Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Ladies' Auxiliary to Temple de Hirsch Famous Cookbook Seattle 1925

On a bed of shredded lettuce, put a slice of tomato, heart of artichoke; put on crab legs, shrimps, or lobster. Over all pour Thousand Island dressing. Garnish with riced egg.
Mrs. S. Aronson

Olympia Salad is a typical recipe from The Ladies’ Auxilliary to Temple de Hirsch Famous Cook Book. It is a very fancy dish. Each serving must be constructed separately, the ingredients are expensive, and the instructions do not include the preparation of the artichoke heart and Thousand Island dressing, which would have been handled, it is assumed, by the household help. It is also treyf, or unkosher, as are many of the recipes submitted to this synagogue community cookbook of 1925. I first saw a copy of the Famous Cook Book only recently, but I first read about this astonishing salad many years earlier in a remarkable book by Mary McCarthy called Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

Mrs. S. Aronson, in fact, is Mary’s Aunt Eva, the stately and imperturbable older sister of her Jewish grandmother, Augusta Preston, one of the countless outlandish relatives presented in Memories. McCarthy tells the story of her childhood with recipes, along with a digression about the Gallic wars, and vivid portraits of the grownups who acted as her guardians after the premature deaths of her parents.

McCarthy’s grandparents fall into three very clear groups: the petty and mean McCarthys, who are not merely indifferent to beauty, but actively hated anything beautiful, their gorgeous daughter-in-law, McCarthy’s mother, included; the upright, dignified, and correct Presbyterian Harold Preston, whose name was a byword for honesty, as McCarthy tells us three times, among all who knew him; and the lavish and sensuous Jewish Augusta Morgenstern Preston, the most beautiful woman in Seattle, the real star of the book and the most extraordinary character in all of American letters. The grandparents fall into stereotypical categories, but they are by no means stereotypical characters. Each portrait is very real and distinct; so much so that the characters are almost incredible. McCarthy herself comments that if the book were work of fiction rather than a memoir, she would have had to explain her McCarthy grandmother to make her believable. Other grownups who play a role in the McCarthy children’s upbringing are the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, who "like all truly intellectual women, were romantic desperadoes," and a great aunt and uncle on the McCarthy side, the Schreibers, whose cruelty and stupidity are nearly bottomless.

The descriptions of food are what make differences between the McCarthy, Schreiber, and Preston homes not just the work of a memoirist but of a genius. Here is the section on mealtime chéz Schreiber:

We had prunes every day for breakfast, and cornmeal mush, Wheatena, or Farina, which I had plain, since by some medical whim it had been decided that milk was bad for me. The rest of our day’s menu consisted of parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, onions, Swiss chard, kale and so on; most green vegetables, apparently, were too dear to be appropriate for us, though I think that, beyond this, the family had a sort of moral affinity for the root vegetable, stemming perhaps from everything fibrous, tenacious, watery, and knobby in the Irish peasant stock. Our desserts were rice pudding, Farina pudding, overcooked custard with little air holes in it, prunes, stewed red plums, rhubarb, stewed pears, stewed dried peaches. We must have had meat, but I have only the most in distinct recollection of pale lamb stews in which the carrots outnumbered the pieces of white, fatty meat and bone and gristle; certainly we did not have steak or roasts or turkey or fried chicken, but perhaps an occasional boiled fowl was served to us with its vegetables (for I do remember the neck, shrunken in its collar of puckered skin, coming to me as my portion, and the fact that if you sucked on it, you could draw out an edible white cord), and doubtless there was a meatloaf and beef stew. There was no ice cream, cake, pie, or butter, but on rare mornings we had johnnycake or large wooly pancakes with Karo syrup.

The house had no "dust catchers," that is, no toys and no kind of art or decoration. I should note here that the McCarthy's were not poor. They were one of the richest families in town. The children’s menus were chosen for ideological correctness, not need. The home of the McCarthy grandparents was less barren. Catholic art and Italian scenes (which were Catholic via "regional infusion from the Pope") were tolerated and the food was not quite so wretched:

For all her harsh views, my grandmother was a practical woman and would not have thought it worth while to unsettle her whole schedule, teach her cook to make lumpy mush and watery boiled potatoes . . . in order to approximates the conditions she thought suitable for our characters. Humble pie could be costly, especially when cooked to order.

