Preparing Vintage Recipes: Planning and Shopping

Vintage recipes always provide a sense of adventure. Will you find a forgotten treasure or something that is better left buried? However, it’s not all fun and games, much research is required. (I lied, research is half the fun.) Today, I’m going to discuss how I plan and shop for my vintage recipe taste tests.

I’ve been cooking my way through the Photoplay Cookbook for a while now and have my rhythm down pretty well. My goal is not to create a perfect replica of the vintage recipe but to see if a modern cook can produce something delicious by following the instructions. With that in mind, the process:

Whose Recipe?

As with every other feature on my site, I try to strike a balance between the famous and the forgotten. Sure, preparing Joan Crawford recipes would yield more traffic but I am so much more satisfied with the discovery that Carol Dempster knew her peas or that Pat O’Malley’s pot roast is to die for.

But don’t eat lipstick, no matter what Mabel Normand tells you.

Generally speaking, every time I cover a superstar, I try to cover two or three more obscure talents immediately afterward. Not only does this give project balance, it also has uncovered some of my all-time favorites.

Another factor to consider is ingredients. If I have to obtain a hard-to-find ingredient, I will check to see if another recipe calls for it. This saves me the trouble of going on a hunt all over again. Finally, I will also sometimes prepare recipes for occasions, as I did when I prepared William Gillette’s sweet potatoes in celebration of the Bluray release of Sherlock Holmes.

Ingredients and Where to Find Them

I am pretty fortunate in that most of the vintage celebrity cookbooks I use were published in the United States and many of the old brands and ingredients are still available. This can be much more of a challenge for overseas cooks. That being said, 90 to 100 years have passed since many of these recipes were published and things change.

Offal is no longer easy to get in many supermarkets. Butter and eggs are not the luxury they once were. How big was a can of peaches in 1929? What about pineapple? Do they mean dry cherries or fresh cherries?

For more obscure ingredients, I generally have success at Mexican markets, which tend to carry a wider variety of meat than their American counterparts. I do order ingredients online but try to avoid it as the shipping can be prohibitive, especially with bottled food items. I have not had much trouble obtaining staple dry ingredients (flours, sugars, etc.) but have had an awful time with some meats and canned goods.

For research, I also consult with older people who can tell me about how big they remember potatoes being. And, of course, meals in films can be valuable for demonstrating just how big a serving size would have been.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a control text. That is, a basic cookbook from your era of study that will define cooking terms, ingredients, etc. In my case, I use the 1918 edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book and the 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking. Need to know exactly what is meant by a “chili sauce” in the 1920s? Look it up!

I also have had success looking at vintage ads and packaging to determine exactly how small a “small can of” this or that would have been. It also pays for me to be familiar with Britishisms and Canadian cooking and food terms as Hollywood stars came from all over and brought their recipe vernacular with them.

Of course, some ingredients just cannot be had for love or money and that’s when we have to get imaginative. Will it be 100% accurate? No but I’m also cooking from an era when ice boxes were literal ice boxes so I am not really too upset about embracing a touch of modernity.

In the end, my main goal is to have fun with these recipes. Succeed or fail, I always learn something and I enjoy myself. I can’t really ask for more.


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