Whenever I ask my older brother what he would like for a birthday or Christmas gift, he always gives the same answer: “My wants are few and my needs are fewer.” Originally, I found those to be frustrating words, but as I’ve gotten older, I find myself expressing those same sentiments when someone solicits gift ideas from me. However, recently my friend Lisa came up with a perfect gift for me. It ticked several important boxes for me — it’s small, useful and historic.
Was it a piece of vintage jewelry? No, it’s a gem of a different kind — the spiral-bound “Pennsylvania State Grange Cook Book,” dated 1950! Its ruby-red cover proudly proclaims: “Over 1,000 Favorite Tested Recipes.” The title page shows a housewife wearing high heels and a dress protected by a ruffled half-apron, sliding a roasting pan holding a turkey into the oven. It states that the contents were “Compiled by the Members of the Pennsylvania State Grange Home Economics Committee.”
While I have yet to fully explore all 250 pages of this priceless pearl, just reading the index is convincing enough to know that great-tasting recipes lie within. I find it interesting that it’s arranged into categories quite different from those one might expect, judging from more recent cookbooks. For instance, one whole section is devoted to “Bread, waffles, griddle cakes, biscuits, buns, muffins.” But cakes, candy, cookies, desserts, doughnuts, frostings and pies/pastry each rate their own sections.
I’m already hopeful of finding those elusive recipes for pumpkin custard with a butter line like my grandmother’s and the butterscotch meringue pie that my aunt baked for Christmas dinner dessert. Isn’t it funny how one’s memory can actually retain flavors and aromas from many years gone by?
There’s a helpful chapter on measurements that doesn’t just provide the usual equivalents like 2 pints in a quart and 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon. This information is much more specific. For instance, do you know how many tablespoons there are in a fluid ounce? (Two). How about the number of quarts in a peck? (Eight). It takes 4-1/2 cups of graham flour to equal a pound, but there’s only 3-7/8 cups of whole-wheat flour to a pound. Among the 27 listed equivalencies are the differing number of cups of granulated, powdered, confectioners’ and brown sugars equal to a pound. I’m not even sure some of that information can be found online.
Other enlightening bits of information included in that same section are explanations of “slow,” “moderate,” “hot or quick,” and “very hot” oven temperatures. This is useful because most of the handwritten recipes from the little recipe notebooks kept by my mother and her mother do not include exact oven temperature information. There’s also a full-page chart titled “Approximate Yield of Home Canned Product from Raw Material.”
Another unusual chapter seldom seen in today’s cookbooks is one called “Quantity Recipes.” Under the heading “Quantities Required to Serve 100,” some listings are as simple as “Baked Ham — 2 fifteen-pound hams.” Others are far more detailed. “Baking Powder Biscuits” requires 12 quarts flour, 2 measuring cups or 32 level tablespoons baking powder, 1/4 cup salt, 3 cups shortening and about 5-1/2 quarts milk. For the estimated 144 cups of coffee needed for that crowd size, 12 cups of ground coffee and 6 gallons water are called for.
Twelve sub-headings thereafter, credited to “Penna State College,” are precise instructions for successful large-scale community meals. Topics include everything from “Planning the Menu” and “Organization of Work” to “Preparation of Vegetables,” “Suggested Salad Combinations,” “Keeping Foods Hot for Serving” and “Effective Dishwashing Procedures.”
A “Miscellaneous” heading starts out with the verse: “Here are lots of odds and ends, Try them yourself and tell your friends.” It talks about meat roasting times, how to make paste for children’s scrapbooks and frosting the rims of glasses for cold drinks. It even has illustrations of the proper way to set tables for both buffet meals and family style service.
Perhaps the most touching part of this cookbook are the bits left behind by its previous owner(s). At the end of each chapter, there’s space for additional recipes. Here are handwritten bonuses like mocha frosting (which happened to be one of my mother’s specialties — excellent atop chocolate cake), as well as sweet milk cookies and coconut cake. Tucked between other pages of the cookbook are yellowed scraps of paper. Some have been cut from a magazine, like the one for sweet pickled peaches, while others such as the one for “Eggless, butterless and milkless cake” are written in pencil on crumbling sheets of tablet paper.
What a valuable gift I’ve been given, and I’ve only just begun to scratch its surface. I wonder if the Grange has ever considered a reprint of this priceless gem?
P.S.: I love reading the names of the Granges to which each recipe’s submitter belonged. Curfew Grange No. 1052, Paris Grange No. 1511, Hop Bottom Grange No. 952 and Boot Jack Grange No. 1680 are just four of the many Granges represented by their members’ culinary contributions.