The more I hear about all of the new, improved ways to preserve and prepare the food we eat, as well as the cosmetics and toiletries we use on our bodies, the more nostalgic I grow for the good old days. I decided to consult the housekeeping book used by my great grandmother, Nellie Richardson Clizbe. People must have led healthier lives, in harmony with nature, before we started cloning livestock and genetically engineering potatoes and manuacturing carcinogetic plastics and super potent pesticides, fungicides and antibiotics. Right?
Or maybe not.
Nellie's housekeeping book was published in 1888. Its title is too long to print here in its entirety, but here is an abbreviated version:
Dr. CHASE'S/third, Last and Complete/RECEIPT BOOK/ and Household Physician,/PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE FOR THE PEOPLE, From/the Life-Long Observations of the Author, Embracing the Choicest, Most Valuable, and Entirely New Receipts in Every Department of Medicine, Mechanics, and Household Economy, including a Treatise on THE DISEASES OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN...
As I look through the 800-page volume, which is literally falling to pieces, I see that Dr. Chase did not exaggerate. He covered everything: raising and butchering sheep, hogs (Berkshires the best) and poultry, training horses, beekeeping, cleaning and laundering, making ink, cement (glue) and sealing wax, treatment of diseases in the home and barnyard, dyeing and bleaching hair, and more.
Do you raise chickens? Here's a tip: "Eggs that will produce pullets are smooth on the ends; while those that produce the roosters have a zigzag mark or quirk on one end. "
Newspaper clippings, notes and handwritten recipes, as well as a pressed four-leaf clover, stuck between the pages make it clear that Nellie referred often to this book, particularly, I think, for the cookery recipes. For a time she ran a boarding house outside Detoit. Nellie apparently prided herself on her pickles.
One problem with these recipes, or "receipts," whether from Nellie, one of her friends, or Dr. Chase himself, is the implicit assumption that the reader already knows how to do everything. Shortcuts, like " use as much flour as it would take," or "add the usual amount of water," render the instructions very mysterious. Units of measure tend to be random: a lump of butter the size of a hazelnut, or, the size of a goose egg.
I'm sure that the recipes for pickles and certain other dishes are as good as or better than any we are likely to find today. I do take issue, though, with the boiling times suggested for various vegetables, in many cases two hours or longer. It's a wonder there was anything left to bring to the table.
Recipes for many medicines call for laudenum, paragoric, or some other opiate no longer available over the counter of the local pharmacy.
Shampoo and hair restoration recipes often required lead in various forms, such as "sugar of lead," or strong chemicals. Depilatories made with lye and arsenic carry Dr. Chase's warning: "I tell all, however, better let the hair grow, than to try to destroy the follicles, as this would requre to keep on the mixture till it would make a sore, equal to a bad burn."
Soap recipes call for unslacked lime and sal-soda, while perfume recipes require ambergris and civet cat musk, ingredients not readily obtained today.
A farmer planted two or three flax seeds in every hill of potatoes for 10 years, "the bugs not attacking his potatoes at all, while his neighbors were overrun with them." Another farmer got good results by planting his potatoes under straw instead of dirt. Michael Pollan, who wrote in his wonderful book "The Botany of Desire" about Monsanto's trademark NewLeaf potato, genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide, might be interested in comparing Dr. Chase's methods.
The sickroom entries made me sorry for our forebears and thankful for modern medicine. Our ancestors poisoned themselves in their own ways.
Some passages are entertaining.
"Currie Powder, as made in India: As to the roasting of the coriander seeds, I should not, nor should I use the fenugreek. We use it only in horse medicines in this country, so far as I know. The poppy-seed I should not care to use either; They may do for East Indians, who eat so much opium, but should not want them in mine."
Never mind that we Americans were very free with the opiates ourselves at this point in our history.
Have a good week!