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What They Ate

Browsing vintage community recipe books provides a look at how and what folks really ate

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A new year is all about moving forward, but let's just drift back first. Say to 1956, when the Homebuilders Sunday School Class, at Wilkinsburg's Christ Evangelical United Brethren Church, published Personal Recipes. 

I'm a huge fan of these locally produced cookbooks, often spiral-bound, and sold or re-distributed amongst small groups, such as churches or schools. The older ones date from a time that was not awash with thousands of professionally published cookbooks covering every possible cuisine. (Nor was there the Internet with its zillions of searchable recipes.) Thus, these humble books of reader-submitted recipes are the repositories of what ordinary people were really eating, and not what Better Homes and Garden decreed. 

So one finds amusingly named entrees, such as: "Porcupine Meat Balls" (no rodents involved); the mysteriously named "Chinese Chews" (a walnut-and-coconut cookie); or casseroles named for family members.

Perusing these books, the modern cook will also note the brevity of instructions. Everybody had grown up cooking from scratch and didn't need step-by-step instructions for mixing a cake or assembling a stew. Some recipes do beg for more detail, however: A "chili sauce" comprising a cooked-down pot of 18 tomatoes, 13 sour apples, three green peppers, two onions, brown sugar and vinegar seems easy to make, but for what use?

Other recipes reflect how our food tastes change. Maybe nobody in 1950s Pittsburgh would have eaten sushi, but these days, touting "Mayonnaise Cake" or a ham steak cooked in instant coffee might be an equally hard sell.

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