A couple years ago, we moseyed over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site to renew our National Parks pass. While we were in the visitor center, I found a cookbook I’d never seen before – “An Army Wife’s Cookbook” – filled with recipes of Alice Kirk Grierson, the wife of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson of the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Davis, in the late 1860s or thereabouts. This might just be the best $6.95 I’ve spent in recent years.
It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for the ways of old. Tech-junkie tendencies aside, I have a true appreciation for the way “things used to be” and believe that “they just don’t make things like they used to.”
I’ve discovered recently that my favorite houses and buildings are those built in the late 1800s. The craftsmanship, attention to detail, ornate beauty and pride of ownership are unlike anything that can easily be produced today, not that those homes and buildings were easy to create in the first place.
Being a lover of old houses, I’m taking this opportunity to share a few photos of houses I love, and the common theme in them seems to be really old, beautiful woodwork and masonry… excuse my tangent while I dream about the olden days and force you along with me… how about that parlor in this first picture? Unmolested woodwork? Carvings, stair rails, those ceilings, the elegance… OH, be still, my heart!!!
Okay, back to the cookbook story…
I have several local cookbooks filled with recipes of old that while I enjoy reading them, I just can’t wrap my head around trying to re-create many of them. My tech-junkie love extends to kitchen gadgetry, and I’m not too proud a home chef to say it. I love things that make cooking easier.
For example, my electric pressure cooker has a beef stew in it right now that is taking a whopping 45 minutes to cook. Back in the olden days, the recipe I use would probably take all day, and that’s taking into consideration that you already had the wood for your cook fire or stove already chopped and waiting, and the beef was already off the cow.
As far as most soups went back then, few recipes were followed because you basically added whatever vegetables you had on hand to your beef stock, and you made enough for several days’ meals.
I likely would’ve struggled some back in the olden days. But, it certainly is fun to read old cookbooks and try to modify the recipes for modern preparation. Some of them, anyway.
The cookbook is a pleasure to read – it has stories of the Grierson family’s 19th century lives, as well as some of the 600+ recipes that Alice collected in her personal cookbook. There are household hints and tips from back in the olden days as well. For example, a recipe for hair dye included sugar of lead, lac sulphur, glycerine, rose water and bay rum. Yikes. She lost me at lead and sulphur.
The original cookbook was donated to the National Park Service at the Fort Davis National Historic Site in 1968, having spent nearly three decades in Marfa after being donated to a secondhand store by the Griersons’ youngest son in 1935, when he was cleaning out the family properties in Fort Davis.
According to the new cookbook, the National Park Service Wives and their friends tested over 100 of the handwritten recipes that had brief instructions, and made any necessary changes to bring them up to date, while staying as true as possible to the original recipe. Adding to the charm of the cookbook is that Alice’s original recipe as she wrote it is printed first, followed by the modernized and tested recipe.
Frontier wives faced many challenges when it came to cooking. Not only were they living without refrigeration, they also used wood burning stoves that required the proper amount of attention to keep the temperatures just right. As listed in the cookbook, one method of testing the oven’s temperature was by the amount of stinging pain felt under your fingernails when you held your hand inside the hot oven for a certain period of time. I am grateful for the advances in kitchen appliances we enjoy in the 21st century.
The cookbook has few recipes for main dishes because army rations weren’t very varied and the main meat available was beef. Unless you had chickens, eggs were also hard to come by and several recipes were for baked goods “without eggs.” Alice was thrilled when her sons were old enough to hunt because rather than just beef, they could eat quail and pheasants in addition to other wild game.
Head on over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site, and be transported to the 1800s. Take a tour and to pick up your own copy of this taste of 19th century frontier life.
(my friend Patty Hartnett, who works at the Fort, told me she loves these cookies)
“One pound sugar, ¾ pound butter, 4 eggs the juice of one lemon and as little flour as will enable you to make into small cakes with your hands.” – as written by Mrs. Grierson
2-1/2 to 3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup butter
2 cups sugar
juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
Sift dry ingredients together. Set aside. Cream butter with sugar until creamy and light. Add eggs, lemon juice and grated rind. Add enough of the sifted flour mixture to make a smooth, workable dough. Drop from a tablespoon onto buttered cookie sheets and bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until done. Makes 3 to 4 dozen.
Printed with permission of the Alpine Avalanche