When looking back on our favorite family memories and holidays, food is often a highlight. Nothing can be quite so nostalgic as Grandma’s cookies or Mom’s best soup. Here at the library, cookbooks are among our most circulated items. For those of you learning to cook or wanting to add some local flair to your home cooked meal, the Local History & Genealogy department has four shelves of cookbooks that you can check out, bring home, and test out. These range from local restaurants’ favorite recipes, to chefs who focus on modern Kentucky cuisine, to historic cookbooks written as early as the 1800s.
In an effort to get to know this section of our collection better, I tried out three recipes from two different books and documented my progress. I decided to focus on dishes with earlier origins. With some of the recipes, or receipts as Lettice Bryan of The Kentucky Housewife (1839) calls them, it took a little creative reimagining in order to modernize the measurements and equipment to something I have in my kitchen. In other words, I opted to bake in a modern oven with set temperatures. I’m also a vegetarian – so, sorry to all you Squirrel Soup lovers, I stuck to finding something I could enjoy!
Let’s get started:
- Baked Potatoes, from The Kentucky Housewife (1839) by Lettice Bryan
This recipe is from one of our earliest cookbooks by the thorough Lettice Bryan. The collection contains thousands of recipes along with suggestions of accompanying dishes, for which meal a recipe works best, and other tidbits which give a wonderful glimpse of the time period. I chose this recipe because it is simple, contains few ingredients, but also takes a familiar dish in a different direction than I had tried before. The recipe essentially calls for making mashed potatoes, forming them into biscuits, and baking them. I used red potatoes because I happened to have them, but the recipe calls for Irish or white potatoes. The potato biscuits were suggested for breakfast.
- Salt, Pepper
- Butter (I used about a tablespoon)
- Cream (or half and half or milk)
- Garlic (optional, not included in original)
Once the potatoes are cleaned and peeled, boil them whole in salted water until they are easily pierced by a fork. Mash them with a fork, add a little butter, about a ¼ cup of half & half, salt and pepper to taste, and a little minced garlic (I couldn’t resist; it’s not in the recipe, but what are mashed potatoes without some garlic?) .
Once they are the right consistency (smooth, but not liquid, and still able to hold shape), form them into ovals on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven. Lettice says to put them in a “brisk oven” until “light brown” which you will notice has absolutely no mention of time or temperature. I debated here between 350°F and 400°F so settled on 375° and called it even. I didn’t pay too much attention to time, but they might have been in for 30 minutes before they were a light brown.
They puffed up really nicely and spread out into a definite biscuit shape. I served them with mushroom soup, but I have to agree with Lettice here, they would be wonderful for breakfast! They were delicate and light on the inside with a bit of crisp on the outside. Served with a spicy or tangy sauce, these would be a great new (old) take on classic mashed or baked potatoes. This recipe also lends itself readily to alteration. You could add some herbs like rosemary and sage, go spicy with crushed red pepper or cayenne, or do one of my favorite potato combos of basil and half-sharp paprika.
- Frances Jewell McVey’s Mushroom Soup
The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipes for Today’s Cook by Deirdre A. Scaggs and Andrew W. McGraw (also available as an e-book from Overdrive) is a collection of recipes taken from a few different historic sources and put into a modern and simple format. This book is a great place to start if you are looking for easy-to-follow historic recipes.
This mushroom soup is from the 1920s and is simple, very rich, and comforting. As with any good soup, what makes a real difference is high quality broth. The recipe calls for chicken broth, but I used homemade vegetable broth instead.
- 8 cups broth
- 4 cups water
- 4 cups mushrooms, plus one cup sliced and set aside
- 1 onion, quartered
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup butter
- Salt, pepper
Because this recipe was written out much more clearly than some of the others, and because of its simplicity, I won’t go into too much detail here. Basically, you simmer the broth/water with the mushrooms and onion to make it extra mushroom-y. Then strain, put aside, and make a roux in the pan with SO MUCH butter and some flour. Add the milk and salt and pepper, add the broth back in, and top with 1 cup mushrooms that have been sautéed in a bit of butter until tender. I topped mine with more pepper and some fresh basil as well.
The soup was delicious, if a bit rich for my taste. I will say to be careful not to let it curdle. The recipe says to bring the milk to a boil once you add it to the roux and to then add in the broth. I would bring the milk to just under a boil and then whisk in the broth slowly so that everything incorporates nicely. I may have added the broth too quickly, because although smooth, the oil did separate a little. If I wasn’t really hungry at this point, I probably could have taken the time to whisk more and simmer and fiddle with it. But the biscuits I made were getting cold and it was after 10 pm, so I called it a night!
- Louise Ludlow Dudley’s Stuffed Eggplant from The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipes for Today’s Cook
This dish from 1876 was listed as a side, but with a big salad and our filling meal of mushroom soup and biscuits the night before, this became our main course. I halved the original recipe since it was just two of us eating, although I didn’t halve the herbs because I love parsley and thyme.
- 1 large eggplant
- 1 tablespoon each fresh parsley and thyme
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ½ cup bread crumbs
- ½ tablespoon milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Parmesan or more breadcrumbs to top
Cut the eggplant lengthwise and score the flesh. Then place in boiling water for 15-20 minutes until tender. I flipped them part way through from flesh down to flesh up. Then scoop out the flesh, reserve the skins, and set aside. In a pan, sauté the butter, parsley, and thyme until fragrant, about one minute, and then add in the eggplant flesh, salt, and pepper. After about 5 minutes, add the bread crumbs and milk and cook an additional 2 minutes. Then scoop the insides into the skins, place on a baking sheet, and top with parmesan or bread crumbs. Bake at 350° for 15-20 minutes.
Once out of the oven, I topped mine with crushed red pepper and some fresh parsley. The finished product had good consistency and is a great concept, but I would definitely make some alterations for next time. As a personal preference, I would add some spice while sautéing the flesh. What it really needed, however, was some garlic and maybe some shallot or onion. You could use this recipe as a base and add any number of vegetables to the filling; eggplants make a great boat!
Things I’ve learned from these recipes: Man oh man, did they like butter and cream. I’m not used to much dairy, so most of these recipes were really rich for me. I also imagine that some of these were either special treats, or being worked off with a lot of exercise. One thing you may notice from looking through these cookbooks is how similar many of the recipes are to modern favorites. Lettice even has what is essentially a mac & cheese recipe in there!
The cookbooks in our collection contain thousands of recipes to explore, more than I could ever hope to try. There are also plenty of tips on how to make things by hand, such as butter, cheese, candles, beauty products, or soap. Any of these could make a fun afternoon or weekend project. Lettice’s book also includes some medicinal recipes if you are ever feeling down and want an old-school cure. Stop in at the Local History & Genealogy department on the second floor of the Covington branch, call, or go to our online catalog to check out any of these materials! Stay tuned for Part Two, which will feature more Kentucky recipes including desserts and breads.
This blog was written by Liv Dohn, Library Associate in the Local History & Genealogy Department at the Covington Branch.