Scientific Cookery, with Flirts

Every era has its cooking fads. The late Victorian period seemed to emphasize “domestic economy” and making sure the servants didn’t waste things. The 1940s, when canned food became widely available, was the era of making things with canned ingredients. Screenshot 2015-09-25 12.06.40

But I have been browsing through Practical Cooking and Serving: A Complete Manual of How to Select, Prepare, and Serve Food, original copyright 1902, though my copy dates from 1922. It is the work of Janet McKenzie Hill, who, the title page proudly informs us, is the editor of the Boston Cooking School Magazine and author of Salads, Sandwiches, and Chafing-Dish Dainties. It’s been so long since I had a chafing-dish dainty that I knew I needed to investigate further. Indeed, I believe I have never heard a single person use the term “chafing-dish” in conversation, but maybe I run in the wrong circles.

Practical Cooking is all about the science of eating. The science of 1902, or indeed of 1922, was in its infancy, so the science of eating is a lot of bluster and not a lot of reliable facts. But basically we are regaled with totals about the chemical components of each variety of food. I’ll get to some surprising “facts” about milk in a minute, but when we start with water, we are warned, “Water is a solvent as well as a carrier, and in this fact much danger lies.” True enough, actually, and as our author observes, “Who would willingly take the chances of a water-borne typhoid case, or the listless inertia of malaria poisoning, as the result of a summer’s outing.” (She does not use a question mark, so obvious is the answer.)

IMG_0561The entry on tea is very high-minded, starting out with a literary quotation:

“Indeed, Madam, your ladyship is very sparing of your tea. I protest, the last I took was no more than water bewitched.” — SWIFT

But then takes a scientific turn:


In 100 parts there are: water 8.0, albuminoids 17.5, theine 3.2, tannin 17.5 chlorophyl and resin 4.5, essential oil 0.4, minor extractives 8.6, cellulose, etc. 34.0, mineral matter 6.3.

From perusing this book I learned that the caffeine in tea is actually called theine, or used to be, which I guess is something one could drop into casual conversation, after the topic of chafing-dishes runs dry. But what about tea’s 34% content of “cellulose, etc.”? What the heck is the etc.? And what is the cook or tea-drinker supposed to do with all this information? “Lovely tea, Maisie.” “I think that must be the albuminoids, they’re particularly fine this year.” “Pass me the cellulose.” Hill never makes clear how all this scientific information is supposed to improve our understanding.

She does note that “The first brewers of tea sat down to eat the leaves with butter and salt.” Interesting if true! Not to mention, “Tea is for those who have passed the boundary line of youth, stimulants are not needed by the young, and are positively harmful to them.” Disregarding the comma splice in that sentence, from now on I think “having passed the boundary line of youth” will be my euphemism of choice.IMG_0562

But on, bravely, to the milk. Because who knew milk was so perilous? Even though it’s 87.3 parts water and .7 parts ash?  Let us pass by the observation that “Fundamentally, in structure, milk is an emulsion consisting of fine oil globules swimming in a colorless fluid.” Okay, brace yourselves:

“When milk is taken into the stomach, rennin, a digestive ferment found in the gastric juice, coagulates the albumen and casein, thus forming what is called curds. If cow’s milk be taken into the stomach, a glassful at a time, these curds will be large and not easily acted upon by the digestive fluids. To remedy this, milk should be ‘eaten’ — that is, swallowed a teaspoonful at a time, or it may be diluted with lime-water, though barley-water is preferable. (See page 599.) Lime-water by its alkalinity partly neutralizes the acid of the gastric juice, and thus weakened the curdling process goes on more slowly. But such interference with the natural process of digestion cannot be recommended. Eat the milk, or dilute it slowly with barley-water, or, in the case of adults, sip the milk slowly, eating between the sips bread or some other form of farinaceous food.”

Milk curdles in your stomach?   I can’t help but wonder if a little guessing went into this “science.”  And curds of milk are apparently indigestible?  So much for cottage cheese.  But it all can be solved by barley-water! Just the thing to accompany my farinaceous food! Let’s flip eagerly to page 599, as directed. This is the section of “Foods Possessing Curative Value for Special Diseases.” Sadly, she seems to think typhoid fever can be cured by broth. Anyway, barley water is not the work of a minute or two.  You have to boil it, throw the water away, and boil it again:


Put three teaspoonfuls of pearl barley over the fire in cold water; let heat to the boiling point and boil five minutes, then drain, rinse in cold water and add one quart of water; let come to the boiling point, then simmer until reduced to about three cups of liqid. Or cook one teaspoonful of barley flour, diluted with cold water to pour, in a pint of boiling water twenty minutes.

