books, domesticity, health, history lesson, lessons learned, michael pollan

Why I love historical recipes

I’ve been chronicling my adventures in historical cooking for almost two years now (!), but it wasn’t until recently that I began to wonder why. I love history, isn’t that enough? Well, yeah, but what’s the bigger picture? Why does it matter to cook from old recipes?

Here are a few of the answers I’ve come up with. Yes, they’re fun and strange and sometimes all too familiar, but they also have a lot to do with respecting the past and thinking mindfully about everyday life.

  • Historical recipes are often made with whole foods. In the book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan famously wrote, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” By this he meant to avoid overly processed foods, items with unpronounceable ingredients, or foods with catchy marketing names, like Go-Gurt. In a recent interview he explains further: we should try to eat foods that were around before the post-WWII food manufacturing boom. That way you have a better chance of consuming more natural foods–that is, foods closer to their natural state, something Josh and I have been trying to do. Recipes from the pre-WWII era are more likely to include fresh, whole veggies, fruits, and meats.
  • They teach me to be a more flexible cook. Before the late nineteenth century, most cookbooks assumed women knew their way around a kitchen. Mothers taught their daughters how to cook, and recipes just fleshed out their repertoires. Cookbook writers rarely used exact measurements, instead telling women to take a “bit” of cooked fish or a “handful” of flour. Baking was a different story–writers were more precise, probably because of the proportions necessary to make sure bread rose and pie crust didn’t collapse–but women were meant to use their intuition and years of experience when cooking. I’m a notorious recipe-reader, and it’s scary to eyeball a spoonful of herbs instead of measuring them exactly. What if the food turns out too salty or too bland? But I’m slowly letting go of exactness, encouraged by the reassuring lack of measurements in old recipes. And for the most part, the food turns out okay.
  • They teach me to enjoy meals more. Nineteenth-century meals were elaborate, and most families of even modest means tried to enjoy dinner together. Sitting down together at the dinner table showed respect for the time it took to make the meal. Today it’s all too easy for Josh and me to gobble down dinner in front of the latest Supernatural episode, but we try to sit down at the table when I cook from an old recipe. We have a chance to catch up on our days and talk as though we have all the time in the world.
  • They help me appreciate how far we’ve come. Laura Ingalls Wilder had to subsist on salt pork because there were no refrigerators and few slaughtering animals on the prairie. Pieces of fatback were salted beyond recognition so they would keep for long periods of time. Yes, salt pork is delicious, but it gets old after a while. I really appreciate purchasing a small piece of fresh meat from the grocery store or the farmers’ market and keeping it in the fridge until I’m ready to cook. Similarly, I love my gas stove and oven. So much easier than slaving over a hot fire every day (including the dead of summer!).
  • They give me respect for the women who came before me. Notice how I refer to most cooks as “women.” For centuries and centuries, women have been the ones to cook meals for their families, using the very recipes I write about here. But I have it easier, because I have my handy gas stove and oven, refrigerator and freezer, and inexpensive “luxury” items. I cook for two people. Half the time Josh cooks instead, and we divide dish-washing duties. The women before me had no such luxuries, and they cooked three meals a day, seven days a week, often with only their daughters to help. They fed large families, on top of washing laundry, cleaning house, and raising their children. And their husbands probably didn’t offer to cook. Women of the past were truly indomitable.
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    2 thoughts on “Why I love historical recipes”

    1. Wow, great list! I think the two key parts that would get me into cooking historical recipes are the part about using whole foods and learning to be a more flexible cook. Those are great points.

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    2. Thanks! It's getting easier to find modern cookbooks that emphasize whole foods, but the flexibility thing is harder. I just can't drag myself away from the measuring spoons!

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