Peptonized gruel

Peptonized gruel

There were plenty of young invalids in the classic novels of my childhood. Poor, long-suffering Beth in Little Women! Plucky Judy in Seven Little Australians! At least the Secret Garden’s Colin enjoyed a better fate. My favourite, Katy Carr of What Katy Did, was confined to bed permanently after a fall – if only she’d listened when Aunt Izzy told her not to use the swing!

Based on these books, being an invalid seemed almost a romantic fate. You languished in your sick room while people brought you food on trays. I certainly never thought about what happened to those without servants or relatives to bring them trays. Not every Tiny Tim had a reformed Scrooge benefactor.

Recipes for the ill and recuperating were standard inclusions in cookery advice up until the middle of last century. Mrs Beeton, for example, has an entire section on invalid cookery. Many books were written on the subject by nurses. After all, it was only practical: from time to time, chances were your household had to cater for an extended convalescence, especially in times before the miracles of antibiotics, childhood vaccination programs, health insurance and aged care services.

A lot of the recipes feel like good common sense. Custards and jellies, teas and broths, all served up with instructions for presenting food ‘daintily’ to stimulate the depressed appetite. Some foods are bland and easy to swallow and digest, others nourishing and fortifying, drawing on long cultural traditions of food to comfort and heal the ill (like chicken soup, the ‘Jewish penicillin’).

But some recipes and practices sit less easily in my twenty-first century gullet. I guess we’re all products of our history and culture when it comes to food taste, smell and texture. The ones I find particularly hard to swallow follow some common themes:

Cold soupy water

I’m sure the priority must often have been simply to get some nutrients into a very sick patient. Soup and broth make perfect sense for that. So does gruel, a very thin porridge made with oats or barley. (I thought gruel was what they gave you in a Dickensian work house, but apparently not.) These would all have been served hot.

But rice water and toast water sound less appetising. You made them by soaking the main ingredient in cold water, then straining off the liquid to feed the patient. Essentially cold, starchy water. Similarly, there’s raw beef tea, where you shred and soak raw beef for a few hours. In that case, I would’ve thought there was a serious that risk the cure could have been much worse than whatever ailed you.

Not so ‘plain’

Even at the start of the 1900s, I don’t think many would have considered tripe, eel or oysters to be universally inoffensive flavours. And yet they all feature as dishes considered quite appealing and easy on the digestion for the ill.

I really don’t think any invalid would thank you for bringing those in on the tray, no matter how daintily presented.

Coddling and curdling

I’m a bit thingy about food texture and even these words make me feel a little queasy. There are plenty of invalid recipes that involve raw-ish eggs, or concoctions that get the digestion process underway before it even hits your stomach, like curds and whey or junket. I suppose that was sometimes helpful so long as your ailment wasn’t nausea.

‘Coddling’ is the quintessential cookery for invalids, so much so that the term (which dates back to seventeenth century Anglo-French) also means treating someone like an invalid. To coddle an egg, you cook it very gently in water below boiling point, presumably often producing a barely cooked egg.

Other recipes call for adding a raw egg to milk or a tablespoon of alcohol to sustain the patient. Imagine knocking that back like a shot in your sickbed.

There was a lot of concern for the weak and delicate digestive system. And for these there was ‘peptonized’ food. Mrs Beeton supplies recipes for peptonized gruel, beef tea, milk and soup, which all involved adding a substance called ‘liquor pancreaticus’. The idea was that peptonizing started the digestive process so it was easier on the invalid’s system. Turns out liquor pancreaticus was an extract of pancreatic secretions. I don’t fancy Googling how it was obtained. But there were various brands around, including Bengers, which boasted its benefits as a ‘self-digestive’ food.

22 Jun 1940 Advertising Trove
Mmmm, the self-digestive food. The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 June 1940, (National Library of Australia)

In some ways Mrs Beeton and her peers are nineteenth-century versions of current wellness bloggers, who like to talk about food as medicine. They were just drawing on earlier sensibilities about what benefited us. Perhaps Mrs Beeton would feel the same way about kombucha that I feel about some of her recipes.

Katy Carr’s ending was much happier than many of her fictional invalid peers. She eventually recovered and walked again, after a chapters-long stint in a darkened sickroom, and some hard life lessons about becoming a cheerful and deserving patient.

Maybe I shouldn’t discount a possible key motivational aspect of the nineteenth century invalid diet … how do we know Katy’s miracle recovery wasn’t aided by a desire to never again face jellied eel, coddled eggs or peptonized gruel?

