Commander in Chef – The White House Cookbook

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It was an odd feeling to be sorting through my grandmother’s things. And that portrait! For as long as I could remember, the boyhood likeness of General Taylor- my great great great grandfather- had watched me from the wall. Every time I returned to my grandmother’s home, I was a bit older. General Taylor, on the other hand, was as fresh faced as the day he stepped off the boat from Ireland in 1790. He watched me as I covered the large, dark oak dining table in newspaper and began sifting through the china.  Amongst all of the silver and cut glass, the General himself could have stepped out of the portrait and sat down for supper. It was certainly a spread worthy of a wealthy cotton merchant and planter.

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Covered in dust and stifled by the Georgia heat, the cool wooden floor was my only relief. I had never quite seen the room from this angle before. But, there I was, missing my grandmother and looking up at the table where I had eaten countless plates of fried chicken, butter beans and corn bread. I opened the doors to the buffet and the gleam of the cut glass punch bowl delighted me. I pulled out punch cup after punch cup whilst imagining the parties of days gone by.  And, then, from somewhere in the bowels of the buffet, I unearthed my single most prized possession.

The White House Cookbook, 1910 was in rough shape. Held together with what looked like an apron string, the book literally crumbled in my hands as I struggled to open it. For a lover of books who also happens to be a cook, finding a cookbook from 1910 was akin to winning the lottery.

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First there was a magazine article, carefully folded, from The Columbus (Georgia, of course) Enquirer dated 1974. The article quotes Pulitzer Prize winning daughter of the South, Eudora Welty as saying, “I don’t recall which president’s wife was in headquarters at the time of our edition, but the book opened to a full-length drawing of a deer, complete with antlers, marked off with dotted lines to show how to cut it up for venison, which suggests poor Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt.”

Venison at the White House

The title page claims to be “A comprehensive cyclopedia of information for the home containing cooking, toilet and household recipes, menus, dinner-giving, table etiquette, care of the sick, health suggestions, facts worth knowing, etc.”

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And the dedication reads “To the wives of our presidents, those noble women who have graced the White House and whose names and memories are dear to all Americans this volume is affectionately dedicated by the author.”

But the book isn’t for just presidents’ wives. No- this tome is a complete guide to all things domestic. Techniques every woman should know. Prized recipes include curing ham and bacon, making butter, bread and cheese. This was a time in American history when one was not able to run to the local cheese shop and select goat, cow or sheep. The curing of meats and the making of butter was done at home.

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And refrigeration? Most homes in the early 1900s had literal ice boxes or root cellars to keep foods cool. It wasn’t until the 1910s that home refrigerators were introduced. Even then, in 1921 only about 5,000 homes in the US had refrigerators. Thus our book suggests, “To keep meat from flies: Place meat in a muslin sack surrounded by straw. Hang in a dry, cool place. Make sure meat is tightly wrapped so flies cannot deposit eggs.”

The home cook would also have been budget conscious. Our book recommends:

Plain Economical Soup: Take a cold roast-beef bone and the rack of a cold turkey or chicken. Put them into a pot with water, two carrots, three turnips, one onion, a few cloves, pepper and salt. Boil gently for four hours then strain. Mix one tablespoon flour with and serve with toast. A seasonable dish about the holidays.

And when exotic items like turtle were unavailable our books suggests:

Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head: Scald a well-cleansed calf’s head, remove the brain, and boil until the meat will slip from the bone. Take the meat and cut into square pieces. In another stewpan, melt butter with small pieces of ham and onion and parsley and add to broth. Simmer and season with Madeira or sherry. Add to broth along with calf’s head meat.

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Of course dishes like roast goose, codfish a la mode and squab pot pie were included. And I was more than delighted to come across a recipe for macaroni and cheese. Not much has changed in that department since 1910. Southern staples like fried chicken and griddle cakes made my mouth water.

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I laughed at the description of hominy. “This form of cereal is very little known and consequently little appreciated in Northern households. ‘Big hominy’ and ‘little hominy’ as they are known in the South are staple dishes there and take the place of oatmeal, which is apt to be too heating for the climate.” One hundred years have passed and we Southerners still haven’t won the war on grits. And that is just fine by me… I’ll take a bowl of under-appreciated grits over Yankee stew any day.

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There were things I’d never heard of like “Piccalill” (green tomato chutney), “Slip” (an ice cream-like concoction) and “Syllabub.” (a drink of wine, milk and sugar)

And while I do understand a calf’s head, I just can’t stomach the thought of a Rum Omelet. That’s right- an omelet covered in powdered sugar, doused in rum and flambéed. The person who created this recipe no doubt was a big fan of rum. I can’t imagine eating a Rum Omelet sober… or drunk for that matter.

I was surprised by the mention of curries and techniques like the “East India Pickle” but it makes sense considering the British domination of India at the time. The book recommends buying the curry powder from your pharmacist. This was a time in history when the “corner drugstore” was emerging as a place to procure specialty items, tobacco and sodas.

Colorings for food like cochineal and saffron could also be purchased at the pharmacy. Only because of my fascination with the world history of commodities am I familiar with cochineal. Cochineal is a scaled insect native to South America and Mexico that was used for centuries as natural red dye. Cochineal was a huge export item during colonialism. Wars were fought and native peoples destroyed in search of the color red. Don’t get me started…

The White House Cook Book is more than just a cook book. It is a history book that provides a snapshot of the lives of our grandmothers and great grandmothers. And although I suppose you could call the use of curries trendy, food was much more about sustenance. There were no 15 minute meals. After curing the ham, boiling a calf’s head and making the butter, a rum omelet probably sounded divine.   Whether we realize it or not, our histories are intricately woven by things like the White House Cookbook. We have nearly come full circle in our appreciation for food. Small-batch and artisan are lauded terms nowadays. We will always eat-some meals better than others. But the appreciation of the ingredients is the salt that should season our food.

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Ashley Tarver is the founder of Copper Pot Kitchen, a line of gourmet infused olive oils made in the South. Often referred to as a “young female version of Anthony Bourdain,” Ashley has traveled the globe look for interesting ways to use olive oil. From the beaches of Malaysia to the Pintxo bars of Spain to the labyrinth-like homes of Morocco, she has eaten with the locals and worked with some of the best chefs in the world including jobs in three Michelin starred restaurants. For more information, visit: www.copperpotkitchen.com

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