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Before there was grilling there was Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
(‘I’ll pass on the calf’s head a la terrapin for a cheeseburger, please.’)
Prior to the 1950s, for all practical purposes, there was no such thing as a cookout. Oh, the farmers or ranch cooks of yesteryear probably roasted sides of beef on a spit outdoors because they were so big, but the grill fests that we know of today with Aunt Gert’s potato salad, all kinds of beans and side dishes, platters of hot dogs, hamburgers, chops, and chicken legs, not to mention chips and dips, were yet to be imagined. Except for Adirondack chairs, lawn furniture probably hadn’t been invented yet.
According to the Internet, it was the soldiers returning from WWII who brought home the notion of cooking meat outside. The post-war economy provided comfortable circumstances and more leisure time. Suburban home ownership meant spacious back yards that begged for new uses. . . like eating in the open air.
Many of the veterans probably got accustomed to the idea while serving overseas, especially in the Pacific Theater, where they were introduced to the luau, a traditional fire pit meal dating back at least to the mid-nineteenth century. No doubt lots of them came home raring to introduce the idea to anyone who was receptive.
However, back here on the mainland prior to all that, if friends, family, and neighbors wanted to get together and enjoy some informal dining al fresco they pretty much had to prepare the food indoors and then go out into the countryside for a picnic.
To help them succeed, since they couldn’t yet turn to the pater familias returning from the front to wow them with his grilling skills, they had to rely on everyone’s stand-by, The Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer. The book was the veritable bible of cooks in the first half of the 20th century, especially here in New England.
Recently, a well-thumbed copy of the 1914 edition, the previous users’ grease-marked fingerprints mottling the cover, surfaced in the basement. A faded signature in the front suggests that it was once owned by Frances L. Le Fevre. I have no idea who she was or how her book found its way to our house.
Browsing through it yields a tour of gastronomic history and attests to the tastes and eating habits of a century ago. Some of it makes you glad that the Greatest Generation discovered the delights of charcoal and kabobs.
For instance, without the cookout revolution of the 1950s, at the next neighborhood gathering rather than a nicely seared sirloin with our salad, we might be having “beef a la mode.” The recipe for this delicacy in the old Fannie Farmer tome begins this way: “Insert twelve large lardoons [whatever they are] (Editor’s note via Merriam-Webster dictionary: a strip (as of salt pork) with which meat is larded) in a four-pound piece of beef cut from the round. Make incisions for lardoons by running through the meat a large skewer. Season with salt and pepper, dredge with flour, and brown the entire surface with pork fat.” It goes on like that for a while.
Not in the mood for beef a la mode (who else was expecting ice cream)? How about “calf’s head a la terrapin?” The first two sentences of the recipe for this dish are enough to give you the idea. They go like this: “Wash and clean a calf’s head and cook until tender in boiling water to cover. Cool, and cut meat from cheek in small cubes.”
What, this one doesn’t appeal to you? How about just the tongue of the calf? “Cook four tongues until tender in boiling water to cover, with six slices carrot, two stalks celery, one onion stuck with eight cloves, one teaspoon peppercorns, and one tablespoon salt. Take tongues from water and remove skin and roots. Cut in halves lengthwise and reheat in sauce piquante.”
Or maybe the calf’s heart might be more to your liking. Here’s how to get started: “Wash a calf’s heart, remove veins, arteries, and clotted blood. Stuff with fish stuffing seasoned highly with sage.” Errrrrrrr . . . on second thought, maybe not.
You could always opt for some “calf’s brain fritters,” instead, or how about settling for “braised ox joints?” All you have to do is “cut ox tail at joints, parboil five minutes, wash thoroughly, dredge with flour and saute in butter (to which has been added a sliced onion) until well browned.” There follow numerous other steps and ingredients, the last of which is “add Sherry wine to taste, and more salt and pepper, if needed. The wine may be omitted.” Any wagers on how often that happened?
If none of the beef entrees tempt your taste buds, there is always “broiled pompano with fricassee of clams” or, perhaps, “lamb’s kidneys.”
Kind of makes you wonder why it took a world war to come up with barbecued ribs and grilled sausage with peppers, not to mention chicken tenders for the kids.
There’s still all this month and Labor Day weekend to roll out the grill. Don’t miss your chance. The best part is you won’t have to chow down on trussed goose or tripe fried in batter either.