The Black Cookbook
Mysterious items show up at yard sales — a collection of old-fashioned hats hung up by clothespins in a garage. Deep baskets full of costume jewelry. Boxes of exercise routine tapes on VHS. Empty fishtanks complete with neon miniature castles, wrecked ships and plastic seaweed.
My best find this year was a small ceramic fox figurine. But William Bailey beat me to a cookbook The Observer apparently printed many decades ago, according to the advertisements inside, between 1936 and 1952. He paid a quarter for the 124-page booklet.
Local cookbooks are important documents of who we are. It tells what we eat and who we eat with, how we cook and how we take stains out of our blouses and dress shirts. Sure I love cookbooks with expert recipes and photographs of luscious, steaming plates of food. But, the local cookbook is more significant — more full of folk knowledge and featuring recipes formulated by the people or ancestors of the people we know and pass on the street.
We need a time machine. Whoever kept this cookbook marked an X next to waffles in pencil and an X in yellow highlighter by sweet pickles with the notation, “double.” The stains of trying to follow a recipe, typical in all loved cookbooks, is found on page 102 and 103, two pages of pies: custard, lemon, grape, huckleberry, pumpkin.
The paper is somewhat brittle and browned. It is repaired here and there with a clear glossy tape that has turned yellow. Dark stains where the tape adhered to the paper shows through to the other side. A carefully clipped recipe for chili is stuck between page 36 and 37.
Upon gentle removal of the black folder that now protects the pages, I found that the cookbook is made of four signatures bound by four staples. Remnants of a light turquoise-colored cover are still attached to two of the staples. I want to know the title of this cookbook because it is telling me how to make a permanent cement to repair my tea cups and it is also telling me how to feed 40.
And, “Never let steak wait for convenience of the diners. Steak is king and is important enough, when properly cooked, to keep the guest waiting.”
These statements may seem out of place in 2007. There is a reverence for food and for dining here. The meal should be pleasant to look at and when it comes to steak, there is only a short window of time for it to be properly savored. The meal, then, is a project. Something planned and not microwaved.
Of the 124 pages, two pages each are dedicated to beverages and cocktails, soups, jams and jellies and miscellaneous items. There are five pages for relishes and pickles and three and a half pages for vegetables. Fish, poultry and meat take up 15 and a half pages, and there are 36 pages for desserts, as it should be. The recipes come sweetly, mostly from Union County — La Grande, Island City, Summerville, Imbler and even places like Alicel.
Mildred Hoyt Lundstrom, writing from Juneau, Alaska, offers her recipe for rice apple pudding. Several recipes are named “A Delicious Dessert.” One contains marshmallows, coffee, whipping cream, prune pulp and lemon juice and another is completely different, more tame, with little more than sugar and strawberries.
Mrs. Irwin Moss of Alicel wants us to try her Lemon Mystery and Mrs. Effie Sting of La Grande is tempting me now, so far away from my kitchen, with her Fig and Nut Dessert (recipes below).
Mrs. Louie Standley of La Grande, provided directions for her suet and vegetable pudding, a dessert which seems foreign to me but demonstrates cleverness and thrift in feeding our loved ones that should be admired. She would take grated potatoes, carrots, sugar, suet, flour, baking soda dissolved in water, salt, currants and raisins and make a dish that perhaps her children still crave.
Radio pudding for 8 to 10 suggests a small crowd of people listening eagerly to a program on the radio, belly down on the living room floor, chins propped up on hands and fists, digging in to something good.
William Bailey considers the cookbook a prize and an important piece of Union County’s history. He thinks it would be great to get the book reproduced and distributed. His goal isn’t to make money or to get praise. Rather, he wants people to have a glimpse into Union County’s history and figures that doing this through food is a perfect start.
Some recipes from the Black Cookbook: