Columnists channel their inner 'Lutheran Ladies' after finding 100-year-old cookbook
FARGO — A few months ago my friend and former co-worker Tammy Swift told me about a recent discovery by her fellow employees of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
She said they uncovered, in an old, tucked-away box, a century-old cookbook published by the First Lutheran Ladies Aid of Fargo — the proceeds from which were given to support LSS of the time. As luck would have it, LSS is celebrating its 100th birthday this winter — so, to commemorate the occasion, LSS and First Lutheran Church in Fargo opted to republish the old cookbook, as is, to once again raise money for its mission.
By "as is," I mean it looks like the cookbook would have in 1919 around when it was published. It contains handwritten notes and recipes pasted on pages, sometimes covered in coffee rings and food spills. It looks well-worn and time honored — just like Grandma would have seen.
Tammy and I decided to try out some of the recipes contained within the book. Some are unusual, some not so much. But it turned out to be a surprising undertaking.
I love books about food history. Unlike history books, which tell us about major events in public life, cookbooks like the "Lutheran Home Cook Book" give us a peek into what American life was really like — how we lived and how we ate. Here are just a few things I learned from reading an old church cookbook like this.
No first names?
Of course I knew that in the past, it was most common to refer to women by their association to their husband alone. I remember my grandmother being offended if she received a letter written to Charlotte Samuels. She was Mrs. Andrew Samuels, and that is how she preferred to be addressed. End of discussion.
Such is the case for the women in this cookbook. Most of the recipes were authored by "Mrs. (insert husband's name here)." She is not "Mary Smith," but "Mrs. John Smith." I'm proud to be Mrs. Mark Jensen. But if I were to publish a recipe, I think I'd want to use my first name — unless, of course, Mark helped me crack a few eggs, bake a few cakes and formulate the recipe. (He would say he should get some credit for being a taste tester. Point taken).
Short on details
I suspect the women who wrote and read cookbooks like this were better cooks than a lot of us these days — or more intuitive.
Some of the recipes are very short on details. They tell you to mix the ingredients, but then don't tell you how long to cook it or how hot the oven should be. Or they tell you to "make a bread dough," or "burn it a little." Pardon me? I need things spoonfed to me. Thanks.
You might need Google
In the grand scheme of things, 100 years was not that long ago. Nonetheless, some of the ingredients in this early 20th century cookbook are completely new to me.
Recipes call for "sweet milk," "sour milk" or "condensed cream." On page 114, the "Lutheran Home Cook Book" has a recipe for "Baker's Ammonia Cookies." I envisioned cookies made from Clorox or bars made from lemon Pledge. But thanks to Google, I learned that baker's ammonia was actually a precursor to baking soda and baking powder.
Google also told me that "sweet milk" was really just regular whole milk, and "sour milk" is milk with added vinegar or lemon juice. And while "condensed cream" sounds like what we now know as sweetened condensed milk, it's actually closer to evaporated milk.
Short on spice
You might want to sit down for this: I found the recipes in this old-time Lutheran Ladies cookbook to be a little short on spice. I know — shocking, right?
Salt and pepper is about it for adding kick to most of these dishes. The staples are milk, sugar, eggs and flour. And that's just fine. Uff da.
Long on spice cake
While spices might be scant in many of the Lutheran Ladies recipes, spice cakes appeared to be running amok among the ladies. There are at least 10 different recipes for spice cake in this book, and even the potato chocolate cake I made in the video for this week's episode of "The Scoop with Tracy Briggs" tasted more like a spice cake.
Why the popularity of spice cake? Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt was only 10 years past his presidency when this cookbook was published, and spice cake was one of his favorites. Therefore, in the early 20th century, spice cake recipes were abundant in women's magazines — and apparently also in Lutheran Ladies cookbooks.
Every once in a while, you'll find recipes calling for somewhat unusual cooking techniques. In the case of the "Lutheran Home Cook Book," it happens in the handful of recipes you see for meatloaf. All of them suggest you cover the meatloaf with hot or boiling water.
Not so timeless
Unlike meatloaf, which is still popular today, old cookbooks are best when they feature what Fargo native and author James Lileks called "gastroanomalies" or questionable culinary creations. These are foods that don't sound quite right but for some reason, curious diners of the past insisted they earned a place at the table.
For example, "Lutheran Home Cook Book" features a few recipes for "Perfection Salad," which is basically cabbage, celery, pineapple and nuts suspended in a mold of unflavored gelatin and covered in mayonnaise and whipped cream. Erp.
Or how about "Apple Rice Dainty," a concoction of rice, pineapple, apples, bananas, marshmallows, powered sugar and whipped cream? Or "Dandelion Salad," which suggests you eat your dandelions covered in French dressing. (I guess I shouldn't knock it till I try it).
While the recipes are fun to read, old cookbooks like this are best when they also include advertisements from area businesses. Black's Beauty and Bob Shop boasts of offering $12 permanent waves, while the Bluebird Cafe says they serve "Mother's Kind of Cooking."
We learn that "discriminating hostesses only serve Hellman's Blue Ribbon Mayonaise" and that the telephone number for the local dry cleaner only contains three digits — "Dial 658." It's Fargo-Moorhead 100 years ago, and that's pretty cool.
Good recipes are on dirty pages
This is common sense. I know when I look for a banana bread recipe among the many found in my favorite church cookbook, I will choose the one that has dried globs of batter and grease stains on its page. It's not just the sign of a sloppy cook, but a much-loved, most likely successful recipe.
If you find a pristine page without food splatters, you might question just how good the dish is. Fair or not, that's the rule of the book.
More than recipes
Let's be honest: These days, you're more likely to get a complete recipe full of photos and maybe even instructional videos if you go online. But where's the fun in that? It's a challenge to cook from the same instructions our grandmothers and great-grandmothers used. We peek into their days in the kitchen long before the debut of the Food Network — or in this case even Julia Child.
It's real American home-style cooking. And it's delightful. But I think I'll leave the dandelions in the yard.
The early history
As Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota marks its second century of helping those in need, Tammy shares a little-known story about it's earliest days.
We know that LSS started in 1919 as the Lutheran Children’s Home Finding Society, an organization that sought to find homes for orphaned, abandoned and neglected children. The organization has since blossomed into a provider of dozens of services relating to the most challenging social issues of our time.
But Tammy says in its earliest days, helping women in need also became a priority. It started in the early 1920s when two Lutheran pastors were summoned by the sheriff to help translate for two women in custody. The women spoke little to no English and were kicked off a train in Fargo after being accused of prostitution.
"The pastors learned that these women were recent immigrants who got into this line of work because they had no other way to make a living," she says.
Tammy says the pastors were outraged, so they spoke to the city fathers about it.
"They saw a need for services for young women in trouble, and that's how the House of Mercy, the home for unwed mothers, was formed," Tammy says.
To purchase "Lutheran Home Cook Book" for $25 and support LSS, visit www.lssnd.org.