“Whose Idea Was This?”- Looking At Vintage Recipes and Food History

Like most of the internet, I’ve gotten a real kick out of the Tik Tok videos of Dylan Hollis. The vintage style aficionado and self-described amateur food historian has carved a space for himself on the internet with his bombastic personality and humor while testing out recipes spanning the 1800s to early 2000s.

The recipes he tries vary wildly in quality, and the recurrence of typically timely ingredients (especially lard and gelatin) regularly turn into comedic gold. More than once, Dylan strikes oil in his search for tasty recipes (“magic” peanut butter cookies and an eggnog recipe from the 1800s spring quickly to mind) and I sometimes use his videos as inspiration for things I can make at the pie shop.

Most often, I find myself intrigued by the recipes he picks and the trends they exhibit. WHY so much lard in everything made before the 60s? Why so much gelatin in mid-century America? Just HOW freaking high, lonely, horny, or all three must someone have been to create the “Candlelight Salad?”

The answer is, simply, that these recipes- like the books, movies, and music that were enjoyed then- are products of their time. Foodways are a part of culture and one can track the history and trends of a period of time as easily in a cookbook as you could a textbook.

Someone back in the 1920s decided that this was a salad. James Beard described it as “culinary eroticism.”
Picture from Wikipedia.

Eat What You Have and Make It New

Whether you are talking about the prehistoric human that saw a lobster in a tidal pool and said “Mmm… bet that wet spidery-bug thing is tasty” or the hottest Michelin-starred chef facing a shortage of a common ingredient and having to think fast, the rule that drives human foodways has always been the same: Take what’s there and cheap and make it taste good.”

It can be strange for us to consider how we might go about cooking without a lot of the ingredients we’ve come to see as staples. Running out of sugar, for example, is an irritation primarily because it means someone has to run down to the store. It doesn’t occur to us that something as common as white table sugar was once in short supply due to rationing, or might be insanely expensive due to the time involved in shipping it across the world.

How then do we make something sweet without sugar? Honey and molasses were common, but before that dried fruits were often boiled and crushed to be used for their concentrated sugars. When Dylan finds himself flabbergasted at steeping prunes or raisins for his latest project, it’s absolutely because the author couldn’t get their hands on anything else.

The same goes for the uses of lard, shortening, strange acid sources (pickled beets and sauerkraut especially) and other uncanny substitutes. When it comes to baking and cooking, MacGuyver’s got nothing on your great grandma trying to feed her family.

“No paycheck, no market, no food security” either there, Dylan!

The Hottest New Ingredient… Technique… Product… Thing

You might not think of certain ingredients being “in vogue” to use, but you’ve already seen it. If you’ve wondered why avocado toast became such a Thing, how kale got upgraded from salad bar decor to salad, or why the fuck everyone suddenly started getting into quinoa and Greek yogurt, you’ve seen it.

Foodstuffs and preparations can be as much a fad and “hot new thing” as any other aspect of fashion or popular culture. Remember when everyone was trying to sous vide everything? It was before everyone got themselves an air fryer, but after we all bought Instapots. Get it?

When my grandmother passed and I got to paw through her old recipe collection, no small number of them were printed books and pamphlets that were sold or given away along with new machines or ingredients. Why? That’s just good marketing. People just bought your product (or maybe received it as a gift from a well-meaning associate) and they need to know what to do with it. This is where those amusingly-written recipes that have certain ingredients bolded and capitalized came from. How else are you supposed to know that this recipe for Divinity Candy came from and uses KARO CRYSTAL CLEAR CORN SYRUP?

Don’t sue me, KARO. I’m being educational.
By the way, this recipe actually IS really good. Go ahead and try it!

Your air-fryer came with an instruction book with recipes. Most of our canned foods have recipes on the labels. There’s been more than a few books written that are just collections of these recipes because how long is ANYONE going to hold on the a can label, much less keep it organized?

As I write this, I remember that growing up, my mother had an “office space” off of the kitchen where she had filing drawers and folders of such things. Magazine pages, can labels, print-outs from the internet, all in a state of semi-organization. Apparently my mother has managed a move and several declutterings while keeping this library of late 20th-Century foodways together and they are filed away in my parent’s apartment.

I think about that whenever we find some scrap or another of ancient writing and are frustrated we can’t find more. One can only assume the Marie Kondos of the Indus Valley or the Minoan Cretans were asking the house makers of that age if their child’s language homework “sparked joy.”

Stay Classy,

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