“Betty…Sweetheart… I know this is your first “real meal” cooked for your husband in your new home but. . . is this really necessary? You have TWO people! You’re 12 years away from the Great Depression. Save some of that food!”
These were my thoughts as I read the fictional account of Bettina and Bob’s second meal from the cookbook, “A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband.” It gives a great peek into domestic life in 1917 America when there was no house-keeper or cook to bear the load. Bettina happily whips together what her husband calls “A Man-Sized Meal.”
I, on the other hand, was not quite as happy. I had just finished a 9-hour day as an apprentice with The Company after getting up super early to take a breathing test to see why I can’t breathe properly in Ohio. It was already 6 PM. But I work another job after the apprenticeship hours, so for the next few days I will be gone for 12 hours with no time to cook.
A “man-sized meal” would be good for packing lunches and dinners. Or so I thought. Until I saw what was on the menu:
A 1917 Dinner
Pan-Broiled Steak (with butter sauce)
New potatoes in cream sauce
Baking-powder biscuits with butter
Pea and celery salad
Strawberry shortcake with cream
You know. Just another dinner for a middle-class couple…
A dairy-free 1917 meal
There are two things you need to know about me. One: I have a dairy allergy which means when I cook recipes, I must substitute milk, cheese, and butter with dairy-free alternatives. I am pretty much plant-based. Two: I don’t eat a lot of meat. Unless I am a guest or traveling or just get a hanker for bacon, I usually don’t purchase or cook meat. I tried to think of the last time I actually cooked a steak. I’m pretty sure it was about five years ago and involved an an open fire.
How I Made the 1917 Dinner
I made the biscuits first: those were easy enough. With the potatoes boiling away, I started feeling better. The cream for the potatoes was very much like the white Texas gravy my father taught me to make when I was young.
It was the rhubarb sauce that peaked my curiosity. Bettina didn’t have a recipe for that in the book, so I had to look it up on my phone. I made sugary syrup, dumped in the unfamiliar vegetable, and wondered what it would taste like. It looked like red celery, smelled like cucumbers, and was apparently tart.
But the recipe said nothing about blending it or taking out the fruit, leaving me confused until it disintegrated. And just like that, it was syrup! Encouraged, I began on the white sauce for the potatoes. I might actually manage this entire meal, including dessert and have it all done at the same time.
I had to improvise the celery and pea salad as there was no recipe in the book (or even online). I had purchased mayonnaise to make a similar pea recipe but couldn’t find it. So, I threw the two ingredients together and called it done. I was getting hungry. And nervous about cooking that steak.
I made the shortcake next, threw it in the oven and eyed the appliance with suspicion. This one, I suspect, does not get as hot as it’s dial claims, and everything was still looking doughy when it should be done. Our broiler didn’t work either, but I couldn’t imagine how I’m supposed to broil steak and bake biscuits and shortcakes at the same time.
I decided to sear the steak in a pan on the stove. Cooked it long enough to hope it wasn’t pink on the inside because I am not a “walking to the table” type of red-meat girl. Took the potatoes off and added the creamed sauce to them. Tasted it.
And that’s where the trouble began…
How I Ruined a 1917 Dinner
It tasted… floury. I realized I had wheat flour in my flour jar as bread is usually the only thing I bake. I was used to wheat biscuits, so I expected them to come out a bit denser than white. But this sauce slathered all over my potatoes was… not good. And that shortcake baking in the oven didn’t look promising either.
I gave up on putting everything in nice dishes and settled to make a plate so I could take a picture to share with my friends in the online world. By the time I found my phone among the kitchen chaos, the blood was seeping from the steak, pooling around the floury potatoes, and soaking into the rhubarb-sauced biscuit.
Instagram Highlight or Pinterest Fail?
By this time, I was hungry and grumpy, and it was about 8 PM. So, I snapped the photo and considered sending it to Instagram captioned as though it was a five-star meal and not fodder for a Pinterest “nailed it!” post. Then I stuck the gummy shortcake and that bloody steak back into the oven.
I rinsed the gravy off the potatoes. Took a plate with a fresh biscuit, guessing where the rhubarb sauce should actually go and left it on the biscuit and ate plain potatoes with vegan butter. I also discovered the celery and peas are somewhere in the neutral scale rather than a downright awful combination.
The Lesson I Learned About Historical Cooking
I’m not sure this story has a moral, but it does have a very important lesson: Do not. I repeat, DO NOT, try these historical recipes with wheat flour. You will end up with a plate of plain potatoes and flat biscuits. And a mountain of dishes. Perhaps the massive cleanup is why people began to serve coffee for dinner.