When she was eleven, McCarthy was rescued by her maternal grandparents and taken to her hometown of Seattle. In Seattle, Mary attended Catholic boarding school, and on the weekend, tagged along with her grandmother, and sometimes one or both of her aunts, the queenly but dim Aunt Eva Aronson, and the Bohemian intellectual Aunt Rosie Gottstein. The three Morgenstern sisters probably provide a good cross-section of the reform German Jewish community of Seattle in the teens and twenties. One of the revelations of the book is that what must have still been the frontier town of Seattle had a real and very sophisticated high society, and that it was Jewish. Aunt Rosie was middle class, "poor, compared to her sisters." The living room of her small apartment was "lined with signed photographs of opera stars," but the room needed painting. Aunt Eva, on the other hand, was part of the "hard, smart set" in Jewish society that traveled and gambled for high stakes. Augusta Preston herself, of course, had married into the upper crust, but took part in neither Jewish nor Protestant social events. Her amusements, shopping, dressing, gardening, and eating, were solitary pleasures. One of the most brilliant points in this sparkling gem of a memoir is that McCarthy uses her aunts’ recipes to illustrate the gap in their social standing.

The cookbook of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Temple de Hirsch . . . has many recipes contributed by Mrs. M. A. Gottstein. Her chicken stewed with noodles, hamburger and tomatoes, and rhubarb pie are quite unlike the recipes contributed by Mrs. S. Aronson . . . which begin with directions like this: "taken nice pair of sweetbreads, at a cup of butter, a glass of good cream, sherry, and some foie gras." Or her recipe for baked oysters: "pour over each caviar and cream and dot with bits of butter. Serve hot."

The Famous Cook Book has no recipes contributed by Mrs. H. Preston, but we get a good idea of what meals were like in her home:

"Take a spring chicken," many of her recipes began, and the phrase often salted her conversation. "She's no spring chicken," she would say of another woman. Baby beets, new potatoes, young asparagus, embryonic string beans, tiny Olympia oysters, tiny curling shrimps, lactary ears of corn. . . our food was almost too choice, unseemly for daily use. The specialties our table were like those of a very good hotel or club: Olympia oyster cocktail and deviled Dungeness crab; a salad, served as a first course, that started with a thick slice of tomato on which was balanced and artichoke heart containing crab meat, which in turn was covered with thousand Island dressing and sprinkled with riced egg yolk; a young salmon served in a sherry sauce with oysters and little shrimps; eggs stuffed with chicken livers. We ate this company food every day; every meal was a surprise, aimed to please some member of the family, as though we were invalids who had to be "tempted". On Sundays, ice cream, turned by the gardener in the freezer on the back porch, was chosen to suit me; we had strawberry (our own strawberries), peach, peppermint (made from crushed candy canes), and the one I was always begging for -- bisque (224)

The Famous Cook Book offers no clue as to what bisque ice cream may have been, but it is in an inestimable source of information about the Jewish community of Seattle in the twenties. Unlike other treyf cookbooks of the era such as Aunt Babette’s Cookbook, discussed in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's essay Kitchen Judaism, the Famous Cook Book does not make any distinction between recipes that are kosher and those that are treyf, nor does it offer any possible substitutes for cooks who might wish to adapt the recipes for kosher kitchen. It does on the other hand include the note that "where liquor is mentioned in recipes, substitutes may be used."

The cookbook must have looked a very beautiful when new. With its white leatherette cover and gold gothic lettering on the front, it looks almost like a bride's bible, and it must have been given, along with or instead of a white bible, as a wedding gift or confirmation gift to many Seattle maidens. In addition to 400 pages of recipes, the cookbook includes a section on care for the sick (recipes for flaxseed tea and raw beef are in this section, and a recipe for sweetened boiled milk with wine) and a section of household hints, which include care instructions for ermine (rub with cornmeal, renewing meal is it becomes soiled), white silk stockings (put a teaspoon of turpentine in the rinsing water), and ivory handled knives (keep away from hot water). Augusta Preston, we learn, had an ivory handled revolver. There are dozens of pages in of advertisements from local merchants and businesses, many of them non-Jewish. These include ads for shoes, hats, and corsets, as well as food products. The women of the de Hirsch community must have been seen as a valuable target group for advertisers.