Mortgage lifter

Mortgage lifter

It’s Sunday evening, and still over 30 degrees after dinnertime. Looking at the weather forecast, it’s probably the last day we’ll get like this before autumn gets real. That solid warmth hangs low  and thick with the late sun, gentler than Summer days in spite of what the thermometer says.

It’s perfect weather for sustaining a late-season burst of produce: still plenty of tomatoes and basil, maybe a few last cucumbers, and zucchinis sneakily bolting into marrows the second you look away.

If you want solid proof that home-grown veggies are worth the effort, late tomatoes are it. Their off-the-vine freshness, ripeness and sweetness can’t even be compared to shop-bought. (The other gardener in our house would argue that sweetcorn is the ultimate convincer for the home gardener, but a still-warm heirloom variety tomato, juicy and rich, can’t really be beaten.)

I’m a tomato grower in recovery. At our last home, tomato cultivation had devolved into a thoroughly depressing battle with harlequin beetles. Those sap-sucking little terrorists had destroyed so many crops that I’d given up on anything other than cherry-style tomato breeds which seemed a bit hardier. When we arrived at our new place, just as this tomato season started, we found the previous owners had left us some healthy tomato bushes and no bugs. A tomatoey clean slate. (Actually I’m now fighting an invading rat for the last of the crop, but a change is as good as a holiday.)

I’m not sure of their variety – something fairly hardy and versatile. My parents are long-time tomato growers of a hybrid called ‘health kick’, a paste-style bred specifically for its high levels of the antioxidant lycopene.  This year my dad also picked up some mystery tomato seedlings for 25 cents each at a fete. He’s already had enough of a crop to make these an absolute bargain. I think they’re probably  ‘Mortgage Lifters‘, a variety that dates back to Depression-era America.

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Mortgage Lifter (I think)

There are a couple of stories about how  Mortgage Lifters came to be, but both versions involve a bloke from West Virginia creating a hybrid which was a prolific enough cropper to make a dent in the mortgage. I don’t think the idea was that growing them would knock off your mortgage, but they obviously made a bit of money for their inventor.

Mortgage Lifter seeds were available in Australia by the late 1930s, and in 1941 a Weekly Times article recommended it as an ideal variety for backyard gardens. These tomatoes start quite pink before they fully ripen. Soft and sweet, but not overly seedy or juicy, they’re best suited to fresh eating. A top sandwich tomato.

Tomatoes have been a backyard Australian staple from colonial times, and one of their real beauties is that the surplus can be transformed to serve year-round. In the earliest newspapers you find recipes for tomato sauce, ketchup (I’m not clear what the difference was), jam, pickles, green tomato preserves and chutney.

I’m not much of a bottler or sauce maker, but this pasta sauce is my favourite way of using up surplus tomato crops, and if you freeze it you’ve got it for the winter.

Roast tomato and garlic pasta sauce

This is more a method than a recipe, in the spirit of  the ‘recipes’ you find in old newspapers and cookbooks that trust you , the cook, to make sensible judgements. Use as many tomatoes as you have, choose the right size tray for the number of tomatoes, and cook until they’re done. That’s it.

Use any variety of tomato you like, but firmer roma styles work particularly well. The riper the tomato, the tastier the sauce. Less ripe, shop-bought tomatoes will still make a decent sauce, but it will be more acid and maybe a bit insipid. Adding some roast piquillo peppers from a jar or a tablespoon of tomato paste at the blending can give you a richer and sweeter result.

Halve or quarter tomatoes and remove cores. Place them in a tray or shallow casserole dish in a single layer. You want them to fit snugly, so I select my dish according to how many tomatoes I have.   Tuck a few (4-5) unpeeled garlic cloves  in among the tomato pieces.  4-5 cloves of garlic may sound like a lot, but garlic cooked in its skin is much milder and sweeter, so don’t be afraid. And you can add them to your taste into the final sauce, so you’re not committed at roasting time.

Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes, grind a good amount of black pepper over, and sprinkle on a little salt if you like. If you have some thyme or oregano you can strew some of that around.

Bake in a moderate oven for at least 45 mins, until they’re soft and a little caramelised. How long this takes depends a lot on the type and ripeness of the tomato. It could take over an hour.

When the tomatoes are done, remove the tray from the oven. Take the garlic cloves out and squeeze them out of their skins. Blend the tomatoes, peeled garlic (to taste) and any juices from the pan until smooth. Make sure you scrape down and add all the caramelised bits from the pan. Check seasoning. You can add a bit of fresh basil at this stage if you like.

Serve with your favourite pasta, or freeze for later.

Ice treats

Ice treats

There’s been a bit of a hiatus at Rhubarb Sago, while we moved house.

