Lima Stew and Blender Tuna Mousse: Unrescued Recipes

Those are just a few of the unlikely recipes I found today in an old recipe box from Indiana. Other favorites include Lima Beans Au Gratin, Green Soup Plus, and a recipe attributed to “TV Hour Mag” called Carrot Chowder. Carrot Chowder features the unappetizing combination of one pound ground meat (type of meat unspecified), a lot of water, four cups of grated carrots and four cups of tomato juice. You couldn’t have created something more disturbing had you closed your eyes and dumped the first four things you touched in your refrigerator (make that your fridge after you’d just returned from a six week vacation) into a large soup pot filled with water.

I’ve been meaning to rescue some recipes this week from the many wonderful recipe boxes I’ve been ordering from EBay. But these, it seems to me, should never have been exhumed. Nevertheless, the life of a woman who must have been a spectacularly bad cook interests me very much.

I imagine she was cooking in the 1940s through the 1960s, and that she was not a woman who had decided to liberate herself from the kitchen. At least not overtly. Hers, I think, was more of an underground movement. I have a picture of her: she played a lot of bridge (one of the recipes is scrawled on the back of a contract bridge score card). She’d sit at her kitchen table in the afternoon, blinds drawn, husband at work, children at school, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, a small glass of some clear, lethal liquid at her elbow. She’d flip through the pages of TV Hour Mag, looking for the profile of her favorite soap opera star. And then she’d pause at the recipe for Carrot Chowder and think to herself, what the hell, why not try something new? Her next thought, barely expressed under the fog of bridge, lethal liquid and soap operas? It’ll serve them right for expecting me to cook all the time

The evidence is that hers was a pretty successful underground movement. Take “Green Soup Plus,” a recipe cut out of a newspaper and billed as “an elegant way to treat soup from the pantry shelf.” Its ingredients, beyond one can of condensed green pea soup, something I didn’t even know existed, are sour cream, curry powder and this shocker: flaked cooked crab. Crab on green pea soup? What an unkind thing to do with a lovely bit of crab. My guess is that it wasn’t a lovely bit of crab, but an old leftover bit of crab cocktail brought home from a restaurant she’d wheedled her surly husband into taking her to. On top of the crab, you are directed to throw some flaked coconut. I suppose you could squint at the dish, and imagine being in the Tonga Room, drinking some kind of drink with an umbrella in it, while you poison your family with a brew of green peas and slightly “off” crab.

I’m only going to talk about one more piece of culinary Semtex this woman created for her family: Lima Beans Au Gratin. She might have thought that calling it Au Gratin would tease them into eating it. And maybe they did. But that must have been the last time they ever asked her to cook for them. Why? In addition to one pound of dried LARGE Lima beans (“cooked,” the recipe says, but without any suggestion of how long or how) there are directions for making a soupy milky mix of butter flour milk and evaporated milk. The whole thing is then topped with a lot of diced pimento and paprika. Clearly, the idea was to hide the badly cooked Limas under something that must have looked like milk stew. The scary bits of pimento? Who knows. Maybe her family liked pimento and seeing it on top of something lured them into plunging their spoons into the milky morass and actually eating those LARGE Limas.

I hope she made it out of Indiana alive and unprosecuted. I’m guessing her life in Indiana did not turn out the way she’d imagined when she agreed to marry Mr. Blender Tuna Mousse. (I haven’t talked about blender tuna mousse for a reason. Were I to describe it, you would dream of it and that wouldn’t be nice.) I’m hoping she ended up in Miami, the place I know she truly wanted to live. In Florida, her hair would always be the color of the sun, her glass always full, the umbrella perched in her drink always open, her television tuned to a lovely soap opera, her feet pedicured and on top of a flowered ottoman, a nice man scheduled to show up every evening at 7:00 with a bouquet of roses and a promise to always, always, always, take her out to dinner. If he knew what was good for him, that is.

A Dispatch From the Land of Tea Cakes

The tea cake is the madeleine of the American south. Like the madeleine it is a very basic, sugar, flour, butter, eggs concoction. It is the sort of thing our elders served when people came over in the afternoon. It’s simple and a bit dense, the sort of thing you’d dip into a cup of tea. Unlike the madeleine, the tea cake is a shape shifter. But more on that later.
sugar, flour, butter, eggs, salt, vanilla, baking soda

These are the ingredients. The eggs are sitting in warm water because I forgot to bring them to room temperature:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 eggs

–cream these ingredients and then add:

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soda

The dough will look like this:

An important thing to remember is that there is a lot of flour in this dough. It isn’t sticky. I think that’s why it’s so easy to roll out.

This is only half the dough the recipe made. I rolled the dough into two logs and put them in the fridge while I considered my next move. I decided I’d make little cakes, and put dough inside a mini- muffin tin. I sprinkled the dough with sugar.

Here’s the mini-muffin tin. And now, a confession. Although I liked these, they were not a hit with everyone in my house. My husband thought they were too dry. One son liked them a lot. Another son said they were just way too rich. He had a quarter of a cake and that was it for him. I left them in the kitchen at work, and they did disappear.  This might not be the best measure of yumminess.  Stale cheerios will disappear from that kitchen, if you are patient enough.

