Downers Grub: What Would Casper Dicke* Eat?

Want to cook like it's 1908? I hope you like croquettes!

Throughout the decades Downers Grove schools, churches and organizations have produced cookbooks. These culinary time capsules preserve a time and place for us, giving us a glimpse into the lives of our forebears through their kitchen windows.

As intriguing as it is to ponder just why people encapsulated everything in Jell-O during the 1950's or to wonder if there was ANYTHING a 1970's home cook wouldn't or couldn't turn into a casserole, I took a look at the earliest examples of Downers Grove cookbooks available to me. (I will get back to the more recent Downers Grove offerings another time.)

Found on the Local History shelf at the , 1933's Downers Grove Cookbook by the Ladies of the Congregational Church and 1908's Congregational Cook Book by the Ladies Aid Society of the provide our earliest known published samples. 

I didn't know Congregationalists were such cooking powerhouses. Were they like Alton Brown in bonnets (or bobbed hair)? I can't answer that for sure, but if they were, tastes have sure changed.

The 1933 edition is a scant 31 pages long, and a full two-thirds of that are baked goods and desserts. That's right, only 10 pages of actual food. Considering that salads (pages 9 and 10) include "Frozen Cream Cheese and Fruit Salad," "Philadelphia Cream Cheese Salad" and "Ginger Ale Salad," you might as well throw those in with the desserts, too.

Surprisingly, there were no "depression-era" recipes. Maybe being surrounded by farms meant that food was not in short supply, even if money was. There was an amusing recipe called "The Eighteenth Amendment," made of sweet cider, pineapple juice and lemon; also interesting was the ad for Jewel Food Store at 5126 Main Street.

The 1908 cookbook was a bit heftier, at 78 pages. Cheese was considered a vegetable. A disturbing concoction called "grape catsup" (yes, it IS as bad as it sounds) graced its pages, as did a menacing dessert named "Prune Meringue Pie." 

From what I can tell, the most prevalent food fad of 1908 was the croquette. There were recipes for sweetbread, chicken, veal AND sweetbread, rice, and something called "not fried" croquettes. Perhaps they were delicious dipped in grape catsup.

Meat was cooked for a distressingly long time (three hours for meatloaf?) and they liked a lot of things "creamed." Garlic was unheard of, as were many of herbs and spices we routinely reach for today.

However, we aren't in much of a position to judge. While our meat and dairy are no longer spoiled, we sure are. Consider this recipe from the 1908 Congregational Cook Book:

A Cheap Pot Roast (their title, not mine)

Get a six-pound piece of beef from the shoulder, or even from the neck, wash clean and wipe dry. Into a Scotch pot, put a teacupful of suet, which can usually be trimmed from the meat, slice a small onion into the suet and fry together until brown, being careful not to scorch. Draw the shreds of onion out and carefully lay the meat in the pot, giving the lean parts a chance to get the most heat. Fry on all sides for ten minutes, or until the lean is well seared. Have ready a quart of boiling water, take the meat from the Scotch pot and put it into the hay-box boiler, covering it with the boiling water.  Add two Bay leaves and four cloves and let the meat boil over the fire fifteen minutes. Put into the hay-box over night, boil again with the breakfast fire in the morning and return to the hay-box. Use just water enough to cover the meat. At five o'clock take it from the hay-box and brown in the oven one hour. Or, if allowed to cool in the water in which it was cooked, it will be delicious when sliced cold.


* You know, Downers Grove's legendary fire chief? His factory burned down in 1906 and his seven sons joined the fire department? You should go to the some time.

Jeanne HIckey September 09, 2011 at 01:08 PM
Hay box? I hope it was a clean one. Eww, after an animal had it slimy face and nose in it? eeeeewwwww. I'm now going to hug my fridge.
Susan Carroll September 09, 2011 at 01:30 PM
How was your breakfast fire this morning? I had a hard time pushing the button on my coffee maker.
BigCubsFan September 09, 2011 at 02:28 PM
Actually the Hay Box is not what it sounds like. It was simply an insulated box that would trap the heat from the boiling water and slow cook the meat, kind of like an early crock pot. My Grandmother had an old stove that was pretty finicky. She would get frustrated and say how she hated it but it was still faster than a hay box...
Steve G. September 09, 2011 at 03:24 PM
Great column!
Lynn Hudoba September 09, 2011 at 09:27 PM
I love meat and desserts. And meat desserts. And dessert meats. I'm so 1908, you so 19-0-late!
Robert Bykowski September 09, 2011 at 10:12 PM
isn't grape catsup essentially just jelly?
Susan Carroll September 09, 2011 at 10:27 PM
With vinegar and pickling spices.
Susan Carroll September 09, 2011 at 10:28 PM
I am very much 19-0-late. I have never denied it.
Susan Carroll September 09, 2011 at 10:28 PM
I bet you didn't even read it, you were too busy drinking beer on your deck. You would never have survived the 18th amendment.
Susan Carroll September 09, 2011 at 10:29 PM
I am now going to start saying "put that in your hay box and smoke it!"
Robert Bykowski September 09, 2011 at 10:31 PM
Still waiting for the bad part...
Steve G. September 10, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Nonsense. I always buy two, one for sippin' and one for storin'.


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