Ellen Clifford
May 30, 2014 2:21 pm

I read cookbooks like they are fine literature, and this lil‘ gem, originally published in 1887, is worthy of special attention. Let’s start with the title page. Heck let’s start with the title: The White House Cook Book. That sounds simple enough, but then there are the subtitles. And then the subtitles have subtitles. They could have used some hashtags. Or perhaps a drinking game? Every time you see a subtitle you do a shot.

Brevity is not the soul of wit in this subtitled “Comprehensive Cyclopedia of Information For the Home” which contains the further subtitle of “Cooking, toilet and household recipes, menus, dinner-giving table etiquette, care of the sick, health suggestions, facts worth knowing, etc.” Ahh, yes! The ol’ Cyclopedia, Wiki’s long-lost ancestor.

It was written by F.L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, the “steward of the white house” and is indeed White House-ish. Between recipes and handy household tips (prevent your lamp-wicks from smoking!), it is filled with charming portraits of the first ladies. But the best part of this book is the wording. Unlike our cookbooks these days, which usually use a format of an ingredient list followed by directions, and standardized measurements, these recipes are written like little essays. I actually wish modern cookbooks did that. It is much more fun to read a verbose recipe that ends simply with “Very good,” or begins with “I find those who partake of it never fail to speak in laudable terms of the superior excellence of this recipe when strictly followed.” I’m going to work “superior excellence” into my writing more.

Beyond basic food recipes, you can learn all sorts of good stuff, such as the cure for “leanness.” I thought I knew that one already: The Cheesecake Factory. Duh. But no, the method for fattening up includes needing to “cultivate jolly people, and bathe daily.”

Most importantly, I learned of chervil that “No man can be a true epicure who is unfamiliar with this excellent herb”.

The recipes, eloquently written as they are, are sometimes challenging for the modern cook. There are the inconsistent measurements, the vague instructions, and the ingredients that you never knew of-although apparently Irish moss is readily available. I had a few fails. The recipe for mulled jelly was comprehensible. It consisted of whisking jelly and an egg white together, pouring boiling water over them then crumbling crackers into the mix. That was in the food for “invalids” section. I think maybe they meant food to make people into invalids.

There were some real winners in here too. The recipe for a cheese sandwich was absolutely scrumptious. I needed to adapt it for the modern cook so I am giving you my more easily translated version of the recipe using foods we humans of the future have around. You cannot fail with foods involving cheese, for it is a product of superior excellence. Oh yes it is.

Cheese Nibbles adapted from the cheese sandwich recipe in The White House Cookbook by Hugo Ziemann and Mrs. F. L. Gillette

  • 1 hard-boiled egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp. melted butter (which I was out of, horrors, so I used Smart Balance)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. brown mustard
  • 4 slices of sharp cheddar (3-4 ounces) cut up quite tiny
  • 1/2 Tbsp. H2O
  • 1/3 Tbsp. sherry wine vinegar
  • Rye crackers

Thoroughly mix yolk and butter. Mix in cheese, salt, pepper and mustard. Mix sherry wine vinegar and water then stir into the rest. Put on rye crackers. Egggg-cellent. And superior.

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