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Vintage Recipes and Recollections

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Half the fun of reading through vintage recipes is coming across ingredients that are totally unfamiliar to me. This simple sugar cookie recipe is a great example.  What the heck is Nucoa? While the answer isn’t nearly as exotic as I’d imagined, it is part of a decidedly weird food story.

Nucoa is the brand name of an Oleomargarine, or margarine, first introduced in the early 1900s and popular in the United States through the 1950s and 1960s. A “healthier” version called Buttery Sticks was reintroduced a few years ago to mixed reviews.

Regardless, Nucoa had some terrific commercials:

What I wasn’t aware of was the battle between the dairy lobby and margarine producers that lasted for years.  In the last part of the 19th century U.S. dairy farmers were successful in legislating a healthy tax on margarine products in the hopes of encouraging more butter sales. What they didn’t count on was that homemakers enjoyed the spreadability of the considerably cheaper butter alternative. The dairy lobby upped the ante by encouraging Congress to enact production restrictions that prohibited margarine manufacturers to add yellow dye or colorant to the naturally white product. It didn’t take long for margarine producers to create a work-around by supplying homemakers with “dye kits” so they could add colour to their margarine blocks if they so desired. It wasn’t until after World War II, when margarine became much more popular due to the lack of butter, that the U.S government repealed most of the heavy taxes.

Restrictions on margarine sales in Canada were far more drastic. In fact, margarine wasn’t even allowed for sale in Canada until 1948, expect for a really brief window during World War I.  And even when sales were permitted, “butter coloured” margarine wasn’t – unless it was dyed a very bright yellow or even orange.  Many Provinces upheld that law until well into the 1990s, with Quebec finally repealing their margarine dye law in 2008.

This recipe would have been clipped from a magazine by my grandma probably in the 1960s.  If she had made the cookies she likely would have used either Parkay or Imperial margarines which were popular in our households. But today I’d think I’d happily substitute butter!

 

 

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I have an oddly complicated relationship with this recipe – starting with the fact that I have a relationship with a cookie! But oh what a cookie.

Right off the bat, I’m not a baker. Recipes for baked goods always look like Grade Four math problems to me – you know the ones – “Two trains leave the station travelling in opposite directions ten minutes apart on a rainy Friday afternoon. How old is the engineer?”  Way too much measuring and precision for me! But I can make these cookies –  even though they’re never as good as Mom’s were – and every tasty bite is full of happy memories of home.

This is a legacy recipe, passed through Mom’s grandmother’s family. I suspect that most families have a similar version in their own files.  The combination of such simple ingredients produces a cookie that could elevate my spirits like nothing else when I was a kid. Coming through the back door after school to be greeted with the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house was simply the best thing ever.  Even after I moved away from home, Mom would often send “care packages” that included a box of these little gems.

If you don’t have a recipe like this one in your file – you do now!

As the card is a little hard to read, I’ve re-written the recipe below:

Boiled Raisin Cookies

To one cup of  water in a saucepan add 1 1/2 cups golden raisins. Boil gently for 5 minutes and allow to cool, saving the liquid.

Beat together:

1 cup shortening

2 cups of sugar (added one at a time, mixing well between additions)

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

In a separate bowl, sift together:

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Add the sifted ingredients, plus the raisins and their liquid to the creamed mixture and blend completely.

Drop by teaspoon onto a greased baking sheet.  Bake at 400F for 12-15 minutes.

Makes approximately 6 dozen cookies.

 

 

Here’s a question that’s puzzled me for years. Why are vegetables, on a daily basis fine on their own, but merely suggest guests for dinner, and they suddenly need to be enrobed in a cheese sauce?

Our family’s recipe file has an entire section of “Company Vegetables” and Broccoli Casserole is at the top of the heap.  In the run-up to Thanksgiving (here in Canada) I’ve been reminded that this group of special, company-only, cheesy recipes would always make an appearance.

I recall reading an article years ago about study results from a group of child psychologists suggesting that kids were more likely to enjoy vegetables (specifically the green ones like broccoli and Brussels sprouts) later in life if they were introduced to them with some kind of sauce.  My vegetable-phobic partner would have you believe that obviously suggests vegetables can only be enjoyed when their true identity is hidden behind a sauce.  He also believes that popcorn is a vegetable so we just agree to disagree on the topic.

I’d have to say that I’d’ve been on the outside of the norm in that study – I was never a fan of the processed “cheese sauce”.  It’s likely why in recent years I’ve remade this recipe but used fresh broccoli, a mushroom sauce that wasn’t previously condensed, wild rice not of the “minute” variety and a cheese sauce that used, well, real cheese!  A tasty, less processed version of a family classic.

