New York Remember when Mother put on a starched apron, most likely handmade, before she began to cook? Which was often.
Remember when Mom clipped recipes from newspapers and magazines, copied them from pamphlets and packages or from friends? And how she filed them in a loose-leaf binder or recipe box?
And, do you remember when desserts -- homemade desserts, no boxed mixes, no artificial anything except maybe the No. 2 food coloring in the maraschino cherries -- ended every evening meal and the big Sunday dinner after church?
Three recent books take us back to those times: "Aprons: Icons of the American Home" by Joyce Cheney (Running Press, $24.95); "Old-Time Brand-Name Desserts" by Bunny Crumpacker (Smithmark, $12.98), and "Retro Desserts" by Wayne Harley Brachman (Morrow, $27.)
Cheney, a textile collector and curator in St. Louis, began collecting aprons 10 years ago and now has some 400. Part of her collection is on a national museum tour, "Apron Strings: Ties to the Past." Part of it is in her richly illustrated book.
The great cover-up
"According to Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons," Cheney says. But the apron tradition in the United States grew from customs in Western Europe, where, Cheney says, "people have been wearing aprons since the 13th century. At that time and through the Middle Ages " meals were often communal affairs, with diners literally grabbing food and eating by hand. Women typically placed an extra swath of cloth in their laps to protect their skirts while eating, creating a sort of banquet apron."
Today, she says, "aprons tap into our personal memories and remind us of mothers, grandmothers and our own pasts." But they also reflect women's roles in society: the cook's apron, the nurse's apron, the servant's apron, the pinafores of the well-to-do.
For the most part, today's aprons are unisex, like the ones butchers and backyard chefs wear, made of denim or sailcloth. But in the decade after World War II, half-aprons that tied at the waist became popular. They were smocked, stenciled, crocheted and embroidered; made of tea towels, in calico prints and ginghams and trimmed in rickrack and bias binding. And apron strings widened into pretty bows.
Many of the fancy half-aprons were sold at church bazaars, then tucked into linen drawers unused. The functional coveralls, called smocks or cobbler's aprons, were worn in the kitchen wars and were highly decorated with badges of berry stains, tomato smudges and grease spots.
After all, there was a lot of home cookin' going on. And in "Retro Desserts: Totally Hip, Updated Classic Desserts from the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s," Bachman has adapted many made-from-scratch recipes for today's tastes. Anyone for Boston Cream Pie (actually a cake) or Fruit Cocktail Gelatin Ring with homemade gelatin, not Jell-O?
Along with the recipes are food-related snippets from mid-century TV sitcoms and practical kitchen tips. Example: how to peel a peach or pick out a ripe pineapple.
Crumpacker's book, subtitled "Recipes, Illustrations, and Advice from the Recipe Pamphlets of America's Most Trusted Food Makers," covers cooking from 1875 to 1950. Her brand-name desserts aren't what one might think. No Jell-O, Mrs. Smith's pies or Sara Lee cakes. The names behind these recipes include Davis and Rumford baking powders; Sunkist fruits; Kelvinator and Frigidare appliances, even the local gas company.
Celebrities and advice
From the retro recipes and recipe illustrations, we learn that celebrity cooks, good nutrition, recycling and overworked mothers were topics of the times. Note Art Linkletter's Peach Pie and Milton Berle's Peach Cobbler, adapted from a 1945 publication, "Cook Book of the Stars," from WFBL, a CBS affiliate.
These words from "Victory Lunch Box Meals" (Pet Evaporated Milk, 1942) emphasize the importance of nutrition: "" The failure of so many young men to pass the physical examinations for our armed forces, due to the results of faulty nourishment, has done more to stress the value of a well-balanced diet than all the teaching of years gone by."
Abbott's Dairies' 1933 "A Year of Recipes" issued this plea as much for the economy as the environment: "Won't you please search your cellar for empty milk bottles and return them? We will appreciate your cooperation."
Hard work and short cuts
Among the recipes is "Busy Mother's Cake," adapted from "Requested Recipes" published in 1940 by the New York Daily News.
"Before World War II, most mothers didn't have jobs outside the home," Crumpacker writes. "But inside the home, they had to boil their baby's cloth diapers, hand-wash the laundry and hang it on the clothesline to dry, go food shopping daily at the grocer's and the butcher's, prepare a hot lunch for the family, defrost the refrigerator monthly, and " along with everything else make her own desserts."
General Mills and Pillsbury didn't introduce their mixes until 1948, followed by Duncan Hines in 1951. "In those days, a cake for busy mothers (the butter doesn't have to be creamed) was an enticement. It still is."
Busy Mother's Cake
2 cup melted unsalted butter plus butter for the pan
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter an 8-inch-square baking pan, or two 9-inch layer cake pans, or two 6-muffin tins.
Beat the eggs in a bowl until they are slightly thickened and pale yellow. Gradually beat in the sugar. Add the water and vanilla, and mix well.
Mix the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl and fold this mixture into the egg batter. Fold in the melted butter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 40 minutes if using the square pan, 30 minutes for the layer cake pans or 20 minutes for the muffin tins. The cake is done when a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
-- Recipe from "Old-Time Brand-Name Desserts" (Smithmark).