Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Eating High on the Hog

    I sometimes like to mention books that are not new. They may, in fact, be pretty old and hard to find. I guess I'm perverse that way. I like to give attention to authors from the past. If you are able to find the same book, great. If not, perhaps you will find something equally interesting if you're open to it. A lot of my finds come from thrift stores, garage sales, Goodwill, and Half Price Books.
    HPB is our largest purveyor of used books in the Austin area. For the most part they sell books at half of the cover price, just like the title says. They have lots of specials and sales, though. I'm rarely happy with what they pay me when I sell to them, but I do shop there fairly often.
    Another of my interests is eating, as my waistline will bear out. So, what could be more appropriate than talking about cookbooks?
    Don't get me wrong. I don't cook much. I can get by okay making a few standards: Chili, pinto beans and cornbread, biscuits, gravy, bread, omelets, bannock, pancakes, things like that. It has always been my luck to pair up with partners who are excellent cooks.
    However, for some reason I'm a sucker for cookbooks. I've built up a small library of cookbooks I've picked up here and there, mostly old ones. Today we'll talk about some of them.
    Before I begin, a caveat. Few of the following cookbooks would be considered particularly "healthy" currently. They were great for the time. Not so many folks now are inclined to cook with lard, or bacon grease. Frying is less in favor for a lot of reasons I won't go into. That being said, many of the recipes can be adapted to healthier cooking. Before you cringe in horror, just remember, it was a simpler time. The higher priority was more often to put food on the table using what you had available. Today we have a lot more choices. End of caveat.
      We tend to eat much healthier at my home now. We use less saturated fats, more fresh vegetables, less meat overall, no gluten, less sugars. It is all very good, really. I agree totally with the concept. I must admit, however, that my "druthers" are a bit unreconstructed. I still yearn for biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and so on. True comfort food. Okay, maybe I'm just a guy. A "boomer" at that.
Back to cookbooks:
First up is "Mrs. Blackwell's Heart of Texas Cookbook" by Louise B. Dillow & Deenie B. Carver. Corona Publishing, 1980. The subtitle is "A Tasty Memoir of the Depression."  My copy is a paperback, 107 pages.
    This cookbook appealed for one big reason. I was raised by my grandparents. When she married W.K. Seward in 1929, my grandmother, Mildred Adams, could barely cook. All the meals she learned to cook were, therefore, shaped by the Great Depression in Texas. "Mrs. Blackwell's" is therefore a taste of home. Most of the recipes   included were very familiar to me. These are the recipes I wished I had paid attention to when I lived at home.  Here is that comfort food, all the familiar dishes: Chicken and Dumplings, Fried Chicken, Pecan Pie, Chow-chow and others. All are served up with candid memories of family life around the table.
    The book is a good read. There is a foreward by John Henry Faulk, a Texas legend himself. If you're not hungry when you start reading, you will be when you finish. Especially if your grandma cooked for you!
    "Williamson County Extension Homemaker's Cookbook", North

