Thursday, June 17, 2010

I'm in the mood for frugal

For the next little while, we're going to hang out with my new frugal superhero: Bettina from A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles Le Cron, 1917 edition. (Downloadable in lots of formats.)

The recipes in this book, as the planksconstance review says, are, um, very 1917. They remind me of the ones in my great-aunt's 1920's Modern Priscilla Cookbook. Lots of canned pimiento, beefsteak, and white sauce over everything. One quick little dinner Bettina whips up has no less than three sauces made from scratch. But on the other hand, Bettina is a generous soul who likes to help out her not-quite-as-economical friends; she's up on all the latest fuel-saving technology (did you know fireless cookers were a hot kitchen gadget in the early 20th century?); and her principles, if not always her exact recipes, are worth examining.

The Depression Kitchen blog also reviewed different editions of this book--there were revisions in the 1930's and the 1940's. Only the first edition is actually online. "Bettina's" sequel, A Thousand Ways to Please a Family, isn't online either--maybe somebody will upload it sometime. (Note: Kessinger Publishing has reprinted both books.)

Anyway, our first look at Bettina's housekeeping comes in the first chapter, as she and Bob (who looks like a 1917 Ken doll) return from their honeymoon and make themselves a "simple" dinner from their emergency shelf (and from a few fresh things left by relatives who guessed they'd be returning soon).

So what does Bettina keep in her pantry? Canned pimientos, of course. Canned everything: tuna, salmon, dried beef, corn, mushrooms, peas, string beans, lima beans, devilled ham, tomatoes, condensed milk. Marshmallows (definitely something you can't live without!). Salted codfish. Cookies. Olives. Pickles. It reminds me of Mr. Drucker's Deluxe Special. (Scroll down there.)

And what do Bettina and Bob cook up for themselves in ten minutes? Creamed tuna on toast strips--and buttered rolls. (have some bread with your bread, dear?) Canned peas with butter sauce--I assume that's the only way they could choke down the canned peas. Strawberry preserves that magically appear from somewhere. Hot chocolate with marshmallows (obviously they had some chocolate, sugar and vanilla and a few other staples).

Bob is very impressed. Obviously the marshmallows helped.

So what's the point of all this, now, in 2010?

1. Have some sort of easy, long-lasting food put by, both for major-major emergencies like ice storms, and for more everyday last-minute meals. Your shelf doesn't have to include pimiento or capers or preserved kumquats. What will you and your family actually eat? Years ago tofu was our after-work-fast-meal standby, but since then some of the Squirrels have found they can't eat soy, so that's off the list. Be creative, but also realistic: if your kids like canned baked beans with sliced wieners, then do that. Add in a few carrot sticks and call it a meal. Not everything requires butter sauce. Or marshmallows. If it's peanut butter sandwiches, eat it with thanks, and plan better for next time.

2. Bettina points out that they got better deals on their canned goods by buying in larger amounts. It's the same now. Stock up on staples when or where they're cheapest for you. Brenda says that she buys lots of her favourite canned tomatoes when they're on sale. (Brenda is always a great source of pantry inspiration.)

3. Don't be rummaging through recipes when dinner has to be on the table in twenty minutes. Have a few things you know how to make really quickly--like eggs, or salmon patties, or hot sandwiches. But when you do have time, do a little research. Look for inexpensive, pantry-friendly, adaptable recipes. Student cookbooks are often a good source.
4. Bettina sets great store on having things "nice"--hence the pimiento, the toast strips, the butter sauce. The marshmallows. Not to mention her trim percale bungalow apron. In later chapters she also manages to have some kind of flowers or fruit on the table for decoration. Now I do not wear aprons, and I hardly ever put flowers on the table--bringing the outside in is not always a good idea for Mr. Fixit's allergies. But there are other ways to make even a quick meal a little better than just "the ordinary." What can you add for "some little surprise," as Charlotte Mason suggested? Sometimes I find something nice on sale--shelf-stable juice, chow mein noodles, a box of cherry tomatoes--and I save it till we need a little extra touch with dinner. Leftover pumpkin doughnuts or something like that add a little humour, if perhaps too much sugar, to the breakfast table.

5. Enjoy the people you're eating with. That's why Bob and Bettina are such a cute couple.

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