Special Collections Cooking – Part 6: Fall Traditions and Food Fads

Women’s organizations used charity cookbooks as fundraising resources beginning in the Civil War era. By the turn of the twentieth century, suffragettes increasingly used this format to reinforce their connection to traditional American values while promoting their political cause.

The Washington Women’s Cook Book is an example of the variety of recipes and local flare found in charity cookbooks. Locals mailed their recipes to the Washington Equal Suffrage Association for inclusion in the book, which the association edited to contain standard sections like meats, desserts, foods for the ill, and household economy. In addition to typical sections, the Washington Women’s Cook Book includes local interest elements, including a section for vegetarians, a section for sailors compiled by a ship’s cook, German cooking, the “Mountaineers’ Chapter” of camp foods, and sections on women’s suffrage news.

Charity cookbooks are notable not only for regional fare, but for including new food fads. Mass-produced cookbooks were typically updated and republished in multiple editions across decades, often with little effective revision to reflect changing tastes. Charity cookbooks, on the other hand, collected recipes women were ostensibly using regularly at the time of publication. New trends in cooking emerge in the Washington Women’s Cook Book, notably a plethora of recipes incorporating boxed gelatin, commercialized in the 1890s, as well as extensive varieties of sandwiches and salads, newly in vogue for luncheons and social functions.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, I selected three recipes from the Washington suffragettes’ cookbook to reflect both classic cooking and new trends at the turn of the twentieth century as part of a holiday meal: Favorite Roast Turkey with stuffing, Cranberry Sherbet, and Aspic Jelly.

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The roast turkey recipe calls for stuffing made by boiling the gizzard, organs, and wing tips with potatoes and salt, pepper, and butter. Per instruction, I chopped a small loaf of sourdough and added it to the mixture before stuffing the bird. This recipe was much simpler than my family’s traditional stuffing of biscuit, celery, mushroom, sausage, and other spices. I used a small, roughly 10 lb. bird, salted the skin after stuffing, and baked it at 350⁰. As a product of the age before temperature-controlled ovens, the recipe didn’t specify cooking temperature. The turkey needed an extra half hour in the oven beyond the suggested 15 minutes per lb., but I may have been using lower heat than was customary. The roast came out with a golden, crispy skin and a rich stuffing filled with condensed stock flavor that, for all its simplicity, was delicious. For someone who’d never cooked a roast, this recipe was simple to prepare and a big success.

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Mixing the potato and bread stuffing, filling the bird, and the finished roast and stuffing.

The Washington Women’s Cook Book includes an interesting revision of Thanksgiving cranberry sauce: cranberry sherbet. The recipe is one of the many to incorporate packaged gelatin. Sherbet, sometimes spelled sherbert, derives from the Arabic sariba or Turkish serbet and originated as fruit syrup later used in frozen desserts. This sherbet uses boiled cranberries, strained and sweetened, to make a syrup. Lemon juice further increases its acidity, making the gelatin set loosely.

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The recipe doesn’t specify how to freeze the sherbet other than “the usual way.” This would likely have been a machine first patented in the 1840s that used a can inside a larger container filled with ice and salt, with a hand-cranked paddle to stir the mixture. I poured my mixture into a glass bowl that had chilled in the freezer, then regularly stirred to coat and re-coat the sides of the bowl. After 2 hours, it had the consistency of soft, fluffy ice. The tart and sweet sherbet captured the flavor of traditional cranberry sauce in a lighter texture. It worked well as a cool garnish to the turkey but even better as a Thanksgiving-themed dessert, much less filling than the typical pumpkin pie after a heavy meal. I’m definitely bringing this to my Thanksgiving table.

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Boiling and straining the cranberries (while sporting my Chatsworth, NJ Cranberry Festival apron), and the frozen final product.

Aspic jelly represents a savory use for packaged gelatin. The Washington Women’s Cook Book described aspic as meat stock “highly seasoned, strained, with gelatin added” that could be “sliced and served on lettuce leaves with mayonnaise.” Cooks worldwide had prepared aspic for centuries by boiling high-gelatin cuts of meat like calves’ feet to make a thick sauce. Boxed gelatin sped up prep time considerably and produced firmer aspic that could be set in molds. This spurred an American trend for creative preparations like Shrimp and Vegetables or Striped Bass in aspic, molded and garnished to resemble other meats and dishes or fanciful designs. The aspic craze in the twentieth century coincided with a salad fad. Both were light foods popular as presentation pieces for social functions, and both used new mayonnaise-based dressings.

I followed the Washington Women’s Cook Book recipe by using a quart mix of beef stock and turkey stock derived from my roast basting juices. To this I added .75 ounces of gelatin, the equivalent of three-quarter’s of an early Knox gelatin box, and heated almost to a boil before letting it cool and set in a rectangular tray. The mixture quickly formed a firm, brown gel. I served my basic aspic as instructed, over a bed of lettuce with mayonnaise dressing.

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Aspic molded to a “brick”, and served cubed with mayonnaise and lettuce.

If I thought last week’s koumyss tested my stomach, this dish took things to another level. Imagine a bouillon cube turned into a wet gummy bear, then dipped in mayonnaise. My twenty-first century palate is just not prepared for “gelatin” and “savory” to live in the same culinary world. I suggest leaving this off the menu for your next get-together.

Recreating these 1909 recipes was much simpler than Maria Eliza Rundell’s book, published a century earlier. These recipes used standard measures and slightly more detailed instructions for cooking times and tools. Perhaps the women submitting these recipes added these elements in response to difficulties working with older cookbooks themselves. These instructions still lack temperature units, and some instructions remain primarily results-based (ex. salmon should be “baked until done”).

The Washington Women’s Cook Book and other charity cookbooks like it offer a glimpse of ­new trends in American cooking. Recipes represent foods women were preparing around the time of production, often a mix of traditional fare and newer recipes spread through commercialized food products. Compressed yeast, boxed gelatin, and canned fruits and vegetables revolutionized baking, shortened work time, and made most recipes reproducible in any season. The recipes in the Washington Women’s Cook Book begin to show the variety of foods these inventions soon made possible for the home cook in the twentieth century.

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A mini-Thanksgiving meal, courtesy of Washington’s early twentieth century suffragettes.

Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or archives@depaul.edu.

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