What's on your Christmas menu? Probably not sweetbread croquettes, deep sea salad or squirrel pot pie. But more than 100 years ago, these dishes might have been part of any home cook's holiday repertoire.
Recipes like these offer a window into early-20th-century homes, thanks to a 1904 copy of the Gold Medal Flour cookbook, Christmas edition. This slim volume is one of the treasures in the archive at General Mills headquarters in Golden Valley, and, for the lucky few, a prized find at estate sales or on resale sites like eBay.
Geared toward the American housewife as an advertising tool for the Minneapolis-based Washburn Crosby Company's Gold Medal Flour, the cookbook cost just 10 cents in stamps. Many recipes call for Gold Medal flour, and there's even an essay on the virtues of white bread.
But the cookbook goes well beyond branded baking by including a wide selection of recipes with regional and international influences. Baltimore, South Carolina, Egypt and Norway are credited in recipes for meat pie, fried rice, chicken and fish pudding, respectively. And while some recipes cater to the most celebratory meals, like a roast goose for Christmas, they also reveal the nitty-gritty behind getting such food on the table.
"Drawing a fowl for roasting," for example, and removing the organs carefully by hand, is "a process too often both tedious and disgusting," according to a section on cleaning poultry.
Culinary history lesson
Studying this cookbook today can clue us in to how our ancestors cooked and ate, while inspiring a new generation to go back to the basics in the kitchen.
"There's something really interesting about being able to time travel through these recipes and maybe have a little more understanding of how cooking has changed over time," said Natasha Bruns. As corporate archivist for General Mills, she handles the company's historical collections, including cookbooks. "What people were doing in the kitchen has vastly changed."
For one thing, homes didn't have electric stoves, and cooking over coal or wood had its own challenges.
"You needed to wait for the stove to do the cooking for you," Bruns said.
Many recipes suggest cooking a dish in a "quick oven" or a "hot oven," and to "bake until done." There are measurements for baking soda "the size of a bean," or "one wine glass of brandy." Instructions are short and to the point; the entire recipe for Christmas bread is "Bake two loaves in one tin." Animals we now consider roadkill show up in recipes. So do less enticing cuts of meat than one might find at the supermarket today. There are instructions on how not to just cook a duck, but how to raise it and butcher it.
Yet while some ingredients or methods have changed, the intent behind many recipes has not. Then, as in 2020, families stayed home a lot, couldn't travel very far, made staples like bread from scratch, and tried to get as much use from an animal or a vegetable that they could.
"It's cyclical, just in a different way," said Cathy Swanson Wheaton, executive editor of cookbooks at General Mills. With people staying home during the pandemic and cooking more, either as a way to stretch limited pantries or as a hobby to get through lockdown boredom, "we've come full circle."
It's all cyclical
The book's value isn't just anthropological. For cooks intuitive enough to decipher vintage home-ec lingo, the recipes printed on these browned and tattered pages offer a road map for whipping up a truly antique Christmas meal.
Here's a typical Christmas dinner menu, as appears in the book.
Start with grapefruit, followed by cream of oyster soup and accompaniments of radishes, salted nuts and olives. An appetizer of fish cutlets with shrimp sauce is served with potato croquettes. For the main course, roast turkey or goose with cranberry sauce, caramel sweet potatoes, celery au gratin, pickled peaches and cider. A palate cleanser of orange salad with French dressing precedes plum pudding with hard sauce (see the updated recipe). Finish with nuts, raisins, crackers, cheese and coffee.
Sounds good, right?
"A lot of the foods that are listed are actually very similar to what we still serve today at Thanksgiving or Christmas," Wheaton noted. "Those kinds of traditions really have not changed; it's just interesting to see how they have morphed over time."
You don't need a copy to cook like your great-grandparents did. Nor do you need to have a coal stove, or an unlimited supply of suet and other animal fats (though they wouldn't hurt). Quite a few dishes have survived until today in forms that utilize modern conveniences and ingredients. Wheaton and her team of recipe testers have updated a number of them at bettycrocker.com.
But for home cooks looking to infuse a little history into their holiday meal, all the instructions — with a taste of time travel — are still out there if you know where to look. Just grab your wine glass of brandy and a bean of baking soda and get cooking.
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853
1904 Christmas Plum Pudding With Hard Sauce
Note: Measurements in the original recipe from Gold Medal Flour's 1904 Christmas cookbook are somewhat vague and clearly meant to feed a crowd, calling for 2 pounds each of raisins, currants, sugar and suet, 16 eggs and "one wine glass of brandy." It also calls for a sprig of holly for garnish — which is poisonous. The General Mills test kitchen has updated the recipe for today's standards, and skips the animal fat completely. This recipe, adapted from a recipe by General Mills, must be made in advance.
For the pudding:
• 1/2 c. flour
• 1 tsp. ground ginger
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
• 1/8 tsp. allspice
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, chilled
• 1 c. seedless raisins
• 1 c. golden raisins
• 1 c. chopped dried apricots, pineapple or pitted prunes
• 1/4 c. slivered almonds
• 1/4 c. candied lemon and orange peel, chopped
• 1 c. plain breadcrumbs
• 3/4 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
• 1/4 c. brandy
• 3 eggs, beaten
For the sauce:
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
• 1 c. powdered sugar
• 2 tbsp. brandy
• Pinch of salt
• Orange slices or cranberries that have been moistened and rolled in sugar
Generously grease a 1-quart mold or ovenproof glass bowl; line with double thickness of cheesecloth or with parchment paper.
In large bowl, combine flour, ginger, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice; mix well.
With pastry blender, cut in 1/2 cup butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add raisins, apricots, almonds and lemon and orange peel; toss until fruit is well coated. Add breadcrumbs and brown sugar; mix well. Stir in brandy and eggs; mix well. Mixture will be very thick and almost crumbly.
Spoon mixture into greased and lined mold, packing firmly with the back of a spoon. Cover tightly with lid or heavy-duty foil.
Place a rack in the bottom of a Dutch oven (or, if you don't have a rack that fits, roll up a sheet of foil into the shape of a ring). Add water until it reaches the top of rack. Bring to a boil. Set mold on rack and carefully pour hot water around mold until it's about halfway up the sides of the mold. Return to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover Dutch oven. Simmer 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours, or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Add boiling water as needed.
Remove pudding from Dutch oven and cool in mold for 1 1/2 hours.
To make the sauce, combine 1/2 c. butter, powdered sugar, brandy and salt and beat until smooth. Line a ramekin or decorative mold with plastic wrap. Spoon hard sauce mixture into ramekin. Cover and refrigerate.
About 30 minutes before serving, turn pudding out of mold and carefully remove cheesecloth. Place on serving plate. Remove plastic wrap from hard sauce and unmold onto a small plate. Top each slice of pudding with hard sauce and garnish as desired.