WND – Frissons of Terror

April 22, 2010

I like old cookbooks for the same reason that other people like horror movies. It’s that frisson of terror you get at the thought of what might be waiting at the bottom of the stair, or what fresh culinary horror could be lurking at the turn of the page. I find Norman Bates’ smiling slyly and saying, “Mother isn’t quite herself today,” and recipes that call for cans of condensed cheddar soup to be equally terrifying.

When I say old cookbooks I don’t mean really old cookbooks like the 19th C Mrs. Beaton’s (although I love those cookbooks too). I mean cookbooks from the last two to three decades. Cookbooks from the ‘30s and ‘40s are frequently unintentionally hilarious simply because the life style assumptions they make are so different from the life that we live now, but they’re not usually actively horrifying. I can say with perfect sincerity that the sentence which starts the first chapter of How to Entertain at Home . . . 1000 entertainment ideas (1927) from the editors of The Modern Priscilla has never been relevant to my life.

“There is no more popular or elastic form of entertainment than an Auction Bridge Party.”

Equally, while pretty much everyone who come to dinner is a geek, none of us are quite geeky enough to think that “An Evening of Literary Jollity” sounds likes a good idea for a high school party, even one at which, “it is desired there be no boisterous entertainment”. I think we can safely assume that this particular party game would occasion a very different kind of merriment if you tried it today. Also, people looking at you like you were crazy.

“The method of obtaining partners for refreshments caused much merriment. Slips of paper on which were written the names of lovers in fiction were handed to the guests, the names of heroines to the ladies and heroes to the gentlemen. The guests were told to match up with their partners. There were Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, Othello and Desdemona, Paul and Virginia, Romeo and Juliet, John Brooks and Meg March . . .”

Occasionally you run across intentionally funny cookbooks/guides to entertaining like Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965) that helpfully includes an entire chapter on how to feed and entertain the various men in your life. This chapter has such options as Man in a Brooks Brothers suit, Man’s Man, Lover with a Leica, Man in the Grey Flannel Leiderhosen and the Amorous Athlete. The opening two paragraphs set the tone for the rest of the book – which I’m pretty sure was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek even in 1965, although possibly not as much as it is now.

“It’s easy enough to delude a male Saturday dinner guest into believing that he has discovered a real jewel of a gourmet, but what about that inevitable night when old Charlie, who fixes your flat tires, repairs your sink, lends you money, buys you a drink after work, God bless him, and you forgetfully invite him up for an intimate little dinner? Hmmmmmm.

Now if you have been flat-footed and budget-minded, you have nothing but that dreary pound of ground round that you put out this morning, and your larder boasts a dandy box of instant rice and some dehydrated potatoes. This is fine for an evening of soul-searching with Dr. Kildare, but you just can’t do it to Charlie.”

“Saucepans and the Single Girl” has been rereleased with notes to explain things like who on earth Dr. Kildare is for people born after 1950, and how to substitute fresh ingredients for all the canned ones that the original book suggested. It promptly went to the top of my amazon wish list.

The cookbooks I’m talking about – the ones that make you wonder how anyone survived the 1970s – are the ones like the worrisome Betty Crocker’s New Boys & Girls Cookbook (1971) which starts with a double page spread of sketches of children sporting fixed cheerful smiles and accompanied by ominously chipper quotes.

“Our mothers scored what we made as excellent, good, fair or poor.”  (Linda)

“It’s important to measure exactly. When we didn’t, we had trouble.”  (Lucy)

“We always left the kitchen clean. Then Mother liked to have us help.”  (Alpha)

“We learned to be careful when we took hot pans out of the oven.”  (Joseph)

“We learned what words like baste and fold and beat mean.”  (Peter)

“If you do what Betty Crocker says, you can learn to cook easily.”  (Joan)

Okay, possibly it was just us who opened the cookbook and saw it as a culinary version of the orphans-in-peril narrative. It’s entirely possible that normal people don’t find these pictures and quotes deeply creepy, and that collectively we all spent too much of our childhoods enthusiastically reading books about privileged (Victorian) children reduced to straightened circumstances by evil uncles/governesses/guardians and forced to scrub floors, eat raw eggs and rescue themselves from servitude and penury because all the responsible adults had faffed off to India or some other exotic colony to make their fortune (see The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Peppermints in the Parlor, Midnight is a Place, The Little Princess . . . .).

Most recently my roommate – who works in a public library and brings home the choicest examples from the donations bin for our entertainment – brought home a cookbook that contains what is quite possibly the most horrifying collection of recipes I’ve ever read. It’s the Better Homes and Gardens After Work Cookbook (1974) and all I can say is that if these were the recipes that were waiting for me at home after work, I would have stayed at work. Quite apart from the number of times that condensed cheddar cheese soup is featured as an ingredient, the cookbook contains a disturbing number of ways to cook hotdogs.

Stuffed Baked Franks
Frankfurter-Cheese Casserole
Macaroni-Frank Salad
Frank-Egg Scramble
Barbecued Frank Sandwiches
Swiss and Frank Pie (a variation of the classic Quiche Lorraine)
Frank-Macaroni Skillet

And then there is my particular favorite, the Frank-Kraut Dinner which is so horrifying that I have to disclose the recipe so that everyone can share in my terror.

Frank-Kraut Dinner
1/4 cup milk
1 11-oz can condensed Cheddar cheese soup
1/2 tsp caraway seed
1/2 tsp prepared mustard
1 27-oz can sauerkraut, drained
1 lb frankfurters

Gradually stir milk into soup till blended; stir in caraway and mustard.  Snip sauerkraut; fold into soup mixture.  Heat through, stirring often.  Turn into a 10 x 6 x 1.5 baking dish.  Slash frankfurters diagonally at 1″ intervals; arrange atop casserole.  Bake at 375 for 15-20 minutes.  Makes four servings.

Personally, I think I might rather confront the desiccated remains of Norman Bates’ mother than Frank-Kraut Dinner as my meal after a long day’s work.

Dinner Last Week
Because time got away from me and nothing ever got posted last week, although we did have Dinner.

Butternut Squash Chili

Butternut Squash Chili

Recipe previously given: Same Bat Place


Recipe previously given: Chili Take II

Dinner This Week

Cream of Tomato Soup
Cold cuts

Cream of Tomato Soup

Recipe previously given: Not Waiting on Time or the Tide


Recipe previously given: Not Waiting on Time or the Tide



  1. “Snip sauerkraut; fold into soup mixture.”

    Please miss, how (and why) does one “snip sauerkraut”?

    • I was four at the end of the 1970s, I plead complete justifiable ignorance of how (or why) one might snip sauerkraut. I mean, I don’t like even fresh homemade sauerkraut, I can’t imagine what it tastes like out of a can? package?, much less mixed with condensed cheddar soup.

      You were in the US in the ’70s, shouldn’t you know the answers to these questions 😉

  2. I was around in the 70s, but not in the US. Salaries were very different then, especially in England. I actually made something akin to the cited recipe. On the last day of the budget week I would often have only 40p (about $1.00) left. That would buy a package of sauerkraut (sort of a shrink-wrapped package), a Dutch smoked sausage (sort of like a kielbasa), and potatoes. With this I would make a casserole with the sauerkraut, a tomato sauce–which cut down on the sharpness of the kraut, put sliced sausage in it and mashed potatoes on top.
    It was edible, although I am not sure I would want to eat it now. And I know I would not have wanted to eat it made with canned cheddar soup!
    But I never snipped the sauerkraut! Hence my curiosity as to how and why.

    • And you complain about beans on toast?

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