We’re now in a Geelong suburb settled in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Out walking, I came across this sign on the wall of an old shop front. It’s hard to be sure, but I reckon it could date back to the 1930s based on the prices and products. It’s easy enough to work out what ice cream wafers and milk and fruit blocks are, but the the ‘Kelvees’ at the top of this list were a mystery. So I did a bit of searching.

In December 1933 ‘A new deal for the hot weather‘ in the Adelaide Advertiser anounced the arrival of the Kelvee.

For relief from summer heat people look for something new at small cost to meet the times. This want is being filled admirably by Kelvinator owners who have been equipped and licensed by Mechanical Products Limited for the manufacture of Kelvee Hygienic Fruit Blocks, a frozen confection made to proved recipes.

(You’ve got to hand it to 1930s advertising, co-opting Franklin’s 1933 New Deal for advertising ice confection.)

So a shopkeeper with a shiny new Kelvinator could freeze their own flavoured ice blocks on site, and the result was a Kelvee. Commercial Kelvinators also came with ‘beverage arms’ to serve icy cold drinks.  You can imagine that in the early thirties a machine like this was probably a licence to print money in the Australian summer. Although the article’s claims that local sales of up to 3000 Kelvees a day could be achieved still seems a bit ambitious.

Based on newspaper advertising, the Kelvee doesn’t appear to have travelled very far outside South Australia, or much beyond the 1930s, in spite of clearly making it to at least one Geelong shop. I guess it was only a Kelvee if you had a Kelvinator – otherwise it was probably just an ice block. Plenty of shops were making those by the mid-1930s, and children were lapping them up.

The ad’s emphasis on ‘hygienic’ makes sense when you remember that local shopkeepers were making these ice blocks in their own premises to their own recipes, and many people felt food adulteration was a worry. In 1936, a string of east coast country newspapers reported that some children had been made sick when Perth shop keepers froze half pennies into ice blocks to attract sales. The local Perth account of the same incident suggests the coins weren’t the culprits, but the fact the report did the rounds in the east suggest people were susceptible to worry about what went into in-shop produced foods. Or maybe that Perth was simply far enough away and foreign enough for it to be believable.

As the thirties progressed more families had their own refrigerators, and recipes for making your own fruit and milk ice blocks were being published.

But really, 80 years later, nothing still beats the home made ice block made in your freezer with lemon cordial, does it?

Ever hot-ish

Ever hot-ish

We loved baking on the weekend, and Mum was happy for us to do it, but there was always this caveat: ‘you’ll have to get the oven hot first’.

I learned to cook on our 30-year old farm wood combustion stove. That’s it pictured above, just before it was replaced in the 1990s. It taught me some excellent skills for a cook , like patience, resourcefulness, and never to attempt sponge cakes.

The stove was installed in 1953 when my grandparents bought our farm. The previous owners had a six-month old Aga 4-oven stove, but things had got tight financially, and it was sold up with other assets before they left the farm. For 278 pounds according to the local paper. My grandparents installed the less glamorous Everhot – probably for a lot less than 278 pounds. Considering it survived forty years, I reckon they got their money’s worth.

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Everhot advertisement, Kilmore Free Press, 18 November 1954

Modern gas or electric stoves are tools to enable cooking: wood ovens are more of a lifestyle you have to plan your cooking around.

Every morning started with emptying the previous day’s ash and lighting the fire. The only times it wasn’t lit were the handful of diabolically hot summer days, or if we were away from home for a whole day or more. Even then the first thing you did when you came home was check the fire. Because until it was going, nothing else could happen.

The winter I turned 11, my Mum was heavily pregnant and I took it on myself to get up early on cold mornings and light the fire before she got up. (By the way, it even snowed that winter.) There was a bit of a satisfying Zen art to it in the early morning quiet – getting the right ratio of kindling to newspaper, letting just enough air through the bottom grate to feed the flame, and finding the exact moment to drop the first log of wood in so you wouldn’t smother the nascent flame. I’m ashamed to say there wasn’t enough Zen in it to make my 11 year old self continue the gesture after my brother was born.

Wood combustion stoves offer comforts that gas or electricity can’t give you, like a permanently near-boiling kettle ready to provide cups of tea at a moment’s notice. Or the cosy compartment for your explorer-socked feet after a cold return from milking.

My aunt finesses her newer wood stove just as a musician plays a well-loved instrument, knowing precisely how to tweak it to produce the temperature she needs. Sadly, our old Everhot was not so easily tuned.  Managing temperature was more like tarot reading than music. In theory we had ‘slow’, ‘moderate’ and ‘hot’, but these were completley notional, and the gauge wasn’t to be trusted anyway. If you piled the wood on, would it be hot enough for what you needed in half an hour? An hour? And how long would it stay that way?

