs,” “Ukranian cabbage rolls” and “Dutch Apple Pudding” seem like familiar modern menu fare.