A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
It might be hard to understand how a cookbook with the word “plain” in its title could be described as great. This book, however, gets consideration for its historical reporting and good humor. Besides, farm cooking can be mighty tasty.
For several decades, Helen Walker Linsenmeyer collected stories and recipes from old Southern Illinois families, old cookbooks, and archived publications to learn about what nineteenth century pioneers and their immediate descendants ate. In the early 1970s the editors of Southern Illinois University Press asked her to use her findings to write a cookbook that recounted regional culinary history while at the same offering recipes that modern cooks could use. It was published in 1976 and was the publisher’s best selling title for many years. It then went out of print but has now been reprinted.
What is special about Cooking Plain?
Because the recipes come from a time before many packaged foods, most are truly start-from-scratch. There are no shortcuts, such as using a can of mushroom soup or a packet of Italian salad dressing seasonings. The recipes represent a heritage of a time and place. Linsenmeyer included historical reflections that readers will enjoy with some of the recipes. Cooks can repeat these when they receive compliments around the table.
Because of the historical context, the cookbook attracts some specific readers, including students with history assignments and curators of historical attractions, such as nearby Naper Settlement. Hunters (or whoever has to cook what hunter shoot or trap) will also find in Cooking Plain instructions for preparing and cooking game animals and the fish that dominated the rivers of Illinois in the 1800s.
Are the recipes easy to fix?
Yes and no. The cooks of nineteenth century Southern Illinois did not have time to be elaborate with their meals but some of the raw ingredients took time to prepare. Time was needed to peel, shuck, separate, soak, and simmer. Cooks had to think days in advance in some cases. The cooking itself may have been straightforward, as the cooks knew well the limited number of pot, pans, and utensils they used.
Most challenging would have been getting fires right when there were no thermometers. The stick-your-hand-in-the oven-and count-how-long-you-can-stand-the heat method sounds dangerous to me. Linsenmeyer modernizes the recipes by giving them temperatures and cooking times.
Are the ingredients easy to find?
Modern shopping makes most of the ingredients easier to get now than they were back then. The exceptions are the wild game unless there is a hunter-trapper in the house. Muskrat, raccoon, and rattlesnake are not often sold in stores.
What recipes stand out?
I would like to try all the cakes and pies, which should be good with all the butter that is used. I’d also like to learn to make dumplings like my grandmother and try new ways of making cornbread.
Review by Rick