Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Lobster Thermidor and Icebox Cake

The Junior League of Memphis Cookbook (1952)

I have a weakness for Junior League cookbooks, so when I found this one for a steal at Acres of Books in Long Beach, it had to come home with me.

The first Junior League cookbook was published in 1943 by a chapter in Minneapolis, and since then, the cookbooks have become a fundraising staple of the organization. More than that, though, these cookbooks serve as a historical record of regional cookery in the United States, which is why I love them.

So, what was served up at the dinner parties of Memphis's most prominent ladies in 1952? Aspic, gelees, molds, and more aspic. One is hard-pressed to find a recipe in the Salads and Dressings chapter that does not involve an envelope of unflavored gelatin. Mrs. Philip B. Winston of Germantown, TN stretches the limits of the molded salad to the breaking point with her Meaty Salad Ring, a horseradish and mustard-flavored gelatin with a jar of diced tongue suspended in the translucent, jiggling mess.

By 1952, the tamale pie, a potluck staple of the 1930s and 40s, had evolved into something that bore little resemblance to early recipes, which look almost tasty by comparison. The traditional turn of the century recipe for tamale pie involved a tomatoe puree seasoned with chiles and topped with a cornmeal crust. Some recipes also included ground or sliced beef, olives, and cheese.

But in 1952 Memphis, tamale pie had become very much a product of the convenience food era, at least as evidenced by Mrs. W. Lytle McKee's recipe, which calls for more canned food than fresh. Chicken is used in place of the beef. Instead of chiles, the tomato puree is seasoned with something called Mexene powder, then littered with corn niblets. Most egregious, the cornmeal crust is done away with in favor of 3 cans of High Power brand tamales. Ack.

While Memphis certainly has a distinct regional cuisine, very little of that food appears in this 1952 edition. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that most of Memphis's best food comes from the culinary heritage of African-Americans. In any case, most of the recipes included here are of the bland and white variety. However, a few of the more daring ladies submitted ethic recipes that call for more or less authenic seasonings. There's an Arroz Con Pollo that looks pretty tasty and Mrs. Dunbar Abston's recipe for Indian Curry also looks excellent - it actually calls for real coconut milk and imported curry.

So, it's not all bad. Last night, I made the Watercress Dip, which was simple, refreshing, and good on toast rounds, and I'm looking forward to trying out one of the book's three icebox cake recipes. Icebox cake is one of those retro foods that totally needs to make a comeback. Aspic, not so much.

For further reading, and lots of great historic recipes, check out Feeding America, a digital collection of American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century.


Rebecca said...

Two Christmases ago, my sister, our hometown friend Judy and I made up for being far, far away from the yearly Anderson food and drink festival by cooking extravagantly for three or four days straight, drinking heavily and reading out loud from River Road Recipes I and II, the Baton Rouge Junior League cookbooks. Cracker crumbs, MSG, Cool-Whip and canned ham were surprisingly common ingredients. The majority of desserts involved booze of some sort. We made many desserts.

mary_m said...

I completely owe my biscuit-making skills to River Road Recipes. Love those cookbooks.