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Appetites and Afterthoughts

‘Helpful Hints to Housewives’ Resurrecting lost kitchen advice

Although Helpful Hints to Housewives is long out of print, Helpful Hints For Housewives offers much of the same motherly advice. photo: © chronicle books

Not long ago on a cloudy afternoon, I happened to be thumbing my way through Helpful Hints to Housewives, the 1928 edition. It belonged to my mother, and when she gave it to me along with a pile of old cookbooks, she probably believed I was going to be the eternal bachelor. These days I like to keep Helpful Hints to Housewives handy because I am what my Germanic parents called a haussmann. Actually, I am a haussgatte, a househusband.

I have the luxury of working at home and like to give my spouse a hand. Because I like to cook, I try to provide her with a good dinner most evenings. I am also a cleaning man. I mop, dust, and do the dishes. Yes, I really do have a life.

But back to Helpful Hints to Housewives. The first section of the book features just that — helpful hints — and I thumbed through it with interest. The first one that caught my eye was this:

“Never make a French seam when joining lace. Try to patch the design over on the same design on the other end; carefully whip one on to the other. If this is done the joint can scarcely be seen.”

OK, got it. I moved on:

“Cucumber peelings placed where ants appear will quickly drive them away.”

That’s good to know. Or how about this helpful hint:

“If you are unfortunate enough to possess a pair of ‘musical shoes’ place them in a dish with just enough linseed oil to cover the soles and let them stand all night.”

I haven’t tried this one yet. Next:

“Peel onions in a pan of cold water, or under a cold water faucet and they will not affect your eyes.”

Well, of course, everyone knows that.

Then I found a three-by-five card bookmark. And in my mother’s hand was her recipe for pear salad. It was signed “Mollie”— her baptismal name was Amelia. I would repeat her pear salad recipe here except your mother probably practiced on you with the same recipe: a can of pears, package of lemon Jell-O, some cream cheese, etc.

Well, to cut to the chase, in the back of Helpful Hints to Housewives, I found “Menu Suggestions.” And therein lay the germ of an idea as they say. Because I like to cook dinner for my wife, why not create the entire menu out of Helpful Hints to Housewives? Why not indeed? And here is what I prepared one night not long ago.

APPETIZER

Stuffed Celery: You know about this one. You stuff your celery with some kind of yellow-orange cheese with pimientos. In this case, with the ladies who wrote Helpful Hints to Housewives, it was cream cheese with a tablespoon of A-1 sauce added. Not a bad idea.

SOUP

Brown Flour Soup: “Heat two tablespoonsful of butter. Add two tablespoonsful of flour. Heat and stir until brown. Then add gradually one pint of boiling water. Season with salt and nutmeg. Boil about five minutes and serve hot.” Well, on the hand-printed menu I provided, I told Joan this would be one of the courses. Just kidding, I admitted. We skipped the soup course.

ENTRÉE

Pot Roast No. 1 and Pot Roast No. 2 (combination of the two recipes): Recipe No. 1 calls for one cup of cold coffee. Recipe No. 2 suggested covering the pot roast with water. I substituted the black coffee for the water. It worked.

VEGETABLES

Mashed Potatoes with Peanut Butter: What you do here is make your regulation mashed potatoes the way you like them, and then add one-and-one-half tablespoons of peanut butter. I skipped the peanut butter. I just couldn’t add peanut butter to mashed potatoes.

DESSERT

Ginger Ale Fruit Salad (yes, real ginger ale): Mix a can of pineapple juice and some ginger ale. Boil and then pour in one package of lemon Jell-O. Cut up some pineapple and oranges and pour everything into a mold and refrigerate. For the dressing, mix pineapple juice, orange juice, lemon juice, two eggs, and some sugar. Boil until thick and add some whipped cream. Joan passed on the whipped cream, so I did, too.

A JOHN RUSKIN CODA

Helpful Hints to Housewives concludes with a statement by 19th century essayist John Ruskin. “… cookery means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of the modern chemist; it means much testing and no wasting, it means English thoroughness, French art and Arabian hospitality; and it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies …” Got that?

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