Friday, February 19, 2016

The Best Comfort Food Ever and a Bit of Backstory

When I was a young teen, I was gifted with the re-print of a cookbook that had originally been published in 1919.  It was unusual because it contained stories as well as recipes, and I have read it over and over in the decades since.  Some of the old advice contained in it is definitely Not good (like telling someone to put butter or oil on a burn--trust me, never do this! It makes a burn worse.  You want cold water and ice, lots of it, to stop a burning from continuing to burn worse as burns tend to do unless you cool them).  But the stories are fun to read and the recipes turn out quite tasty.  I've tried more than a few of them, and there are yet more that I hope to make someday.

My favorite is entitled

Baked Tomatoes and Cheese.
1 cup canned tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons cheese, cut fine
1/4 cup cooked celery
1 tablespoon butter
Mix the tomatoes, salt, paprika, cheese, and celery.  Add half the bread crumbs.  Pour into a well-buttered baking dish.  Melt the butter, add the remaining crumbs and place on top of the mixture.  Bake twenty minutes in a moderate oven.

Now, of course, I have tinkered with this recipe to an extreme degree over the years.  I call my version Tomato Dressing because that's what it ends up being since I add lots more bread than the original calls for.  Sometimes I add different vegetables.  And, nearly always, I add sautéed onion.  I've even made it with leftover cornbread when I lacked bread of any other sort.

When I'm invited to share meals with meat eaters, I generally bring a big casserole of Tomato Dressing.  People tend to fuss when they hear that it's a vegetarian option.....but just guess whose casserole dish inevitably empties first and fastest. 

The Tomato Dressing I made for supper last night had fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced carrots, homegrown lemon basil, and extra-sharp cheddar.  Super-tasty.  I'll leave you to tinker with the original recipe all on your own because that's half the fun of cooking anything.  Enjoy!

And, by the way, the book  in question has a title that is no longer politically correct and that might even sound a bit dodgy:  A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (by Louise Bennett Weaver & Helen Cowles Lecron).  It remains so popular that many further reprints of it may be easily found online.  However, be aware that those reprints (and also my own) do not contain all of the content of the original 1919 cookbook, nor do they have the beautiful color lithographs of Elizabeth Colbourne's artwork.  Copies of the original are hard to find and are apt to be quite dear as to price.  I managed to come across a dreadfully tatty old copy and I treasure it, though it's held together with an improvised cloth cover--the spine is completely shot, a few pages appear to be missing, and bits of page-edge tend to chip away at times.  And I gave more than $20 for it.

Many readers of this cookbook are unaware that Weaver and Lecron were mavericks for their time--women who worked as editors for the Des Moines Register at a time when most women stayed at home.  They came up with the idea for the unusual story recipe book while at work and then vacationed at a cabin Estes Park, Colorado, to pull a marathon brainstorm to organize and write it, all the while also tending to the two young daughters who had joined them for the journey.  One woman composed the stories but did not cook; the other composed the recipes but was not a writer of fiction--a match made in heaven and joined by creative thought.  

It's funny how small things can have a longterm impact on one's life.  After all these years, that little cookbook continues to feed me.  I'm sure that Weaver and Lecron would be both pleased and surprised to find that their work lives on for so many people.

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