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BACK BEFORE WE’D BUILT THE DEPARTMENT OF SALAD laboratories, when the pandemic had just shut down the world and everyone was getting reacquainted with their kitchens, I got reacquainted with my eccentric array of mostly vintage cookbooks; I was finally going to organize them!
I didn’t get very far, because I suddenly found every single one of them fascinating in a way that had nothing to do with cooking from them or organizing them. They were a distraction from my particularly isolated brand of isolation out here in the mountains—or, as my friends call it: Middle Earth.
Now that I’m packing up to move to Atlanta, to re-join humanity and prevent myself from becoming a Hobbit, it’s happening again.
But this time my old cookbooks have been less of a distraction than an outright escape, from the expected worries about the future (and the prospect of living in a city again)—and surprising ones about the past (meaning ruminations on how I’ve handled the last decade, which was both the worst and then the best of my life).
It’s never a good idea to be in the same room at the same time with your feelings about the past and the future. It’s like seeing an ex at a party, at the very moment you’ve begun flirting with someone new.
So, I gave my emotions the slip—by going to Denmark, via a charming 1955 book titled The Oskar Davidsen Book of Open Sandwiches (“compiled by James R. White from traditional Danish recipes and the compositions of Axel Svensson, director of the House of Oskar Davidsen and creator of its specialties”). I probably need to make plans to visit in real life, because it turned out that I own not one but three slender forest-green copies of this book, whose pages include supersaturated photos of Smørrebrød (open sandwiches) made with hot fried eel and remoulade, goose liver paste and madeira jelly, and salami with raw egg yolk, grated horseradish, and chives. (Davidsen’s great-granddaughter has carried on the family Smørrebrød tradition).
From one of my three volumes fell someone’s vintage shopping list:
From another fell this 1968 letter:
Down in Morocco, via Flavors of Morocco: Delicious Recipes from North Africa (which was published in 2008, but “feels” vintage), I became obsessed with the idea of grilled sardine sandwiches with chermoula and promised myself that this was the year I would finally make my own harissa. It will be the greatest year ever!
I cautiously revisited Spain (The Cooking of Spain and Portugal; 1969), a country where I got the worst news of my life, followed by more bad news and sorrow, and soon believed my heart had been crushed beyond repair and that I deserved to have it crushed, which led to me disappearing from my own life for many years.
That made me feel, you know, bad, so I skipped over to Provence, where I enjoyed the company of Patricia Wells (Patricia Wells at Home in Provence; 1996)—or, at least, fantasized about her seemingly ideal life in an 18th century farmhouse called Chanteduc (“song of the owl”), where she teaches classes (including a truffle workshop) and she and her husband grow olives.
The dangerous past seemed like an okay place again! And I became perversely nostalgic for times I hadn’t even lived through.
In The Williamsburg Art of Cookery (1938), there’s a historic recipe called To Make an Egg as Big as Twenty, which is exactly what it sounds like— a giant egg made from separating 20 eggs, cooking the two elements separately in a “bladder” and putting them back together to form one ovum.
And yet I still wanted to go back there.
Midcentury America! How wonderful and sane the food sounded in my collection’s instructional cookbooks, like Madeleine Kamman’s The Making of a Cook (1971). Cooking, she says, can be therapeutic: “Are you mad at someone? Make a loaf of bread; after ten minutes of kneading you will be freed from your feeling of annoyance.”
In America’s Cookbook, by Marguerite Dodd (1963), I was charmed by beautifully complicated hors d’oeuvres to serve at cocktail parties, brimming punch bowls, soup being served from fancy tureens, and an illustrated guide to the 15 different types of glasses needed for all the drinks you’ll serve to your friends who probably drink too much.
These books made the past seem so solid and clear cut, so much simpler, with their bossy and utilitarian meal/menu planning, and nutrition, ingredient, measurement, and equipment guides.
But unlike recipe boxes, which reflect a person (and which I’m also extremely interested in, as you can see here), cookbooks reflect a period.
And unfortunately, the more I read my vintage cookbooks, the more I was repelled by the almost comic sexism in most of them, including illustrations of men stretched out in lounge chairs while their primly dressed, perfectly coiffed wives served them, as well as the firm, unabashed implication that if you did not find homemaking to be the ultimate goal you were a failure at all of life. In the introduction to her Modern Family Cookbook (1947), Meta Given instructs home cooks: “A woman who is a good planner, a wise purchaser, an excellent cook and a gracious hostess to her family is truly a MASTER HOME BUILDER.” My God.
And never mind that in colonial Williamsburg, in addition to enjoying stewed rabbit and black walnut cake, people died with regularity of diphtheria, smallpox, and yellow fever and Jamestown settlers became so hungry they resorted to cannibalism and that everyone was probably drunk all day, including the children, because rather than drink the possibly contaminated water they consumed beer.
But one good thing about my trip to the past: I realized that my heart most certainly was not permanently crushed—and that no good heart deserves to be. Spain was just Spain. And that Spanish cookbook’s beautiful, faded photographs of men pulling fishing nets out of the sea and pretty women in colorful dresses drying cod in the sun made me want to go back to Barcelona rather than avoid it for the rest of my days, which I’d vowed to do back in 2011.
All of this is to say that when fondly remembering the past, it’s not a bad idea to consider all of it rather than just the parts you now like or pretended were lovely. Even if the past seems glorious, it’s also awful. And vice versa.
So, trying to live the adage that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it is, realistically, a delicate balancing act. You have to do some targeted forgetting along with all the remembering, otherwise you could end up living in the mountains by yourself for years and years.
But—and here’s the point to all of this— forgetting the way we used to be, including the way we used to eat, would mean the Department of Salad would not have lovely vintage salad and salad dressing recipes for you. Forgetting the past is the only way to discover new things! Or something like that.
So, I give you now my most recent prize in all this mining of the past, a way to serve tomatoes that is completely new to me. Unimaginable! It’s from The Cordon Bleu Cook Book (1947), where I found very few salads but another fabulous, treasure of a dressing, which I’ll share with you later in the week. I hope you love it as much as the boys in the lab and I did.
RECIPE: Tomato and Dill Salad from the Cordon Bleu Cook Book (1947), by Dione Lucas (verbatim)
5 skinned tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
½ teaspoon dry mustard
Little chili pepper
Grated rind one lemon
1 crushed clove garlic
½ cup oil
3 tablespoons cream
1 stiffly beaten egg white
Cut tomatoes in thick slices, sprinkle with a very little sugar, let stand for a few minutes and add chopped dill. Pour over the following dressing:—
Put into a bowl 1 egg yolk, salt, cayenne pepper, mustard, chili pepper, grated rind of 1 lemon, and garlic. Mix well and add oil slowly. Then mix in cream, salt, and beaten egg white. Mix lightly with tomatoes and serve.
NOTE FROM EMILY: There’s no way I’m skinning tomatoes for salad; my grandmother used to do that, and it was delicious but seemed crazy. For this recipe, you’re making a very thin mayonnaise-like sauce, then mixing in egg whites. I was a little stumped, because I assumed I was folding in the egg whites, which didn’t work. But the recipe says mix, so I continued past the point of folding. It seemed a bit broken, but it was light, garlicky, creamy, and lemony all at once. And absolutely delicious. I added a good bit of salt, but you should start slowly, because the dill and tomato flavors do a lot of beautiful work here. Drizzle the mixture on top of the tomatoes and show it off at the table before lightly mixing—or don’t mix it at all and let people take it the way they want it.
THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Enjoy your belle salades. Midweek, for paid subscribers, we’ll have another delicious item from my collection of vintage cookbooks. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.