It was the year 1917. Woodrow Wilson was elected to serve his second term as President of a country at war – World War I. The average income was $800 per year, and the average home cost about $6,000. A well-managed home contained all the comforts a modern family could need: plumbing and electricity, a telephone with long-distance capability, a vacuum cleaner, a gas oven, and a phonograph. Women wore shorter dresses now – their skirts hit just above the ankle – and light face powder, rouge for the lips and cheeks, and eyeliner were most fashionable. Ice cream socials were all the rage, as was going to the cinema to see the silent Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. A movie ticket cost seven cents. Popular music of the era reflected the wartime; George Cohan’s “Over There” was a patriotic hit meant to convince young men to enlist in the army. And, jazz music made its way into the mainstream; “Livery Stable Blues” by Original Dixieland Jass Band was the first jazz recording commercially released to the public.
1917 was also the year that the greatest cookbook ever was published. Okay, maybe not ever, but this book is a gem. I have yet to encounter another that combines cooking with a book of short stories and a time capsule. Meet Bettina. Bettina and her husband Bob are newlyweds, and as soon as they enter their new home, Bettina gets to work cooking and becoming the picture-perfect wife. Throughout the book, each collection of recipes is introduced by a story that teaches technique, manners, and how to handle social situations from unexpected guests to maintaining a budget to saying “no” to going out with friends, instead staying home to take on the responsibility of canning.
Not only does this book introduce recipes with a story, it also serves as a time capsule. The language, the characters, the expectations, etc. paint a clear picture of life in 1917. We can see what the life of a proper young wife was meant to be – Bettina’s sole responsibility was to keep house after she married Bob. And, that meant staying on budget, preparing the meals, calmly handling any surprises thrown her way, and teaching others to follow her lead. And, we can see how Bob, the proper man acted, too. He went to work; he provided the money; he set the budget; and, he married so that he and his home would be taken care of.
So what are we cooking? Bettina’s creamed potatoes from A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband published in 1917.
In the story preceding this recipe, Bettina’s mother invites her to the fair, though she learns that Bettina will need to prepare dinner afterward. Attending the fair and preparing dinner are too much work together. Bettina, though, assures her mother that it will not be too much, and in fact, she’s already planned a meal that could be mostly prepared in the morning. The lesson here is about preparation and time management. And, after the fair, the family eats a full meal of fried chicken, corn on the cob, peaches, chocolate cookies, milk, tea, and these potatoes.
Here are our ingredients: Russet potatoes, milk, butter, flour, cheese, salt, and pepper.
Step 1: Wash, peel, and dice up the potatoes. I diced them into bite-size pieces. Use your best judgement to determine what “bite-size” means for you!
Step 2: Boil the potatoes. Now, you want the potatoes to be cooked through so you can pierce them with a fork, but you don’t want them to get too mushy. I boiled my potatoes for about ten minutes. After they’re done boiling, drain them and let them cool.
Step 3: When the potatoes have cooled and you’re ready to prepare dinner, grate six or so tablespoons of cheese. You can use pre-shredded cheese if you want; I won’t tell Bettina if you do!
Step 4: Melt two tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan over medium-low. After it’s melted, add your flour, salt, and pepper.
Step 5: Stir together the flour mixture and the butter until you have a sort of paste. Then let it cook for around four minutes. The mixture will cook down and look like thick, wet sand. This is a roux, and since this recipe actually calls for two tablespoons of butter and three tablespoons of flour, it’ll be a little thicker than what you’d typically expect from a roux. But, the point of cooking it is to get the doughy flour taste to cook away. If you have any other questions about roux, ask a chef, not a historian!
Step 6: Once your roux has cooked for about four minutes, add in one and a half cups of milk, but do it a half cup at a time.
Step 6.1: Make sure to stir everything until it’s smooth after each half cup…
Step 6.2: …until you have a thick, creamy sauce that looks like this!
Step 7: Then, add in the cheese. Stir it until it’s creamy. At this point, too, I tasted the sauce for seasoning, and I added another 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Go with your tastes!
Step 8: Then, once you’re happy with your sauce, add in the cooled potatoes you prepared earlier. Fold them into the sauce so that they don’t break apart. And, at this point, I turned off the heat on my stove, and I let the potatoes warm through!
Final step: Plate up a big, creamy helping of these next to some baked chicken… or, you know, whatever else you made for dinner. Sprinkle some pepper on top – I did it just because I thought it made them prettier. You don’t have to. No pressure!
Think about Bettina. Bettina wasn’t real, of course, but she represents millions of women who did exist in 1917. And, she was created to “teach” them how to be proper. Women were expected to marry; to keep a house; to entertain guests; to cook meals with side dishes, desserts, and drinks; to be role models; to be thrifty and not to waste; to teach other women the right way to do things; and, as the title of this cookbook suggests, to please their husband. Bettina wasn’t expected (or maybe even allowed) to have a career, go to college, drive a car, or even vote. And, this cookbook shows us that this was all proper; it was right; and, it was expected.
My life is very different from Bettina’s. I’ve work; I’m a PhD student; I drive; I vote; I almost never serve dessert, and we often eat meals without side dishes. But, it was the Bettinas that set the motion for change. It was the Bettinas that realized they could do more. It was the Bettinas who wanted their daughters and granddaughters to have what they didn’t or couldn’t. And, now, we do. I’m glad the Bettinas came before us. I’m glad they stood up and spoke out. And, I’m glad we have this book to look at to remind us of how different life was – and these potatoes that serve as a delicious link to history, which tells and shows us why things change.
From 1917: Creamed Potatoes
- 2 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 Tbs. butter
- 3 Tbs. flour
- 3/4-1 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. pepper
- 1.5 cups milk
- 6 Tbs. grated cheddar cheese
- Boil the potatoes for about ten minutes, or until they are easily pierced with a fork. Do not overcook. Cool.
- Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.
- Add flour, salt, and pepper. Whisk to combine. Cook for three to four minutes, or until mixture looks like thick, wet sand.
- Slowly add in milk one half cup at a time. Stir until smooth after each addition.
- Add in cheese and allow to melt. Adjust seasoning.
- Fold in cooked potatoes and allow to warm through.