The recipes in the Famous Cook Book, like those in any community cookbook, are of inconsistent style and quality. Nonetheless they can be said to constitute a cuisine. For one thing, the bountiful produce of the Northwest is used to good advantage by many contributors. There are recipes which call for fresh figs, artichokes, asparagus, eggplants, and chestnuts. Second, while about half of the recipes call for some kind of seafood (another regional specialty), and there are a handful of recipes for ham, there are no recipes that call for pork or lard, which remained repellent to Jews who had shaken free of the other restrictions of kashrut (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 78). There are two very good recipes for “fish balls" [ gefilte fish] one made with halibut and salmon, and sweetened, the other made with halibut, cod, and onions, and served with a broth that has been enriched with cream and yolks. Both recipes are examples of traditional recipes adapted to take advantage of the freshest local fish. In one of the few concessions to kashrut in the book, fish and shellfish are in separate chapters. There are two recipes for matzo kloese, [matzo balls] one plain, and one with fried onions, ginger, and pepper; and also a recipe for "cracker balls," clearly an attempt to make a non-sectarian version of the Jewish favorite. A very rich flourless carrot cake (274) calls for six eggs, half a pound of sugar, half a pound of grated almonds, and half a pound of raw carrots. The recipe would be ideal for Passover, but it is not identified as a Passover recipe, no more is any other recipe in the book, not even the matzo balls.

The ladies of the Temple Hirsch loved strong vivid flavors, but one also comes away with an overwhelming sense of whiteness. All that cream and mayonnaise; all that ermine, silk, and ivory. They loved their legacy of traditional German Jewish foods, but wanted to have them separate from the Jewish rituals with which they were associated. They combine the produce of the northwest and the civilization of the old world. The sensuality of many of these recipes is in marked contrast to the fad of "food science" that gripped the east in the early decades of the last century. Here, for instance, is another recipe from the Famous Cook Book contributed by Mrs. S. Aronson.

Melt 6 tablespoons grated chocolate, add 6 cups boiling milk; when the chocolate is dissolved, add 3 tablespoons very strong clear coffee, 2 tablespoons sherry, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Sugar to taste. Serve in tea cups with [a] little whipped cream on top.

Rave on, Aunt Eva.

I am endlessly grateful to the intrepid Bonnie Slotnick who found me a copy of the Famous Cook Book. I am planning to try the flourless carrot cake this week. Here is the recipe:

Six yolks (beaten) with ½ pound sugar, beaten to a froth, ½ pound grated almonds, and ½ pound raw carrots, both weighed before grating; grated rind of 1 lemon, 6 whites beaten stiff and folded in. Place in well-buttered pan and bake in moderate oven, 40 minutes. Powdered sugar on top when cold.

I will probably toast the nuts, grind them instead of “grating” them, and maybe use half pistachios.

Aunt Babette. "Aunt Babette's" Cook Book: Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the Househould: A Valuable Collection of Receipts and Hints for the Housewife, Many of Which Are Not to Be Found Elsewhere. Cincinnati: Block Publishing and Printing Company, 1889.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Kitchen Judaism." In Getting Comfortable in New York: The American Jewish Home, 1880-1950, edited by Susan L Braunstein and Jenna Weissman Joselit, 75-105, 1990.

Ladies' Auxilliary to the Temple De Hirsch Famous Cook Book. Seattle, 1925.

McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

(For more on food in the life and work of Mary McCarthy, see Eve Jochnowitz "Courageous Eating: Mary McCarthy and American Food between the Wars." In Cooks and Other People: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1995, edited by Harlan Walker, 152-57. Devon: Prospect Books, 1996.)

Facsimiles and transcripts of Aunt Babette’s cookbook, along with more than seventy other historically significant American cookbooks of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries are available at Michigan State University’s admirable Feeding America Project. It was thrilling beyond words for me to get my first look at the pages of many cookbooks I have read about for years, especially Aunt Babette’s, which has among other things a recipe for “Imitation cauliflower.” I hope very much that MSU will continue to support and expand this wonderful resource.

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Blogger zoe p. said...

I love Mary McCarthy. I haven't read Memories, though and I think I better, and now. Thanks for a deliciously dishy introduction. One of my favorite things about McCarthy's The Group is Kay and Harald's cooking.

On dismal eating for the sake of "ideological correctness" MFK Fischer's Gastronomical Me has some neat comparisons of her wasp family, her French travels and the possibilities of fresh California cooking in the early 20th century.

12:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some days i too feel a moral affinity for the root vegetable.
That part sounded alot like the winter diet on the commune where i lived for awhile, right down to the ideological correctness (a slightly different ideology, i'd wager, though). It's amazing how much a general feeling of self-righteousness can do for sometimes less-than-inspiring food options.


Oh, and this is my friendly, gentle reminder/plea for a post about fermentation.

4:37 PM  
Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Kay and Harald's cooking! Oh heavens yes; Who could forget the new iceberg lettuce, and Harald's discourse on the superiority of margarine?

Country Mouse,
I have not forgotten! I am working on a fermentation post. There is very much to cover.

9:42 AM  

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