But I present to you here, the original (with it’s endearingly misspelled title) in all it’s cheezie goodness. Enjoy – with or without company!

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Also in the “Company Vegetable” section is this one for Turnips au Gratin.  I don’t recall it ever making it to the table, but it piqued Mom’s interest enough for her to clip it out. A gold star to anyone who can explain to me why in the picture it’s garnished with orange slices. The 1970s was a decade of wondrous culinary delights wasn’t it?

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That’s what J.R.R. Tolkien would call the recipe if he was writing this article – “The One Recipe to bind them all“! While it’s not the oldest recipe in the file, it’s certainly the most used – and for me the most revered. All hail the iconic banana loaf.

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I think you’d be hard pressed to find a household, anywhere, that doesn’t have a version of banana loaf or banana bread in it’s canon. It makes sense when you think about it. Bananas are one of the best selling and most available fruit in countries all over the world. They’re tasty, accessible year round, and full of potassium.  And famous, or infamous, for one other feature – they’ll go bad long before you get through the bunch! It’s a guarantee.

By all accounts, banana loaves, or breads, or cakes have been made in their present format since the late 1800s.  They became especially popular during the Depression years of the 1930s when “quick breads” (those that don’t require yeast) were in vogue.  The advent of baking powder and soda provided new leavening options, and homemakers not wanting to waste food were more than happy to incorporate too ripe bananas into a recipe.

Our recipe is well-loved and originally from my great grandmother Cooper’s collection.  Of all the cards in the file it’s had the most wear and tear – I’m fairly certain there’s even petrified banana adhered to the card.  Truth be told, Mom made this loaf so often I don’t remember her ever referring to the recipe.  Bananas past their prime were treasured commodities in our home and destined for a new life in a loaf.

An added bonus to this recipe card is it’s partner – the recipe adjusted to meet my Grandad’s diabetic needs, swapping out the sugar with an artificial sweetener.  At least a few times a month, Mom would make a “Grandad version” that we could wrap up in tinfoil and deliver to him as a special treat.

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As the card is in rough shape, I’ve re-wrtiten the recipe below.  It’s a time honoured recipe that produces terrific results.

Banana Loaf

Mix:

1/2 cup shortening *

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs – added one at a time

Add:

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Add:

3 large very ripe bananas – mashed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup nuts (optional) **

Mix thoroughly and bake in a greased loaf pan at 350F for one hour or until a tester comes out cleanly.

* I believe the original recipe refers to solid vegetable shortening, however, Mom always used a vegetable oil with great success.

** Walnuts were Mom’s choice for many years. One of my early kitchen jobs was to chop the nuts in a wonderful little contraption like the one pictured here:

nut grinder

 

What is it about old recipes that capture our interest and imagination?

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For some, they recall a space in time – like a song you haven’t heard forever but that instantly transports you back to sometime special and meaningful.

For others they’re like a warm blanket – familiar and comforting.

For me they’re also an integral part of my family history. After my Mom passed away this year I found a large manila envelope with my name on it. Inside were hundreds of recipes – some loose, some in old notebooks, some in plastic covers. They date from the early 1900s through the late 1990s. They passed from my grandma to Mom and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be the new keeper of these treasured recipes that have been collected, transcribed, and clipped for so many years. They’re not only a trove of interesting and often odd ideas for dishes and menus, but a record of sorts of my family’s history. Many are scribbled on old letters or envelopes (many with partial letters, or addresses on the reverse), the backsides of shopping lists, or napkins from restaurants. The recipes that are clipped from newspapers and magazines are an amazing snapshot of their time. The flipside of the recipe is often a portion of a store advertisement or event notice, even the odd obituary! All of them spark a memory and tell a story.

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I used to assume that my love of cooking and food came from my Mom and Grandma – so many of my memories of them revolve around the kitchen.  Recently I’ve realized that may not be entirely accurate.  Both were good cooks – they had healthy and hearty meals on the table for their families every day – but unlike me, I think they enjoyed the “idea” of cooking rather than the actual process.  It was the recipes that fuelled their imaginations.

What intrigues me is so many of the recipes would never have been attempted by either Mom or Grandma. “Scaloppine Alla Parmigiana“, “Salmon Continental“, or “Carrot Timbales” never showed up on the table, but the recipes are lovingly filed away “just in case”.

This space in the “blogsphere” is dedicated to preserving not only these recipes but the memories that surround them. I’ll try to decode them somewhat along the way – What was the recipe’s origin? What was happening in the world when they were written? Are they still applicable today? What is a “timbale” anyway?

I look forward to sharing these treasures and maybe starting some conversations along the way.