December 2, 2009

Greetings from 1937: NaCoBakMo, Day 5.

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:42 am by the Green-Eyed Siren

A little weary today. Very little sleep over the last few nights. The cookies and blogging are relentless (apologies for any typos, stupidity, or poor writing below, exhaustion is setting in, not good when it’s only day 5!), my house is turning into a pigsty, and I have Harry Potter wands to make (don’t ask). But the cookies go on! We’re up to $150 raised for the Irving Park Community Food Pantry, with cookies are going out to New York, Texas, Seattle, and right here in Chicago so far. Remember, donate $25 (or more, of course!) to those nice people, then send me a copy of your e-receipt at sirensyncopated at gmail dot com along with your shipping address and I’ll send you a nice box of cookies when I’m done. Mr. Unfocused and I will match donations up to $500. A batch of cookies a day until Christmas Eve or bust!

For a person who had truly terrible hearing, my grandmother was probably the best listener I ever knew. She was someone who could absolutely light up your entire world, the way she would focus on you with her whole body, and laugh, and make exasperated faces, and SING! her words at you for emphasis (but woe betide the person who make a particularly stupid or truly obnoxious suggestion).

For most of the time that our lives overlapped on this earth her hearing became increasingly dreadful, which was, I believe, a particular loss to her because she was an accomplished singer and organist. Between her poor hearing, the aging process that wobbles the voice cruelly, and the crippling arthritis which prevented her from being able to play any keyboard instrument, the sustaining energy of music was denied her in the later part of her life.

As a reasonably accomplished singer myself, I felt a particular connection to her. I think it meant something special to both of us that we were able to talk about the quirks of life as a gigging church musician, and I believe that she enjoyed hearing me sing. I only wish that I hadn’t taken so long to get really pretty good at it; she died two weeks before Unfocused Girl, our first child, was born, and my singing really didn’t come into its own until after that blessed event, so she missed knowing how the gift she bequeathed to me blossomed.

Some time after she died, my father very kindly thought to give me a couple of her old cookbooks. They date from the early days of her marriage, just before she became a mother, and they put her in such a different context for me: not as my grandma who spent most of her time in that special chair in the living room, keeping company with crossword puzzles, newspapers, and the TV Guide, but as an active young woman setting up her new household.

The most interesting of the cookbooks is a 1930s publication called Band Mother’s Cookbook, an early version of the church and community recipe collections used as fundraisers. I don’t have all of the details on who exactly published it, as the front cover is long missing, but it was an effort that came out of her hometown of Princeton, Wisconsin. Princeton wasn’t a huge place, but they were able to summon the forces to put together a pretty nice little book, professionally printed (just imagine how much it would have cost for the typesetting). Costs were covered in part by advertising in the back of the book. Princeton Produce Co., Poultry, Feeds and Supplies reminds us, “Cash Paid for Poultry, Eggs, Veal.” Buckhorn Tavern entices us with “Where Beer is Legal/Don’t Forget Those Saturday Night Lunches.” ‘THE PAL’ keeps its message succinct: it’s “The Place for the Hungry” in Princeton.


Opposite an advertisement by John P. Hotmar Hardware of Princeton, WI, for The New Jungers Range (“We Recommend Jungers Ranges Because They Are Better”), my grandmother pencilled in two recipes in her lovely early 20th century handwriting: Oatmeal Cookies From Mrs. Schmidt, Aug. 11, 1937 and Icebox Cookies. Many of the recipes she jotted down were really just lists of ingredients, not in any obvious order, with a note such as “moderate oven” at the end, and Icebox Cookies is one of those. As a result, I’ve had to do a little bit of interpretive dance around the ingredient list in order to make my best guess about what might make a good cookie.

