I own dozens upon dozens of cookbooks. Almost all were purchased because I hoped to use recipes from them. But a few were bought, often at an antique store or a flea market, not to expand my kitchen experience but out of a curiosity of what the books might say about a time and place. A few of these were put out by a food company hawking a product. For example, there is Knox Gelatine: Desserts Salads Candies and Frozen Dishes (with that “e” and no commas).

The cover shows three women sitting on a hooked rug in front of what looks like a bed’s headboard but surely must be something I don’t recognize. They are inexplicably dressed from the antebellum era in bright colored frocks—one blue, one orange, one rose—with voluminous skirts and elaborate bodices, gowns that even Scarlett O’Hara might have thought a bit extravagant. One is bareheaded (the hostess?), another has on a bonnet, and the third’s head seems to have a hot water bottle on it but surely it’s some sort of hat. On a tea table in front of them sits what I assume to be a gelatinized concoction and two are about to partake.

The copyright date is 1933, which helps explain its reference to refrigeration, for the book (more a pamphlet) says it contains “not only the latest recipes for Plain and Fancy Desserts and Salads, but also mechanical refrigerator recipes, dishes for Convalescents, Children’s Parties and other Special Occasions.” One wonders who instructed them on the use of capital letters.

The book opens by instructing on setting the table, stressing simplicity, but also stating that it is “good form” to have a service plate upon which the dishes for the first courses are placed and that the service plate is only removed when it is exchanged for “the first hot course after the soup.” Knox also explains how to lay out the flat silver, including oyster and canape forks, where to place the bread plates, the butter spreader, and the napkin. It concludes, “The finger bowl is usually brought in on a plate on which there is a doily and placed directly in front of the guest after the last course. Another method is to place the doily and finger bowl on the dessert plate, and the guest removes the doily and finger bowl to the table before the dessert is passed.” Ah, simplicity. And this during the Depression.

After explaining the difference between various Knox products, giving the basic directions for using the sparkling gelatine, and providing some useful hints (always scald fresh pineapple when combining with gelatine), the booklet has sixty pages of recipes. Many of them remind me of the Jell-o salads of my youth that I assume are still prevalent somewhere, perhaps Utah. The illustrations make me specially interested in the Poached Egg Dessert, which is a peach or apricot half on Lemon Sponge Cake or Snow Pudding, which does indeed look a lot like an egg on toast. However, the only recipe that tempts me to make it is a Salmon Fish Mold (made, of course, with canned salmon) which I could see in a ring with a cucumber salad in the center and perhaps sprinkled with fresh dill. But, alas, I seldom make luncheon dishes.

Related to food company cookbooks are those from “women’s magazines” from previous eras. For example, I have the Better Homes and Gardens, Salad Book. The book’s copyright date is 1969, but my copy is the Fifth Printing in 1972. Not surprisingly, the book has higher production values than the Knox book from three decades earlier, with many full color photos. However, all the colors are a bit off, so nothing looks as appetizing as it should. The title indicates that this is a book of salads, salad dressings, and relishes with a few sandwiches thrown in. It harkens back to the Knox publication because it features many “molded” salads which require gelatin. It could expand my culinary horizons. I don’t know if I have ever had a salad from the freezer—featured in one section—but they seem to be most appropriate for a dessert course, if you like that sort of thing. The ingredients for the Pineapple Mint Freeze, for example, are a large can of crushed pineapple–no need to scald–gelatin, a jar of mint jelly, whipped cream, and a bit of sugar.

On the other hand, many of the vegetable salads, cole slaw recipes, and potato salads seem eminently eatable. I might even make the Tuna-Cream Puff Bowl, which is really just a tuna salad placed in a freshly baked pastry shell, but then again, I don’t make luncheon dishes. The book concludes with a dozen pages of advice for buying, storing, and preparing fruits and vegetables. I learned that if I do not have small marshmallows for a salad, I can snip larger ones, but I should dip the scissors in confectioners’ sugar first to prevent sticking. I wonder if the time ever comes to do that whether I will remember the tip.

Other books with recipes that I did not expect to cook from were obtained for their humor. An example is Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral (2005) by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, (2005). The book has humorous essays about Southern churches and funerals interspersed with appropriate dishes to bring to said funerals or church suppers. While neither the spouse nor I have cooked anything out of this book, it does have many recipes that I might like. Mostly, however, I look at the recipes that remind me of foods that the spouse, with her southern roots, has made–foods that I had not eaten until I linked up with her. Three stand out: First, pimiento cheese, the joys of which escape me. However, the spouse assures me that this is a southern staple, and, to prove it, this book has a half-dozen recipes for wasting perfectly good cheese. The second is tomato aspic, which the spouse used to make with some frequency. It is basically gelatinized canned tomato juice, and as tasty as that sounds. Lime Jell-o is better. However, the third is what this book lists as stuffed eggs. The spouse regularly makes deviled eggs, and they are oh-so-good, but she does not need a printed recipe to make them.

The book, however, has other recipes for the buffet table that I would not mind trying—butter bean casserole, vodka cake, asparagus casserole. And there is an artery-clogging potato dish that I am interested in. It must be good. The recipe is listed twice under different names: “Methodist Party Potatoes” and “Liketa Died Potatoes.” The ingredients include packaged hash browns, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and undiluted cheddar cheese soup. This is topped with a stick of butter and corn flake crumbs. It does not list the calories or fat content. And if I eat it, my funeral day may be closer.

(concluded November 17)

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