There would seem to be some contrast between all these recipes for jugged hare and the title "Practical Cooking and Serving"...

There would seem to be some contrast between all these recipes for jugged hare and the title “Practical Cooking and Serving”…

This is so much trouble to go to for no benefit whatsoever. I feel bad for the poor reader/cook trying to be “scientific.”

To be fair, a lot of the book is plain recipes without all this guff — in fact, hundreds upon hundreds of recipes, which in themselves provide a fascinating roster of changing tastes. Celery Sauce for Boiled Fowl. Okra Salad (includes green pepper and horseradish — I would pay not to eat this salad). Oyster Salad in Ice Bowl.   Chicken Legs as Cutlets with Olives.   Chicken Cream Forcemeat (involves a pound of chicken, 5 ounces of butter, 5 eggs and a pint of whipped cream). Chicken Custard for Consommé. Chicken Liver Balls. Cabbage (Strong Juiced) (“particularly good served au gratin”). Turnip Balls Poulette Sauce. Creamed Celery in Cheese Shell. Baltimore Samp with Cream Sauce. (Samp appears to be on the grits/hominy spectrum.) Hominy Balls. (Deep-fried. “Serve as a vegetable, or with maple syrup as a dessert; or add half a cup of more of grated cheese and serve as an entrée.”) Irish Moss Lemonade (!! — “Pick over one fourth cup of Irish moss and let stand half an hour or more in cold water…”). Clam and Chicken Frappé. Wait, history demands that I transcribe this recipe, which is found in the section called “Peptonized Milk” (yum! right?):


Wash and scrub two quarts of clams. Put in a saucepan with half a cup of cold water, cover closely and let steam until the shells are well opened. Remove the clams from the shells and strain all the liquor through a cheesecloth. To one cup and two thirds of the liquor add two and one half cups of highly seasoned chicken stock and salt if needed. Cool and freeze to a mush. Serve in cups with whipped cream.

Can you imagine? Can you even imagine?

Two of the illustrations from "Practical Cooking and Serving." Note how in the top photo you can see the individual tongues in the aspic?

Two of the illustrations from “Practical Cooking and Serving.” Note how in the top photo you can see the individual tongues in the aspic? Shudder.

Okay, let me get my nerve back.

More recipes. Grape Catsup. Banana Canteloupe Charlotte Russe.   Indian Suet Pudding.  Pineapple Omelet (this is a dessert).   Plunketts (sort of cakey things). Mushroom Meringues (this is also a dessert). Cracker Raisin Pudding. Chestnut Croquettes. Sweet Potato Pudding (includes significant amounts of cream, brandy, and rose-water, as well as one pound of sweet potatoes, “sifted” — how do you sift potatoes?) Peach and Rice Meringue (do these three things go together?)

Lots of aspic, lots of gelatine, lots of dishes where you add tomatoes to eggs.

You have to watch out for fruit, though: “Fruit is almost universally eaten with sugar, but the combination cannot be considered hygienic, being very liable to produce malfermentation in the alimentary tract.”

So there’s us told. I leave you with, I trust, a new respect for science, and for changing tastes, and also with a recipe for Aunt Sallie’s Flirts, to which the author has appended a rather deflating final sentence. But I’d like to try the flirts.

Not that kind of flirts.

Not that kind of flirts.


1 egg   Flour   1/4 teaspoon of salt

Break an egg into a cup, add the salt and quickly stir in flour with a spoon until no more can be easily added. Turn on to a floured board and add flour until the mixture is of a consistency to be rolled out. Divide the dough into three pieces and roll each thinner, if possible, than paper; cut into squares or strips and fry an instant in hot fat.  They should be a very delicate brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve at once. Two people, one to dry and one to sprinkle with sugar, are needed to prepare this dish, as everything depends upon quick work. If a larger number of “flirts” be required than is provided in the recipe, do not double the recipe, mix again. Use but one egg at a time. This in reality is noodle paste.

Definitely not that kind.

Definitely not that kind. Noodle paste, I tell you, noodle paste!