American Press, Kansas City, MO. About 1980. IBC binding, paperback, 171 pages.
    This one really takes me back too. This was published by one of those "community cookbook publishers" that offered a package deal to groups. Gather up all your recipes, put together a cookbook to print, sell copies as a fundraiser. They have a certain amount of boilerplate in them. Common measurements, terms, so forth for filler.  It is only natural that a social group, church, club or whatever that routinely socializes and shares potluck would also share and compare recipes. Why not, after all, put out a book? When I hold something like this in my hand I fondly remember "all day preaching and dinner on the grounds". Churches used to have outdoor tabernacles for camp meetings and trestle tables permanently set up under the trees for the food. Yummy! Okay, often the preaching was boring, especially to us kids, but the singing and eating was fun.
    Less religious but no less social was the Home Demonstration Club!
    The Home Demonstration movement in Texas started in Milam County in 1912 as a club devoted to growing and canning tomatoes. World War I brought food conservation and the clubs were spreading and adding sewing and other homemaking activities. After the war the clubs came under the umbrella of the various county Agricultural Extension Agents with the backing of Texas A&M and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each club meeting would focus on learning or sharing techniques on many homemaking activities. Of course, growing, preserving, and preparing food were also part of  that endeavor. 
    Many rural communities had their own "Home Demonstration Club". The Union Hall Home Demonstration Club drew housewives from an area roughly ten miles across. Union Hall was the name of a church and one-time school for our area. The school was gone by the mid 1930's, I believe. The Union Hall Baptist Church is still there near Seward Junction, in the southeastern wedge of the U.S. 183 and State Highway 29 intersection, between Leander and Liberty Hill in Williamson County.
    My grandmother was a member of the club. I would often accompany her to meetings. Of course I was more interested in playing at that age, but I still remember the meetings and some of the things they learned. And, of course, the food.
    The "Williamson County Extension Homemaker's Cookbook" was compiled from several of those clubs, which by the time of printing had taken on the name of Extension Homemaker Clubs.
    The book is a mixed bag of all those country recipes that we would have enjoyed back then. Some of the slightly more modern products can be seen in use. Margarine, bouillon cubes, canned soups, Doritos, Bisquick baking mix.
    I have to admit, my palate was formed during the '50's and '60's. I grew up eating oleo-margarine instead of butter, skim milk instead of whole, Miracle Whip instead of mayonaise. In those days it was considered more healthy, actually. In consequence I don't remember ever tasting real butter until I was in my 20's, or mayonaise. My taste buds still prefer those things, logic has no bearing on taste. Cringe if you want, that's the way it is. We use the real stuff now, only rarely does the chemical substitute pass my lips.
  Next book:  "The Only Texas Cookbook", by Linda West Eckhardt. 1981. Lone Star Publishing. Paperback. 284 Pages. This is a good basic and relatively modern cookbook. I think I originally got it for the Tex -Mex and Chili sections. It has one of the few variations of the Chile Relleno that I really like. Cooked the right way with pecans, raisins, ground beef, ranchero sauce and sour cream. MMMMMMMM! More work than I want to tackle but I haven't found a restaurant that does them this way since the first one I found closed. Sigh!
    "The Husband's Cookbook". by Mike McGrady. 1979. J.B. Lippincott Company. Hardback. 228 pages. I have no picture for this one. The dust cover was gone and the spine didn't scan well.
    I got this book when I was single for awhile. I like the approach. It's a husband writing the book for other husbands. The style is very chatty as he talks you through fifty-two different full menus from Spaghetti in Meat Sauce to Chicken Kiev with all the side dishes. I like that he doesn't assume that you know very much. He doesn't talk down to a person, just acknowledges that his readers are intelligent men who just may not know this particular territory too well. Not a "country cooking" cookbook for sure, the menus are pretty "up town" but that makes the finished meal even more impressive. You might have trouble convincing the wife that you didn't order out!
A few years back a friend of Czech extraction brought me a cookbook from her family reunion. The "Marusak Family Reunion Collected Recipes." Private printing. Paperback. IBC Binding. 93 pages.
    Very interesting reading. If you like Czech food it's great! In fact, since we are, after all, a melting pot, there is a large variety of other foods covered including Tex -Mex, or as some of the family call it Czech-Mex.

"EATS A Folk History of Texas Foods", by Ernestine Sewell Linck and Joyce Gibson Roach. 1989. Texas Christian University Press. Hardback. 257 pages.
    "EATS" isn't so much a cook book as it is a folklore book about the subject of food throughout the history of Texas. There are recipes, to be sure. The overall intent, however is to explore the history of Texas in the light of what we  had to eat while that history was happening! The aforementioned Czechs show up here, as do the Native American and Mexican influences. Indeed, it would be hard to find a culture that didn't in some way influence the Texas table! It's good to see how we eat set within an historical and cultural context.
    As long as we're waxing historical the last cookbook this time around is a reprint of a very old one.
"The Cumberland Cook Book 1895," Four Hundred Tested  Recipes of Tennessee Cookery Compiled by the Ladies of the Educational Circle of the Cumberland Prespyterian Churches of Nadhville, Tenn. Reprinted 1980 by Frontier Press.
    My great-great-great-grandfather, Lewis Gordon Tucker came to Central Texas around 1860 as a minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Ministers traveled far and set up churches wherever they settled. This cook book was given to my grandmother by a family friend a few years back and it has come down to me.
    The recipes would be a bit difficult to follow, as they would require massive substitutions and interpretations of measurements here and there. However, in context of history and place it is a good cookbook to peruse now and then. There are also charming period advertisements reprinted throughout to set the tone.
    That completes this round of cookbooks. I have more, but I will save them for another time. Probably not so wise to read them if you're on a diet, but I hope I've sparked some interest.

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