Not long ago, a friend gave me a $1 book find from a rummage sale. The pages were OK, but the binding was so askew that I got out the duct tape. Turns out, it was a cookbook from 1886 — the oldest one I own — modestly titled, Mrs. Rorer’s Cook Book. On the cover, a well-dressed cook is holding a torturously hot dish with a mysterious orange glow in the background that suggests the kitchen has caught on fire.
Mrs. Rorer was Sarah Tyson Rorer, who authored at least 49 more books after this one, her first. She became a noted Philadelphia cook, and an early pioneer in the emerging science of home economics.
In her vast output were cookbooks like Hot Weather Dishes (1888) and Diet for the Sick (1914). She was in her late 30s when her first cookbook came out, and within a decade after its publication, became an editor at Ladies Home Journal. This position lasted until 1911, at which time she switched to Good Housekeeping.
Her initial book has some real gems. Any old cookbook will have recipes with ingredients you’ve never heard of, or would never want to use. There are usually a few recipes for the “infirm” that definitely seem like they would make you sicker, or starve you. But Mrs. Rorer’s Cook Book, in its breathtaking 500-plus pages of overachievement, has some downright scary recipes.
Mock Turtle Soup starts with these three ingredients:
1 calf’s head
1 pound of calf’s liver
1 calf’s heart
Starting with the entire head of a calf is bad enough; thank goodness calves don’t drink liquor, since you would be using the liver.
And here are the graphic instructions for that part of the recipe. (If you are squeamish, skip several paragraphs): “Have the butcher unjoint the jaws and take out the brains. Now wash the head well through several cold waters. Pour boiling water through the throat and nasal passages, then wash again in cold water.” The rest is more palatable, and fortunately, you do remove the head from the pot before serving.
* You get the love from the calf since you use the heart. But you don’t get the smarts of the calf because the butcher has removed the brains.
* I’ve had colds so bad that the idea of pouring boiling water through the throat and nasal passages makes me inventive: the amazing Boilin'-Hot Neti-Pot!
More meat weirdness is that there are six recipes for tripe. Since it’s likely you haven’t had that lately, let me explain. Tripe is the “first or second stomach of a cow used as food.” I doubt you will see this at your local grocery store, as demand has slowed since 1886.
Mrs. Rorer tells you how to expertly prepare Dressed Calf’s Head, Dressed Sheep’s Head (“the same as a calf’s head, using two heads instead of one calf’s head”) and Sheep’s Tongue. The recipe for Stewed Eels starts with “Six nice eels.” Wouldn’t mean eels also work? I’d rather cook up the ornery ones.
The recipe for White Stock starts with the ingredient, “skeletons of yesterday’s chickens.” Well, hopefully, you didn’t have a ham yesterday or you wouldn’t have skeletons on hand. A better title for the recipe might have been “Halloween Broth.”
Graciously, her highness Mrs. Rorer has a lengthy section on advice to maids, with tips like:
* You are not cooking to suit your own taste, but that of your employers.
* A white linen cap, that can be washed every week, will keep the odors from your hair.
* Never give “things” out the alley gate unless you are told by the mistress to do so.
* If your mistress finds fault, bear it patiently; it is she, and not yourself, for whom you are working, and it is your whole duty to please her. One rude answer might cost you a good situation. (I can envision Mrs. Rorer bearing down hard on her fountain pen when writing this part, thinking, “I can’t believe Tessie dared to speak to me that way!”)
Among the less-gory recipes is Brown Bread Ice Cream. There are three ingredients: 3 slices of Boston brown bread (toasted and ground), 1 quart of cream and ½ pound of sugar.
A thought: wouldn’t it be better to just skip dessert?
Doesn't everyone have a salamander tool in their kitchen?
Near the end of the book is a list of “all the utensils needed in a well-furnished kitchen.” While it does include everything like the stove itself (a “Jewel gas stove”) and cloths, twine, floor mop, etc., in total it lists an astonishing 198 items. These include such “necessities” as a Turk’s head (now called a Bundt pan), “sad irons” (a clothing iron, I guess for the maid’s uniform, which is kind of sad), sardine scissors, a salamander (the creme brule tool pictured here), a set of deep corn Gem pans, a keeler (no idea), a jelly bag, and “one old doctor’s ice pick.”
One of these days, when I get up the courage, I’ll try one or two of these recipes to post here. But be assured it won’t be anything involving cleaning out a calf’s head.