An 1894 edition of Good Housekeeping includes a delightful and informative article on the everyday workings of a small farm in the Ozarks. The “brave and cheerful” housewife at this farm, called Orchard Hill Farm, is “a self-appointed committee of ways and means to see to it that the outgo does not exceed the income.” Indeed, the good farm wife shares a number of ingeniously economical recipes with the journalist from Good Housekeeping. For instance, upon praising the farm wife’s excellent coffee, the journalist finds that it was half sweet potato; “chop them fine, dry and roast them, then grind,” the farm wife reveals, “I use a tablespoon of sweet potato to every tablespoon of coffee.”
Below are two very economical recipes from Orchard Hill Farm: ginger snaps and chowchow, a pickled vegetable stew. Feel free to reduce the quantities given in the recipes; they are intended to feed large crowds of hungry farmhands.
One half gallon of sorghum, two tablespoonfuls of ginger, two tablespoonfuls of salt, one teaspoonful of black pepper, one tablespoonful of cinnamon, two large cupfuls of lard, two tablespoonfuls of soda flour to make a very stiff dough. Bake quickly. This makes a bushel of ginger snaps.
Two quarts of cucumbers, two quarts of green tomatoes, two quarts of onions, two quarts of cauliflower or cabbage. Soak in a weak brine over night. Cook separately until tender. For the paste use one gallon of vinegar, one large cupful of flour, one pound of mustard, one and one half pounds of sugar. Stir the paste until it boils then pour it over the vegetables.
Springtime forests abound with culinary delights and elderberry blossoms are one of them. The fragrant cream-colored blossoms of the common elderberry tree appear toward the end of May, turning to small purple berries by late June. Poisonous in their unripe state, the mature berries are used to make wine, brandy, jellies, chutneys and pies. The flowers are popular in teas and cordials, because their balmy flavor lends itself to sweetened beverages. Both the berries and flowers contain an abundance of antioxidants and other beneficial properties.
Elderberry flowers and berries
The 1888 Family Living on $500 a Year: A Daily Reference-Book for Young and Inexperienced Housewives suggests using elderberries, along with sugar and allspice, to make a spicy ketchup. But the elderberry also has associations and uses far more mystical: In England and Scotland, the elderberry tree was thought to possess narcotic properties, and to sleep beneath the shade of its leaves was to court certain danger. Amulets made from the tree’s leaves and bark were used as evil charms. But the elderberry didn’t just lend itself to purposes malign; Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Elder-Tree Mother” (1845) tells of the elderberry’s ability to ward off evil magic and summon benevolent spirits. And the Tsimshians of British Columbia believed the elderberry bush helped summon mankind itself into existence by coupling with the Raven-god.
The Elder-Tree Mother
Here’s a German recipe for fried elderberry blossoms. It’s a simple dish that costs next to nothing. Serve it as a dessert or an afternoon snack.
Fried Elderberry Blossoms
8 elderberry blossoms, with the stems still attached
9 ounces flour
8.5 ounces milk
2 tablespoons rum
1 pinch salt
2 teaspoons honey
oil for frying
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 teaspoons sugar
Lay the elderberry blossoms in a dish with water and gently swirl the water around the blossoms. Lay them on a dishtowel to dry. Mix the flour, milk, rum, salt, honey and egg into a thin batter. Let stand 30 minutes. Heat the oil in a large pan to 356 degrees F. Test the heated oil with a spoonful of batter — it should quickly become a light brown. Dip the blossoms in the batter and fry in the oil until golden brown. Then lay them on a plate covered in a paper towel to absorb the excess oil. Mix the cinnamon and sugar and sprinkle over the fried blossoms (you can also use powdered sugar). Serve immediately.
The old woman in Diego Velázquez’s 1618 painting Old Woman Cooking Eggs is lean and gaunt. But her bony hands deftly handle the frying pan in which she prepares her mid-day meal–perhaps her only meal of the day–of eggs fried in olive oil with garlic, pimento and onion. The peasant boy looking on offers her a melon and a jug of wine, lush accompaniments to an otherwise austere meal.
Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618
Velázquez frequently used working-class characters in his early paintings, and his penchant for detail brings to life the daily rituals of his subjects, as in Old Woman Cooking Eggs. We can see the woman’s everyday plates, pans and cutlery. We can almost hear her eggs sputtering in the oil. Velázquez’s painting invites us to share the peasant woman’s meal, tempting us with details of its dignified simplicity.
Should you wish to prepare the Spanish eggs of Velázquez’s painting, try the following recipe. It follows the basic recipe of eggs fried with onion and pimento, but adds tomatoes and bell peppers for a touch of freshness.
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
4 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped pimento
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat and saute the peppers and onion until tender but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and saute 5 minutes. Add the pimento, season with salt and pepper and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3-5 minutes.
In a separate pan, fry the eggs in olive oil, until yolks are firm.
Spoon the vegetable mixture onto a large serving platter and top with fried eggs. Serve with fresh melon and a crusty, white bread.