But you learned the work-arounds. Waiting for a saucepan of cold water to boil was a rookie error – you always used water from the already hot kettle. And you planned well ahead for white sauce. I recall stirring it for so long I thought my arm would fall off before it thickened.

Biscuits or buttercake? Quite doable with preparation and a wide margin for error. A sponge cake? Not under any circumstances. Dinner in a hurry? Get the electric frypan out. Keeping someone’s dinner hot without ruining it? Ideal.

A long, slow roast, in the oven half the day? Perfection.

You played to your strengths and rolled with the conditions you had on a given day. Cooking with our stove was bit of an art – even part meditation. You just needed the time. And then, we generally did.

Curried favour

Curried favour

This was going to be a post about eggs,  but  I got distracted by curry.

It happened like this. When you start fossicking around newspapers in Trove for egg recipes, curried eggs feature pretty heavily, right back to the late nineteenth century. While my experience of curried egg mainly involves sandwich fillings, these recipes largely involve a curry sauce sauce coating sliced hardboiled eggs.

In fact if you believe newspaper recipes from the first half of last century, Australians were willing to curry just about anything: rabbit, beef, lamb, tongue, tripe, cheese, macaroni, sardines, celery, oysters and even peaches get the curry treatment. (Let’s remember a good, strong curry sauce could spice up the glut ingredient you’d already eaten in every other possible form over months, and disguise meat on the turn.)

Curry’s early popularity in Australia makes perfect sense, given the spread of the British Empire diaspora.  According to Kate Colquhoun’s Taste, Hannah Glasse published a recipe for ‘Currey the India Way’ in her 1747 English cookbook, and from there on curry flavours became more and more popular through Regency and Victorian times.

In spite of the occasional recipe that seems more authentic to our modern understanding (like this 1911 one with red lentils – basically a dhal), early 20th century curry often involved sweet ingredients like sultanas (why oh why?), banana, or apple. Some recipes even included jam. That’s the sort of curry we children of the 1970s recognise.

Keen’s curry

Although it’s part of a wider Empire tradition, Australia’s curry tradition is also distinctive. The curry powder we had in our 1970s cupboard was always Keen’s, originally a Tasmanian brand. After migrating from England in 1842,  Joseph Keen ran a bakery, grocery and postmaster near Hobart. He and his wife, Annie Burrows manufactured their own sauces and spice mixes, including their prize-winning curry powder.

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The Keen family liked a minimalist advertising style (Tasmanian News, 20 May 1898, Trove, National Libary of Australia)

We all usually had Keen’s mustard too. But did you know that these two products had completely unrelated histories until the 1950s? Keen’s mustard dates back to 1740s England. Reckitt & Colman, who made Keen’s mustard in Australia, bought the formula rights to Keen’s curry in 1954, and they’ve both been owned by McCormick Food since 1998.

A curry recipe

Of course now we’d be more likely to roast and grind our own spices for a curry, or buy a paste. And we’d first check if it’s a Thai curry or Indian,  Sri Lankan or Malaysian. The days of curry just being curry are long gone.

Unless we’re talking curried eggs. You don’t really need a recipe, but here’s how I do mine. Like many foods of childhood, people have mixed feelings about curried egg, but in my view you can’t beat a classic.

You need some mayo to stick things together, but not so much that you overpower the flavour.  On the other hand, you need a solid hit of curry or else what’s the point?

Curried egg sandwiches

Serves 2.

  • 4 slices of bread, buttered
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp mayonnaise
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon of curry powder of your choice (to taste)
  • a few chives, snipped
  • lettuce

Hard boil the eggs. When cooled, peel and mash the eggs. Add mayonnaise, curry powder, chives and salt, stir well. Butter the bread, and layer egg evenly then add lettuce. Sit back and relive your childhood.

 

 

 

Golden syrup

Golden syrup

The Italians make a biscuit called “brutti ma buoni”  – ugly but good. This describes the golden syrup dumpling perfectly.

In spite this blog’s name I’m not much of a sweet tooth. But a recent wintry weekend and a visit home from the uni student demanded a warm and substantial dessert. So golden syrup dumplings it was. They’re affectionately called GSDs in our house.

Golden syrup dumplings are an enriched dough baked in a sweet caramel sauce. Don’t try to make them dainty, because GSDs aren’t about aesthetics. They’re in the class of food designed for filling and warming, cheaply and simply, with ingredients you had on hand. Stick-to-your-ribs satisfaction.