I began to think about the denseness problem, and had an inspiration. If I rolled the dough out very, very thin, maybe the cookies wouldn’t be so overwhelming. And then I remembered those farm animal cookie cutters, the ones I’ve never used because, well, I’ve always been too busy to use things like that. Or thought I was. But this summer — and the rest of my life — is going to be different. I’m using our stuff. But I digress.

Here they are — cute huh? Animals.  I cooked these in a 325 degree oven for eight minutes, then took them out, turned the cookie sheet around and cooked them for another eight minutes. They’re done when they’re brown and smell really good.

Apples are nice too.

This is what I mean by the shape shifting properties of this dough. Roll it thin and cut it out with any cutter you like and it will be whatever you wish. How many things in life are like that?

Here are my family’s reactions:

  1. Husband: The thinner the better. (Not you, of course, just the dough. Your shape is perfect.)
  2. My youngest son: They’re good. I like the fat ones better, because you get more.
  3. One of my older sons: Good job mom. I’d like these in my lunch. They’re like chessmen cookies.
  4. Other son. Too busy talking on the phone with a friend to say much. Thumbs up.

Have a cookie, darlin’:

Rescued Recipes: East Texas Tea Cakes

Today’s rescued recipe comes from east Texas, from a gray metal filing box I bought on Ebay. The seller was a woman in Texas, who’d acquired this recipe box at an estate sale.

Early this morning, before going to work, I spread the recipes out (there aren’t a lot of them, maybe twenty) and, after a few minutes of reading through the cards, a picture of its creator began to emerge.

Some of the recipes are written on pieces of note paper from something called the East Texas Salt Water Disposal Company in Kilgore, Texas. What exactly a salt water disposal company does, I cannot even begin to guess. I don’t know where salt water would be coming from in east Texas, one of those piney, swampy places people tend to leave, apparently after they’ve sold things like their mom’s recipe box to a lady who runs an ebay business disposing of the “estates” of women whose children have made a run for it.

The woman who once owned this box preserved some of her mother and grandmother’s recipes in it — she rewrote them on cards of her own, noting the year they’d first been made.

These three women (the owner, her mother, and her grandmother) were clearly southerners. I know that because a few of these recipes deliver the slow, small town world of that time and place with heartbreaking clarity, heartbreaking because it’s a world that doesn’t exist for this family anymore. Once someone gets rid of their family’s history, it’s pretty clear their family isn’t intact anymore.

The recipe we’ll be making this afternoon, when I get home from picking my boys up from summer camp, is for “Tea Cakes or Sugar Cookies.” In the corner of this recipe, you can make out the words “My Mother & My GrandMother. Cir. 1887.”

When I came across this recipe card, two other tea cakes immediately came to mind. First, in Zora Neale Hurston’s remarkable book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrator, Janie, runs off with a man whose name is Tea Cake. And he is indeed sweet. (If you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you should. It was written during the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1930s. It is a miracle of a book, giving voice as it does to an African-American woman, Janie, who is one of the finest literary creations I know of.)

Second, one of my favorite cookbook writers from the south (and anywhere for that matter), Edna Lewis, who, like Janie, came of age in a town founded by former slaves, has a fine recipe for tea cakes in the book she wrote with Scott Peacock shortly before her death, The Gift of Southern Cooking. They’re a bit crumbly and very rich and just what you’d be served on the porch with lemonade when you go to visit somebody on a Sunday afternoon. When my great-Aunt Simona died not long ago, I made those tea cakes in her honor. Even though she was not from the south, they reminded me of her world — a sweet one, in which you were always offered something good to eat at three in the afternoon, and coffee, and then you sat down and talked for a while, and you were never in a hurry to leave, and never wanted to leave.

The 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe is something that looks like it’s been around a long time too. The paper’s yellow and the handwriting is a little shaky. You see this cake mentioned often in cookbooks. It’s a pound cake. This recipe involves separating the eggs and mixing in the yolks first and then, at the very end, mixing in the whipped egg whites.

The tea cakes will be served this afternoon at our table under the big blue umbrella. With lemonade or tea. We’ll play Glen Campbell and Johnny Rivers. Look for pictures and a fuller report tomorrow.

And one other thing: Here’s the 1-2-3-4 recipe. Perhaps you will want to make it for yourself and share in some of that sweetness.

1-2-3-4 Cake

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions:

  1. Let the milk, eggs and butter come to room temp for a few hours.
  2. Cream sugar Butter — fluffy
  3. Add egg yolk one at a time. Blend thoroughly
  4. Sift dry ingred. together 3 times.
  5. Add alternately with milk and vanilla
  6. Beat until smooth
  7. Beat whites stiff and fold into first mixture

Bake one hour 350. Apparently, sometimes if you use a different pan for the cake, you need only bake for 50 minutes at 325.

Rescued Recipes


Apple Fluff
The other day, I spotted a handwritten recipe on someone's blog. I loved the way it looked. It was wrinkled, and used and real. It occurred to me that what the web needs is more handwriting, less type.

And so, in search of more handwriting and less type, I turned to what we all turn to when we don't know where else to look — ebay. I typed in "handwritten recipes." And then I came across something astonishing.

Continue reading “Rescued Recipes”