by Alexandra Rasic
Two women are the inspiration for this blog post: Ruth Cuadra and Janet Austin. Ruth is a fellow museum colleague here in LA and Janet is a long-time volunteer docent at the Homestead. When Gennie Truelock and I kicked this series off a few weeks ago we asked people to share what kind of content they’d like to see in these posts. Ruth was quick to say “Ideas for the cans on my shelf [are] most welcome while I wait for fresh stuff to be delivered.” So off I went looking for cookbooks featuring canned goods. The Book of Can Cookery immediately came up in a search. Published in 1928 by Chicago-based Woman’s World Magazine Company, it was one of many cookbooks they released in the ’20s including The Book of Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners, The Candy Calendar, The Party Book for Children, and The Fruit Book (also in our collection). A wave of feelings came over me as I struggled to read the first sentence of publisher Walter Manning’s introduction to the book:
“The purpose of the Woman’s World Book of Can Cookery is to assist the women of America to a greater utilization of the time and labor-saving opportunities afforded them through the high state of perfection now achieved by the great commercial canners and to acquaint them by means of tested recipes and balanced menus with the variety and economy which may thus be introduced into the family diet.”
Oy! This language is not surprising. The 1920s was a decade filled with examples of professionalization in America…of almost everything. As professional associations and credentialing boards grew in number they spread to all sectors of society, including the home. Women were encouraged to run their households with great efficiency. Saving time, energy, and resources were frequent focal points of magazine articles in publications such as Woman’s World, who published The Book of Can Cookery.
Following the introduction, the next couple of pages of the book are dedicated to the six “fundamental rules” one must follow to make the best use of canned goods. First, and “most important,” (are you taking notes, Ruth?) is to only buy canned goods of reputable quality. The book suggests that women ask their dealer for input. The second rule, of “almost equal importance with the first,” is to use all the contents of the can. “The liquor in canned foods is in the water in which they have been cooked.” (Do you think it’s a coincidence that they refer to the liquid in the can as liquor? Since Prohibition was in full swing, maybe they were re-purposing the word?) Third, if you don’t use everything in the can, save the rest in another container. (Did you just roll your eyes?) Fourth, to “save you time and effort and a possible cut finger on the jagged edge of an opened can,” use the proper kind of can opener. They note that several can openers are now available that slice the tops of cans smoothly. “For serving fruits whole and attractive, or meat loaves in perfect molds, one of these openers is essential.” The fifth rule is to only buy what you need so that you don’t “exceed the limits of your budget.” The sixth rule “concerns the matter of how and when to use canned foods.” After reassuring the reader of the safety of canned foods, the answer is “all the year round,” because canned goods enable you to eat a healthy diet and “save you many hot hours of labor in the kitchen…”
Following the rules, the majority of the book is dedicated to sharing recipes that are arranged month-by-month. This being April, I started there and decided to impress my family with some “delicious and economical” recipes for dinner last night. I chose Harvard Beets and Creole Crabmeat, and for dessert: Prune Whip! This is where Janet comes back into the story. Janet and I began exchanging e-mails after she read our post on Prohibition-era cocktails. I was sharing with her that can cookery was next up on the list and I, at first jokingly, wrote that I might make my boys some Prune Whip, which is a recipe featured as one of “Three Surprises for the Family.” Much to my surprise, she replied with “You can tell your kids that I LOVED prune whip as a kid!!” Janet grew up in England, but it turns out her husband who grew up on the East Coat had it as a child, too. So how could I not make the Prune Whip, right Janet?
Let’s start with a review of the Harvard Beets. Those of you who find beets revolting might want to skip to the next paragraph because the easiest way to describe this dish is to say that it’s like sweet and sour beets in a thick sauce, like the kind you might find on sweet and sour chicken. It does not sound appealing, but of the three recipes I made, this was my favorite. My husband and I agreed that it was a bit too sweet, but that we could see people enjoying having something like this in place of cranberries at Thanksgiving. I think we liked it because we both grew up eating canned beets. My family is from Serbia and my mom makes a traditional salad (cvekla) that uses all of the “liquor” from the can along with a little sugar, vinegar, and olive oil, and it’s always on our Thanksgiving table.
Next up, Creole Crabmeat! This recipe calls for onion juice, which I was not about to make, so I used a dash of onion powder instead. I decided to place about a tablespoon of the finished mixture on a piece of puff pastry and roll it so that it would fit in a silicone cupcake mold. I also chose to prepare it this way because I often make my boys “pizza cupcakes” that look very similar. The psychology worked, because this was the only dish they tried. I got very supportive smiles, but once they hit the filling, they quietly placed their “cupcakes” to the sides of their plates and went back to munching their grilled cheese sandwiches. Oh well. One thing that would have made this dish a lot better is Louisiana’s Pure Crystal Hot Sauce, which began commercial production in 1923. My husband and I will try it on leftovers today, so we’ll even get bonus points for staying in the ’20s! (By the way, Crystal’s website features some delicious recipes for food and drink.)
Last, but not least, I put the Prune Whip on the table. It didn’t go so well, Janet. I think my biggest mistake was not making whipped cream or custard sauce to go with it as suggested in the recipe. Cutting down on the calories might have killed what made the dish so memorable for you as a child. The prunes I had were not a pretty purple like you see in the illustration from the cookbook. They were brown. And when you beat them into the egg white and powdered sugar mixture…everything turned various shades of brown. Not. Pretty. The taste was OK, but the texture was the killer. Not quite pudding, not quite meringue…more like sloshy mush. Sweet, sloshy mush. This morning my colleagues suggested that I try baking the mixture into little meringue cookies, but it was too late. We broke a “fundamental rule” and disposed of the remains of the concoction last night.
So there you have it! While some recipes turned out better than others, I will say that none of them took a long time to prepare, and I did feel like the recipes were aimed at trying to make something very elegant from something simple. If these three recipes don’t have you running to your pantry, maybe you’ll find some inspiration (or enjoyment) in reading about menu plans focused on economy below. “Intelligent budgeting results only when more or less abstract theories can be brought to apply to the everyday problems of the living. It is with that in mind that these attractive one-dollar and two-dollar meals have been planned.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Enjoy!
Janet was inspired to make Prune Whip and it turned out great! “I finally made Prune Whip and custard for dessert,” she wrote. “At the last moment I was concerned that the egg whites are eaten raw in your recipe so I found one from the 1950s where you could eat the prune whip raw or you could put it in a casserole, put that in a dish of hot water, and bake it in the oven for half and hour and eat it hot. So…I did that, and we thought the results were delicious – light and fluffy and sweet!”
Way to go, Janet! She went on to say: “Being brought up in England we smothered most desserts with custard. But…it wasn’t REAL custard made with eggs as this was, but made from Bird’s Custard mix. So…I was fascinated to read Gennie’s blog that mentioned Alfred Bird. I always thought we ate Bird’s Custard due to the war and the unavailability of eggs but, apparently, the mix has been around since the 1880s when Bird developed it because his wife was allergic to eggs. Who knew!! You learn something every day!” Indeed we do. Thanks for sharing your success, Janet.