The last dinner on board the Titanic for first-class travelers before it sank on the morning of April 15, 1912, featured salmon with a mousseline sauce, filet mignon lili, lamb in a mint sauce, roast duckling with applesauce, sirloin of beef, roast squab and more.
But such fine dining in the decade between 1910 and 1919 was the exception rather than the rule. Ordinary people ate food that was far more mundane. Red flannel hash – it’s corned beef hash with extra vegetables – was popular, and so were sandwiches of every variety. More expensive fare might include a hot turkey sandwich or half of a broiled guinea hen.
With a vast wave of immigrants coming to these shores in that decade, the foods they brought with them began to become assimilated into the national cuisine, according to “American Dish: 100 Recipes From Ten Delicious Decades,” by Merrill Shindler.
Oreos were invented in 1912, peppermint Life Savers came along the year after that and Kraft Processed Cheese in 1916. Customers could now reach for items at food markets rather than have clerks hand it to them from behind the counter, and canned goods continued their meteoric rise.
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Without refrigeration, canned food was the best and only way for most of the country to have access to many items, especially during winter. And so, when I wanted to re-create the dining of the decade, I first began with a dish that calls for canned shrimp and canned peas.
Specifically, it calls for Larkin brand canned shrimp and Larkin brand canned peas, seasoned with Larkin salt and pepper and cooked, if you want, in a Larkin casserole. Larkin, a popular mail-order company of the time, produced “The Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book” in 1915, featuring recipes submitted from around the country.
Shrimp in ramekins, the dish I made (recipe at www.fresnobee.com/living), was created by Mrs. J.R. Abercrombie, of St. Joseph, Mo., and the only way people in St. Joseph could get shrimp was out of a can. Her recipe begins with a roux and adds milk; it’s the basis of any cream sauce. Next comes shrimp and peas, and it is all topped with buttered bread crumbs before being finished in an oven.
The dish is wonderfully hearty and rich, like a chicken pot pie that has been made with shrimp. You could use fresh or frozen shrimp, if you like, and fresh or frozen peas, and it would undoubtedly be even better. But I went old school with mine to get that true 1915 flavor.
Next, I made vichyssoise, the cold leek-and-potato soup that was invented in 1917 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. Ever since its creation, it has been the epitome of elegance in a bowl; filling, yet silky smooth.
Unable to find the original recipe, I went instead with the one by Anthony Bourdain. You can’t go wrong with Bourdain when making bistro food. This simple vichyssoise, in which leeks and potatoes are simmered in chicken stock and pureed and then briefly cooked in heavy cream with nutmeg, is perfection.
I was also intrigued by a recipe for curried egg sandwiches I found in a 1912 cookbook called “Mrs. Rorer’s Sandwiches.” Curry and eggs go well together, but I had no idea Americans realized this in the 1910s.
Mrs. Rorer’s curried egg sandwich is sort of what you would get if you spread a deviled egg on toast. You hard-boil some eggs, separate the yolks from the whites and finely chop the whites. Push the yolks through a sieve and mix with melted butter or olive oil, curry powder and juice extracted from an onion (it’s easy enough to do, just run the onion over a grater).
Spread this mixture on one piece of bread, top with the minced egg whites, add another piece of bread and you have an exotic sandwich, 1912 style.
For dessert, I looked to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the world’s fair held in San Francisco in 1915. This fair was similar to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition that focused the world’s attention on St. Louis, and like that fair resulted in at least one cookbook, “The Pan-Pacific Cookbook: Savory Bits From the World’s Fare,” by L.L. McLaren.
From this book I chose a dish I had heard of, but never before tried: Orange Fool. Today’s cooks seem to be divided on what exactly a fool is – at least the kind of fool you eat – but this 1915 version is a soft custard.
It is just eggs, sugar and cream heated together, then mixed with the juice and zest of oranges. You cook it until it thickens, but it never quite sets all the way; the texture is like a pudding. Serve it cold.
It is light, refreshing and delicious. Those people in the 1910s knew good food when they ate it.
Curried egg sandwiches
Adapted from “Mrs. Rorer’s Sandwiches,” by Mrs. S.T. Rorer, 1912
4 hard-cooked eggs
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more butter for bread
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon onion juice, see note
8 thin slices bread
Note: To make onion juice, grate an onion.
1. Remove the egg yolks from the whites, mince the whites and push the yolks through a sieve.
2. In a small pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter or heat the oil. Add the curry powder and cook for 2 minutes. Add the curried butter or oil to the yolks, and stir in the salt and onion juice. Stir or rub until thoroughly smooth.
3. Spread a thin layer of butter on the bread. Cover half of the slices with a very thin layer of the yolk mixture, then a layer of the minced whites. Top with another slice of bread. Press together and trim the crusts.
Per serving: 320 calories; 20 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 217 mg cholesterol; 10 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; no fiber; 479 mg sodium; 70 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from “Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook,” by Anthony Bourdain, Jose de Meirelles and Philippe Lajaunie
4 tablespoons butter
8 leeks, white part only, cleaned and thinly sliced
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
4 cups chicken stock or broth
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 fresh chives, finely chopped
1. Fill a large mixing bowl halfway with ice and water. Set aside.
2. Melt butter over a medium-low flame in large pan. Once the butter is melted, add leeks and allow them to sweat for 5 minutes, making sure the leeks don’t take on any color.
3. Add potatoes and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Add chicken stock, raise heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook over a low flame for 35 minutes, or until the potatoes and leeks are very soft.
4. Puree the soup, either with an immersion blender or by carefully mixing it in small batches in a blender. Return the soup to the pot if necessary, whisk in cream and nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Transfer to a medium mixing bowl and set this bowl in the ice bath. Allow to come to room temperature, stirring occasionally. When it is at room temperature, and only then, cover with plastic lid or plastic wrap (do not use foil) and refrigerate until cool. The soup will taste better after a day or two.
6. To serve, sprinkle with chives and serve in chilled bowls.
Per serving: 525 calories; 40 g fat; 24 g saturated fat; 135 mg cholesterol; 9 g protein; 37 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 288 mg sodium; 141 mg calcium.
Yield: 6 servings
Shrimp in ramekins
Recipe by Mrs. J.R. Abercrombie of St. Joseph in “Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book,” 1915
2 cans shrimp or 8 ounces fresh or defrosted shrimp, chopped
1 (8.5-ounce) can peas or 1 cup frozen or fresh peas
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease ramekins or casserole with butter or nonstick spray. If using canned shrimp and peas, drain and rinse thoroughly.
2. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Stir in bread crumbs and set aside.
3. In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Add flour and cook until bubbling, stirring occasionally. Stir in milk and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add shrimp and peas.
4. Spoon mixture into ramekins, casserole or scallop shells. Bake 20 minutes.
Per serving: 338 calories; 19 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 167 mg cholesterol; 20 g protein; 22 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 657 mg sodium; 180 mg calcium.
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from “The Pan-Pacific Cookbook: Savory Bits from the World’s Fare,” by L.L. McLaren, 1915
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups cream
1. Zest the oranges and juice them. Set zest and juice aside.
2. Whisk eggs until creamy, then beat in the sugar until it dissolves. Add the zest and juice.
3. Add cream and cook in a double-boiler over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Do not allow to boil. Refrigerate and serve cold.
Per serving: 303 calories; 24 g fat; 14 g saturated fat; 152 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 19 g carbohydrate; 18 g sugar; no fiber; 50 mg sodium; 56 mg calcium.
Yield: 8 servings