by Patricia Tompkins

 It starts with the cover or title, but usually something quirky in the contents grabs me at used book sales. That’s why I invested 50 cents in the 1938 Modern Home Cook Book. Its chapters include “Ice Box Recipes,” “Hamburgers” (“Hamburger . . . is very good if purchased at clean, well patronized butcher shops”) and “Toast” (“The following preparations of toast are almost all of them very nice dishes”). Recipes range from rabbit soup to chow-chow, creamed parsnips, ginger beer, and prune jelly. The index features such entries as “Keep Meat from Flies, to “Raisins, To Stone,” and “Coffee, Healing Properties of” (“a preventative of gravel and gout”). Gravel here refers to kidney stones. Considering its age, the book is surprisingly clean, suggesting limited use. But what got my attention when I first paged through it was the chapter “Dishes for the Sick.”

From the chapter’s opening sentence, I knew this was a book for me: “Dishes for invalids should be served in the daintiest and most attractive way; never send more than a supply for one meal; the same dish too frequently set before an invalid often causes a distaste, when perhaps a change would tempt the appetite.”

The chapter’s nearly two dozen recipes today seem arcane: “Calves-Foot Jelly” (“Get the butcher to clean them thoroughly and remove the hoof-horns”) includes a pint of sherry.

“Slippery Elm Bark Tea” (recommended for “summer disorders”), “flaxseed lemonade” and “coffee” made from browned toast crusts are among the beverages to concoct. And who wouldn’t perk up at the prospect of “Egg Gruel” or “Mulled Jelly”?

Okay, easy pickings. Not many people today would go to the trouble of making beef tea, and no, you can’t get it as take-out. Despite how outdated and old-fashioned these recipes seem, they may have been familiar to your parents if you’re of the baby-boomer generation. Yes, we’ve come a long way regarding nutrition and the sick. Why, look at the advancements in hospital food! Okay, maybe that’s not the best place to look.

I give the cookbook credit for considering the welfare of the sick. For example, author Grace E. Dennison recommends avoiding boiled milk dishes because they can be “very constipating.” I don’t know if that’s accurate, but at least she’s thinking of the person’s comfort. Modern medicine continues to give small shrift to the vital role of healthy and appetizing food for patients. Sure, we’ve got “comfort food,” but that may be high-sodium canned soup.

Small wonder we don’t know what to feed the sick. We don’t know what to eat if we’re healthy—these days, that’s almost synonymous with “not obese.” Conflicting, shifting advice on what to eat to maintain health makes it a challenge to figure out what’s safe/good/healthy to consume. Salt, coffee, fiber, chocolate, butter, eggs — all have been in and out of fashion for various ailments in recent years.

I’ve been eating and cooking long enough to see a litany of food fashions and preparations come and go, including instant mashed potatoes and powdered iced tea, fake bacon, whipped refrigerator desserts with ingredient lists only a chemist could decipher. Vegetarian, macrobiotic, high/low protein. high/low carbohydrate, artificial sweeteners, rigid diets by various doctors, liquid canned meals, frozen everything—a cuisine of often invalid (as in not valid) food. Then the foodies emerged with free-range chickens and organic produce. We’ve gone from neon-orange spray “cheese” to chèvre with fine herbes. Yet a lot of gourmands don’t know how to fix a meal; they eat out or buy prepared foods. The distance between a TV dinner and take-out pad thai isn’t as great as they like to think. And now we’ve come full circle with interest in slow food.

There aren’t many recipes in Modern Home Cook Book that I’m eager to see revived, but I support its opening statement: “So much pleasure and satisfaction are derived from a good meal tastefully prepared and attractively served that one should never omit that priceless ingredient: interest. Some of us are prone to regard enthusiasm for the gentle art of cooking as a rather naïve and quaintly old-fashioned custom. However, of all the arts known to mankind none is so universally and so genuinely appreciated as the art of cooking.”

That sounds like a recipe I’d enjoy.


Pat Tompkins is an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her essays, poems and fiction have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Mslexia, Modern Haiku, and other publications.
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