I recently came upon a treasure. For the past couple of months my grandmother has been telling me of an old blue cookbook she’s had for ages that she wanted to give me. She said it contained recipes for things like Campbell’s tomato soup cake and various gelatinous desserts that might be fun to create. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book and start cooking, retro style.

To my chagrin we couldn’t find the book anywhere in her house; I turned closets upside down, called my mother asking if she had thrown it away, to no avail. Then recently, on my last visit, she told me to go to the upstairs kitchen and look above the sink. I dashed up the stairs, like it was Christmas morning, and there it was: a little musty, mildewy, and indeed, blue.

The American Woman’s Cook Book, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer, the director of the Culinary Arts Institute, was published in Chicago in 1945. Back then, my grandmother was a secretary in Manhattan at an insurance company. She traveled into the city from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where she lived with her mother and sister. The way she remembers it, one day, someone came into the office and all the “girls” had to each buy a copy of the newly published cookbook. I should say the book was first published in 1938 and later revised by Berolzheimer in 1945.

Well there isn’t in fact a recipe for tomato soup cake, or even too many wiggly desserts. It’s a treasure of classics with recipes including: creamed salmon, bacon corn bread, popovers, welsh rarebit, réchauffé of lamb, roast beef, and coconut cream pie. Oh the good old days! When folks drank buttermilk with dinner and dissolved baking soda in water when sick. When milk was dropped off in glass jars on your doorstep and people made their own preserves and jellies.

The Table of Contents reveals a chapter for “The Lunch Box” and another for “Food for Invalids.” The Lunch Box section reads:

“As much care is needed in selecting and preparing the food for the lunch box as for the other meals served to the family. If the lunch is inadequate or lacking in food essentials throughout the year, the individual’s whole nutrition will be seriously affected, and his work will suffer. The lunch box is one of three meals, not just a ‘snack,’ and should possess the following characteristics:

1. It should be abundant in amount for a hungry, healthy individual. A little too much is better than too little.
2. It should be chosen with regard to nutritive needs of the individual, and in relation to the whole day’s food.
3. It should be clean, appetizing, wholesome and attractive.”

That’s a tall order. It’s also quite different from today when most people get a $7 burrito from Qdoba or a $5 footlong from Subway and call it a lunch. I like the idea though of a well-prepared, carefully presented lunch, in a metal box, with a thermos and cloth napkin and silverware (to say nothing of course that the woman didn’t have much of a choice whether this was the job she wanted or not, preparing cute and wholesome lunches for her husband and kids). Some of the menu suggestions are cream of spinach soup with crackers, an egg salad sandwich with lettuce, raw vegetable strips, an apple, and cup cake (that’s one lunch); or peanut butter, bacon and lettuce sandwiches, carrot sticks, cauliflowerlets, a hard-cooked egg, gingerbread, grapes, and milk (again, that’s all one lunch).

“Food for Invalids” reads, “The following general suggestions are intended to help the housewife who, in addition to her other work, has the duty of ministering to the needs of the sick and convalescent.” It recommends presenting the food as nicely as possible, and serving hot foods very hot and cold foods very cold, with meals arriving at regular intervals, perhaps with a sprig of green or a flower on the tray. Dishes in this section include banana gruel, egg drinks, kumiss (milk, yeast-cake, and sugar), rice jelly, and flaxseed lemonade. A recipe for something called “panada” says to place 2 soda or graham crackers in a bowl and add boiling water to soak the crackers, for 20-30 minutes. Lift them from the water carefully and serve on a hot saucer, serve with sugar and cream.

Needless to say I can’t wait to start cooking from this book. I’d like to try the chess pie, which includes only pastry, butter, sugar, eggs, raisins, nuts, and vanilla; fricassee of chicken; chicken and dumplings; the devil’s food cake; and many more. This weekend I hope to carve out some time for at least one or two recipes, and if I do you’ll hear about it here of course.