WAS THERE ever a time when cooks were expected to perform as gracefully at weekday dinner--to prepare something quick and inexpensive and terrific after eight hours of working somewhere else?
Of course there was. The problem, it seems, has been around forever and so have some of the solutions. Before two-income families came along, one solution employed by our grandmothers was something called Monday washday dinner. And during World War II, other options were devised, as every householder had to deal with the lack of sugar and meat, of time and gas.
With these restraints on the food larder, one wonders what formulas wartime cooks used to prepare good quick meals that didn't cost the earth. The best way to uncover their quick-fix solutions is to hit the dusty library stacks where old women's magazines have gone to die--an adventure in itself.
These publications must be required reading for feminists to rekindle their ire . . . so much detailed advice on how to stay alluring and in the background. Certainly there is plenty of good material for social historians, but what is there for cooks?
Not much, but what's there is choice. The two magazines that still champion gracious living, House Beautiful and House & Garden, are the most fun to read. Perusing old copies is like falling backward into a soft, insulated world of social and financial security, even though a war was on.
In the advertisements, women vacuumed and washed the kitchen walls while wearing silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, little wisps of organdy aprons tied around their waists. Articles on coping without servants were numerous, with messages like, "Don't stop entertaining because the servants are gone."
Basically food was terrible, not just because of rationing, but eating evidently lacked cachet. Gardening pages outnumbered food pages six to one. Table settings, however, were sumptuous--Waterford crystal, Wedgwood plates, ornate Towle flatware and flowers, but not a morsel or crumb in sight.
The rationing appears arbitrary to contemporary eyes. You could have all the sweetbreads or calves' liver that you could eat. And "haddock," one editor informed the readers, "is quite edible." It was also free from rationing, as were cheese and canned goods.
One engaging article in House & Garden labeled as "Vulgar Victuals" its recipes for tripe, spareribs, pigs' knuckles, eel and stuffed cabbage. Such eclectic snobbery.
House & Garden also won the prize for surmounting the problems of rationing. Raise livestock in your suburban back yard, the magazine suggested. Full instructions on how to raise your own meat were crammed into a double page, with specifics on the care and feeding of your calf, lamb, pig or chicken condensed to one short column each. This home-style animal husbandry was obviously meant to take place out of view, beyond the perennial border in the garden.
"The calf can be kept indoors in a corner of your garage," the copy said confidently. Really? The flavor was Marie Antoinette playing dairymaid at Versailles. Two years later another article appeared in the same magazine, detailing the trials and tribulations of an amateur livestock farmer who had been there. Could it have been an apology from overly enthusiastic editors?
While the women's magazines ran the gamut from the gracious living espoused by House Beautiful to the down-home sensibilities promoted by Good Housekeeping, the recipes in these publications remained monotonously the same. Each magazine extended a pound of ground beef with quick oatmeal and water; each had quick skillet dishes that always featured three-quarters of a pound of ground meat, a can of tomatoes and elbow macaroni.
An entire cuisine revolved around canned soups teamed one or two at a time with ingredients like canned chicken or tuna. One winner took a can of mock turtle soup and a can of spaghetti, layered them in a buttered casserole and baked the mess for 20 minutes.
Canned corned beef was also popular. The magazine editors used it as a bare canvas, enthusiastically slathering it with cheese, wine or herbs. And anything you could get past the teeth went into the corned beef hash. Other dishes emerged from cans as well--Spam Roladen, Spam Chili. Honestly.
None of this sounds helpful today. Home-grown livestock could be considered, but rabbits only. Mother Earth News suggests that anyone with a back yard as big as a queen-size bed could raise them. It's a thought to file away if drastic action becomes necessary.
In the meantime, the only World War II recipe that you might consider worth repeating is Pink Bunny, sometimes called Pink Poodle. The quantity of cheese takes it out of the thrifty category, but it sure is quick.
The minestrone depends on cans of cannellini (white kidney beans) and tomatoes. The other ingredients are fresh and go together in 45 minutes for a filling, full-flavored main dish soup. And pasta cooked in its sauce is the quickest trick of all -- it must be eaten to be believed.
PINK BUNNY (4 small servings) 1 small onion, minced 1 tablespoon flour 1/4 cup dry red wine 10-ounce can cream of tomato soup 3/4 pound sharp cheddar cheese 1 egg, slightly beaten
Cook the onion in the butter in a saucepan until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and saute' gently for 2 minutes. Add wine and tomato soup. Dice the cheese into small cubes and add to the pan. Stir constantly until the cheese is melted. Add a little of the hot mixture to the beaten egg, then stir the beaten egg into the cheese until smooth. Serve immediately on toast triangles. (Or on Ritz crackers, which is authentic World War II.)
MINESTRONE WITH SAUSAGE AND GREENS (4 servings) 1/2 pound well-flavored Italian sausage, sweet, hot or combination 1 medium onion, minced 1 cup brown stock, homemade or canned 1-pound can imported plum tomatoes with juices 20-ounce can cannellini (white kidney beans), undrained 1/2 pound escarole, swiss chard or spinach Salt and pepper Grated romano cheese for serving
Saute whole sausages in 3- or 4-quart saucepan over moderate heat. When they begin to take on color (about 5 minutes), add minced onion and saute' until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes and beans and simmer for 10 minutes. Wash escarole, swiss chard or spinach and shred coarsely. Add to the soup, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 more minutes (adding extra water if needed). Remove sausages and cut in 1/2-inch slices. Return to soup and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve very hot and pass romano cheese.
ALMOST-INSTANT LINGUINE WITH EGGPLANT SAUCE (4 servings) 1 medium eggplant, about 3/4 pound 1/4 cup olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes 1/2 teaspoon rosemary 1 cup chopped tomato, fresh or canned 1/4 cup Italian olives, pitted and chopped Salt and pepper, if necessary 2 1/2 cups water 1/2 pound linguine, broken into 2-inch lengths Grated parmesan cheese
Peel and cut eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Heat oil in a large skillet with a tight lid and saute' the eggplant and garlic until eggplant is soft, about 5 minutes. Add hot pepper flakes, rosemary, tomato and olives and cook together for 2 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Add water and bring to a boil. Sprinkle in the linguine and stir, making sure that the pasta is covered with water. Cover and cook briskly for 8 minutes, checking after 5 minutes to make sure that the pasta is not sticking. Add more water if necessary. A soupy sauce at the end isn't all bad. Serve immediately in shallow soup bowls with the grated parmesan.