I really enjoy going through old patterns and old recipes. Every time I stop by a yard sale or such, I’m usually looking for old stuff people don’t value any more, like their grandmother’s recipe box, dusty old books, or pile of crochet magazines and doilies. Or handmade bedspreads that no one wants, because they acquired holes over the decades of memories and use.
To me, looking through these things is like walking back in time. I like to think about the people who held and used these things. What their stories might be. What life might have been like for them.
I probably got this trait from my Grandma Dot, who also hung onto little unsung treasures from generations of our own family. When family passed away, while it seemed other relatives were always interested in whatever furniture and such, my grandma was the one who couldn’t bear to toss out the letters, recipes and patterns. And I totally get that.
Last year my uncle passed on to me a couple of boxes of loose recipes that were in Grandma Dot’s possession. Inside is a mix of recipes that were hers, but also recipes from other members of the family. My great-grandmother, my Aunt Hazel, and so many others. We’re not entirely sure where they are all from. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, but no one else’s.
There were also several recipes saved from pamphlets, advertisements, product wrappers and books.
One such interesting piece was a simple typed up sheet of recipes from the local gas company’s “Home Service Department,” circa 1930-40s. Likely a little thank you to the “lady of the house.” It also contained a little promo for the Chambers Stove and the gas-powered Electrolux refrigerator.
Ten recipes were crammed onto the front/back page, but the one that stood out to me most was the “Penny-Wise Porterhouse Steak.” (You can read the whole recipe here.)
Reading over the recipe, which mixes 3 parts ground beef with 1 part ground pork + egg, grated onion, salt/pepper and cracker crumbs – it sounds very much like a meat loaf recipe! So I’m thinking, where’s the “steak” in all this.
Until I read this, after the instructions to combine everything: “Shape to resemble steak about 1½” thick.”
And then the instructions essentially have you broil said fake-steak (aka meatloaf) in the oven until it’s good and browned. “Serves 5.”
No wonder my dad’s idea of steak was shoe leather well-done.
It’s interesting though. Grandma Dot (and both my grandpas) survived The Great Depression. Both my grandfather’s served in WWII and Korea. Their generation understood tough times and shortages. And they figured out ways to get by.
“Penny-Wise” recipes were just part of that life.
But I guess the thing that really struck me was… today it’s just meatloaf. But back then, they played it up as “steak.” Giving the dish some dignity, even if in name only.
My gut instinct is a deep aversion to putting lipstick on a zombie. Call it my Gen-X rebellious sensibilities.
But today, with all our family is going through, I think I see that perhaps they weren’t just trying to make something worthless look appealing. Maybe they were trying to preserve their memories and experiences during an incredibly painful and scary time.
A time when I know my grandparents weren’t sure what their future would look like. What the US would look like. Here they were, newly wed and all hell broke loose in the world. I can’t imagine.
So while everyone had to adjust, it makes sense to me, from that perspective, that it wasn’t just about making a simple food seem higher class than it was.
But about keeping their chin up, their spirits healthy and still gathering around the table as a family to be thankful.
Even if it was just for broiled, “steak” shaped meatloaf.