It was the year 1892, the beginning of what would come to be called the “Gay Nineties.” It’s funny; the 1890s weren’t particularly grand for the average American – for the wealthy, yes, but not for average people. The economy suffered a nationwide depression; an influx of immigrants combined with the grueling work laborers performed created unrest in the workforce; and, for most of the decade, the country ramped up for the Spanish American War, which finally broke out in 1898. So, why are the 1890s remembered as a time of such happiness and ease?
Nostalgia. Plain and simple. You see, when the late-1920s to 1930s came along, these years brought with them the Golden Age of Hollywood. They also brought the Great Depression. So, of course, Hollywood focused on the simplicity and beauty of times gone by to entertain and soothe the public. It hearkened back to the years that most working adults were curious, carefree, hopeful children. So, Depression-era America dubbed the nostalgia-inducing 1890s the “Gay Nineties,” and they remembered the good times.
What were their memories? Charming gas lamps, street cars, and homes outfitted in rich, ornamental Victorian furniture. The fabulously exciting 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which introduced the Ferris wheel, the Pledge of Allegiance, squashed souvenir pennies, and Juicy Fruit gum. Whistling steam engines and luxurious ocean liners. American hero Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Five-cent Nickelodeon theaters. And, the Gibson Girl – the perfect model for every woman and the perfect dream for every man!
So, what are we cooking? Potato pancakes from The Reliable Cook Book published in 1892.
This recipe gave me some trouble, but the point of this blog isn’t to make a perfect recipe every time. It’s to learn, to think about the past, to imagine what it was like, and to make new memories. And, since I had a tough time, it got me thinking about my own past, back on the good times – you know, cooking with my grandma, my dad’s famous steaks, making food that did work out. Ah, nostalgia – a powerful concept that makes you feel good, even if you just have it for yesterday’s successful dinner!
So, let’s go – into the kitchen to make history!
Here are our ingredients: (Note: I halved the original recipe) Six small to medium-sized russet potatoes, one egg, flour, salt, and butter for cooking.
Step 1: Wash and peel your potatoes.
Step 2: Grate the potatoes on top of a clean dish towel. **EDIT: You’ll definitely want to use a towel you don’t mind ruining! 🙂
Step 3: Wrap up the grated potatoes in your towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. You’ll want to do this over your sink. Squeeze and squeeze, and when you think you’ve gotten everything that you possible could out, squeeze some more. Really take out any frustration you have. If you don’t have any, well you’re life is probably pretty good, and I have no advice for you – you’re on your own with squeezing your potatoes!
Step 4: Put all those squeezed potatoes in a bowl. They should be fairly dry at this point. If they start to turn red, they’re just oxidizing, and it’s no big deal. If you want more information on oxidation, ask a scientist not a historian!
Step 5: Crack open your egg in another dish, beat it a little, and add it to the bowl.
Step 6: Add your flour. Now, the [halved] recipe calls for one tablespoon, but after one tablespoon, my batter was still a little wet, so I added another. I also added the salt at this point, and I tasted until it seemed right – 1.5 tsp. Just do what you think is best. Start with a small amount of both, and add until you’re happy!
Step 7: Melt some butter in a frying pan over medium-high heat. I melted about three tablespoons.
Step 8: Scoop the batter in 1/4 cupfuls, roll them into balls, and then add them to the hot butter all at once. Then, flatten them with a spatula.
Step 9: My pan is a bit overcrowded, so it took the pancakes longer to cook than it should have. I fried them for about ten minutes, then flipped them over and cooked them for another ten. But, start checking for them to be golden brown after six or seven minutes. You don’t want them to burn!
Step 10: Once they were golden brown on both sides, I let them drain on a paper towel for a few minutes.
Final step: Plate up your pancakes next to some sausage or even just on their own. It’s totally up to you. I ate mine with sour cream, which is a fantastic option. Applesauce is good, too. Just enjoy them!
And, of course, think back. Think about the 1890s, a time in history like any other time with good moments, bad moments, inventions, discoveries, new technologies, war, peace, birth, and death. People lived these years, people like you and me and anyone else. They had stories; they had memories; they had pasts; they had futures. Their futures would take them into years where hardship and economic depression dominated. But, that toughness often gave way to nostalgia – a joy, an ease, and a coping mechanism that anyone and everyone can understand.
It’s often through nostalgia that we understand and experience history. And, that’s okay. It’s fun to remember and think about good times and simplicity. But, just don’t lose sight of the whole truth. There was hardship, too. Life’s stories are the same now as they were then, which is why we need to learn, ask questions, and remember as much as we can. Fairs and festivals, political and economic turmoil, models of fashion, labor issues, new electronics, technologies, and, of course, potato pancakes.
From 1892: Potato Pancakes
- 6 small to medium russet potatoes, washed and peeled
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1-2 Tbs. flour
- 1.5 tsp. salt, or to taste
- Butter for frying
- Sour cream or applesauce for serving
- Grate the potatoes on top of a clean dish towel.
- Wrap the potatoes in the towel and squeeze out as much water as possible.
- Place the potatoes in a mixing bowl, add egg, flour, and salt. Mix thoroughly. Adjust flour and seasoning.
- Heat butter in frying pan over medium-high heat.
- Scoop pancake batter in 1/4 cupfuls, roll into balls, add to buttered pan, flatten with spatula.
- Cook 6-7 per side, or until golden brown and crispy.
- Drain on paper towel. Serve immediately.