Golden syrup is a type of treacle, a by-product of the sugar refining process.  Australians have used it since at least the 1840s. Golden syrup was originally imported, but as the Australian sugar industry developed, so did golden syrup manufacturing. It was made in Melbourne at the Colonial Sugar Refinery’s Yarraville factory (still owned by CSR) and at the iconic Melbourne biscuit maker Swallow and Ariell’s Port Melbourne factory.

Promoted as a substitute for sugar or even eggs when they were scarce, golden syrup featured in recipes for puddings, tarts and sponges. Of course, arguably the most famous use of golden syrup in Australian cookery is the Anzac biscuit.

Golden syrup tins were nearly as versatile as the ingredient. They were used during the wars for sending comfort ingredients to troops, and in the aftermath of World War 2 for sending fat to resource-starved Britain.

This 1936 instruction for making a cake tin with golden syrup and petrol tins sounds a bit complicated. Not sure about the effect of the petrol tin on the cakes.

My grandmother had her own ingenious recycling solution – she made them into stilts for us kids by punching holes in the tins and looping some bailing twine through as handles.

Becasue we only make GSDs once every year or two, the first step in the process is always remembering where the best recipe is. Our family pudding-making expert had clearly found the Cookery the Australian Way version unsatisfactory before and didn’t want to make the same mistake again:

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So the Weekly Times new pioneer cookbook it was. The recipes were sent in by readers, and the golden syrup dumplings one is a pretty straight match for those I’ve found in Weekly Times editions from the 30s and 40s. Thank you, Mrs Edna Moores of Murrumbeena, for setting us right.

There are different schools of thought on whether you boil GSDs on the stove top or bake in the oven. The family pudding-maker is of the baking school, so he veers from Mrs Moores at that point.

Transcribing the recipe, I was suprised to see that there is only 1 tablespoon of golden syrup – the sugar does most of the work. A bit late to realise that, given I’ve made golden syrup the whole basis of this post. A little bit goes a long way, I guess.

Don’t let that put you off. They’re ugly but very, very good.

Golden syrup dumplings

Dough

  • 1 cup self-raising flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tbsn butter
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsn milk

Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsn butter
  • 1 tbsn golden syrup

Sift the flour and salt and rub in the butter. Mix with the beaten egg and milk to make a reasonably dry dough.

Take small pieces of dough, about the size of a walnut, and roll in balls. Combine the syrup ingredients and heat until boiling. Add the dumplings, cover and cook gently for 15 minutes. [We heat the sauce ingredients and place in a baking dish with the dumplings, then bake, covered, in the oven till … golden.]

Serve with custard, cream or ice cream.

 

 

Toast

Toast

One of my favourite childhood memories is of waking up at my grandparents’ house when we stayed in school holidays.

Tucked under our flannelette sheets up the cold end of the house, we could hear the door to the kitchen open (it had a distinctive creak). From that door came the signals of early morning: the radio on the local station, the door of the wood stove grating as it was opened and closed, Grandma moving around. Light, warmth.

And the smell of toast.

Like my parents, my grandparents were dairy farmers. Before Grandpa and my uncles went out to milk, Grandma would make them tea and toast, which was eaten sitting round the wood stove.

She cooked the toast at the fire compartment of the stove, holding the bread right up to the flames with a dinner fork. (Grandma had asbestos hands. The washing-up water she used would take your skin off.) She owned an electric toaster, and used it at breakfast later in the morning, but the early morning toast was always made on the fire. Grandma would spread the cooked toast with butter and then lay it in an enamel dish in the oven to keep warm.

That toast was the best tasting food in the world. Warm smokiness, infused with salty melted butter, all mingled with the pleasure of the child who had managed to wake up in time to be included in this adult workday rite.

Food memories are often as much about the ritual and feelings evoked as the food itself.

The simplest of foods, toast barely scrapes (sorry) into the definition of ‘cooking’. But it holds a special comfort-food status for many, even in an age where wheat and carbs don’t work for everyone.

The nature of toast really doesn’t change, except maybe for the cooking utensil. In 1911, Australians are already starting to read about toasting machines among the wonders that could be used in the new ‘electrified’ homes. By 1915, electric toasters are being advertised.

And yet even now it’s still better when cooked over a fire.

Toast is the food of beginnings. Of breakfast at the start of the day. The first food we’re trusted to prepare on our own as children. It’s what we want to eat when we’re feeling sick, or too tired to cook. It’s why Australians lug tubes of Vegemite overseas.

And so, a toast. To toast.