Lifestyle

TOP O' THE MORN

We are fortunate to have Mina B. Neil’s cookbook, dated 1909 and titled “Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’ Cook Book.” It is a heavy bound volume, with her recipe for Brown Bread written in pencil on the fly-leaf.

Mrs. Curtis was born and spent her childhood in Scotland. She told how baking day in Scotland was very different from baking day in America.

No yeast-raised bread was made, no cakes, cookies, pies or doughnuts. Twice a week a Scots housewife piles a tray full of crisp oatcakes baked on a griddle then dried on a little hanging shelf in front of a red peat fire.

There is a batch of puffy scones, also griddle baked, but no sweet stuff. The Scottish woman does not know the secret of bread making, she says, for loaf bread, as it is called, comes from bakeshops.

When Isobel Gordon Curtis read American stories which told of baking days in a farmhouse kitchen and luscious things coming from a brick oven, she longed to be in the thick of it, not so much to eat as to cook.

Some Canadian cousins visited the Curtis family in Scotland and Isobel listened eagerly to their descriptions of baking, especially that of yeast bread. When her mother left with them for a few days of sightseeing, she determined to try her hand at making bread.

With her savings she bought 10 pounds of flour and a cup of yeast, “barm” as it is called in Scotland. She mixed the dough and kneaded it until her arms ached, then placed the loaves in pans. One things he missed: the rising process.

The pans went into an oven as hot as she could make it. The loaves baked and baked while she kept the stove at a roaring heat.

The loaves never rose, and hours later Isobel took them from the oven, heavy and dark with a crust that would resist an axe.

She knew she had to hide them, and thought of the wash house. It had a queer little attic which nobody entered because the entrance was a hole opening from the wide chimney. She climbed on the rough cobble stones up the wall and rolled her loaves into the dim recesses of the attic.

Years later the wash house was demolished by a windstorm and found among the debris were her loaves. They were a curiosity, for she never told her secret. One old man declared they were meteorites, and his theory was looked upon as a possibility.

Sailing with her family for America, Isobel Gordon Curtis drifted into newspaper work and edited the woman’s department of a farm paper, then transferred to a city weekly. She later was on the editorial staff of Good Housekeeping, Collier’s Weekly, the Delineator, and Success Magazine.

“One thing I learned,” she said, “is that as wide as our continent is, there is interest in the betterment of homes, in the moral influence of wholesome, well-cooked food, in simpler living and in household economy.”

Mrs. Curtis’ cookbook is high of “leftovers” ... left over potatoes, lamb leftovers, beef leftovers, fish leftovers, and left over chicken.

How to make and bake cake; how to make puff-paste; favorite dishes in famous homes, such as the homes of Mrs. Taft, Mrs. Sherman, wives of United States senators and governors; complete her book.

She tells how to make boiled coffee, afternoon chocolate — “tin spoils the flavor of cocoa” —, and raspberry vinegar.

Back to basics ... Mrs. Curtis’ book also tells how to clean feathers and fur; how to make soap; how to properly wash clothes and clean house; and how to exterminate bugs, dry clean, make sealing wax and perfume, care for the teeth; discussing heat, lighting and refrigeration.

When the day comes when the world goes back to basic procedures for survival, when electricity and television and space ships and traffic signs are no more, we will break out Mrs. Curtis’ Household Discoveries and Cookbook.

It will tide us over.

Dorothy Neil has been writing local history for more than 50 years. Her books chronicle Whidbey Island life and times.

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