Case in point: at the very end of the list she’s written “Cherries,” but she offers no qualification here: no information on what kind of cherries (candied? dried? maraschino?) or the quantity required. I don’t know if dried cherries would have been readily available in 1937—I suspect they might be a more recent dried fruit marketing success story—but that’s my preference, so that’s how I’m going to update it. The cookies also call for nuts, which are, as previously explained, verboten in our house. This is a cookie that seemed like it would suffer without them, though, so I’m substituting crushed pretzels. They provide that nice salty kick, as well as a little bit of crunch; combined with the cherries I think they make for quite a nice cookie. I believe that Grandma would have been OK with this, as I feel confident she would have been completely in love with Unfocused Junior and would have had no desire to send him to the hospital.

The other interesting thing about the recipe as written is that it only calls for one teaspoon of vanilla. Those proportions seemed wrong to me, until I thought about the economic conditions of 1937. My grandmother would have been perfectly willing to go a little easy on something as expensive as vanilla must have been at the time. She was not given to extravagance—but who was, almost ten years into the Great Depression? I remember looking at the pencils that sat in the pencil cup on my grandparents’ hallway desk and thinking, “Wow, those are some old pencils! Why don’t they get some new pencils?” I even have a vague awareness that I might have asked about them; this inquiry was certainly met with narrowed eyes and, “What’s wrong with those pencils?” in my grandmother’s most suspicious voice. I think about that cup of old pencils now when I look at my own jars-o’-writing-implements overflowing with pencils emblazoned with every possible decorative motif (“I know! Instead of giving out Halloween candy/Easter candy/birthday candy/4th of July candy/President’s Day candy I’ll give them PENCILS!!!”) and realize that I WILL NEVER USE ALL OF THOSE PENCILS. Yes, clearly I am destined for my own grandchildren to rudely inquire, “Hey, Old Lady, why don’t you get some new pencils?” So, to defiantly illustrate that I have a more extravagant nature than my grandmother despite my looming dotage surrounded by forty-year old pencils, I am doubling the quantity of vanilla called for in the recipe.

1937 Icebox Cookies in front of Grandma's fans of roughly the same vintage.

1937 Icebox Cookies

1 c butter
1 c white sugar
1 c brown sugar
2 eggs
2 t vanilla (live a little)
5 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1 c pretzels, crushed
1 c dried cherries, chopped

Preheat oven to 350º.

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugars until fluffy; beat in eggs. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Beat flour mixture into butter mixture. Stir in pretzels and cherries.

Drop by rounded teaspoons onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 15 minutes. Cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Makes approximately 70-80 cookies.

UPDATE: The more I learn about cookies through this insane project, the more I have come to the conclusion that this cookie dough should have been rolled into a log, refrigerated from 4 hours to overnight, then sliced up and baked. I’m not sure that such a plan would have worked with the pretzels, though. They would have been stubborn to slice. I’m OK with my misinterpretation of the recipe’s intentions because I was content with the outcome, but if you’re using nuts you’ll probably have better results with the chill-and-slice method than the drop method.



  1. The Lass said,

    I absolutely love that picture of your grandmother and what treasures those cookbooks must be for you! On a related note, Mr. Lass collects old cookbooks and has found some really touching notes tucked in among the casserole and cookie recipes over the years. And the books produced by churches or schools really do give a glimpse into the place and time of their production. They’re like little cultural time capsules.

  2. Pop and Ice said,

    Love your grandmother’s shoes! And such a saucy look!

    Those fans are awfully clean considering their age. You don’t want to see ANY of the fans at my house. Must clean before Christmas….

    I have a cookbook from the 70’s from the Junior League of Indianapolis, of which my aunt was a member. Even though it’s professionally printed and all, I love that the recipes were submitted by members and it makes it such fun to try them. My Aunt Sue died early, was barely able to be my daughter’s godmother, and I miss her every day. But I love having this cookbook she gave me. It has made a difference in my life.

  3. freshhell said,

    The entire FreshHell family jokes about the pencil gifts. “Oh look! I got a pencil!” Which brings as much joy as a rock does to Charlie Brown.

    And – they are NEVER pre-sharpened!

  4. Yes, the sharpening issue is crazy-making. So many unsharpened pencils, so little time.

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