I Tried Recipes From a 1920s Cookbook and Here’s What Happened
Would my family notice that our dinner just transported us back in time 100 years?
Photo: Shutterstock/Torsten Lorenz
I stumbled upon Mrs. C.H. Leonard’s Cook Book, copyright 1923, on Etsy when I was looking for another, unrelated, rare book. I went down a rabbit hole of antique cookbooks and found myself intrigued, suddenly realizing there was a time that once existed before prepackaged ingredients, the Instant Pot and Pinterest. I had to ask myself: What were people making for dinner 100 years ago? Was it simpler? More difficult? Did they have to kill their own chickens? I ordered it immediately.
When the book arrived, it looked all 94 of its years—faded and scuffed, with yellowing pages that made a crinkly sound when you turned them. When I held it to my nose—because there is always an uncontrollable urge to smell old books, isn’t there?—it had the unmistakable aroma of a musty library basement.
The title page let me know two things: This book once sold for $1 (I paid $20—inflation hurts) and Mrs. C.H. Leonard compiled the book with Mrs. W.H. Whittier. A Google search revealed that Mrs. Leonard was the wife of Charles Leonard, owner of Grand Rapids Refrigerator Co., the largest refrigerator manufacturer in the world. Mrs. Whittier was their daughter. Disappointingly, Google did not tell me the women’s first names.
But I digress. It was time to try out some of these gems. I decided to make a handful of recipes from Mrs. Leonard’s book and see if my family could tell that I had transported us all back to 1923. Maybe my picky 1- and 3-year-olds would enjoy food from a simpler time. Or maybe it would wind up on the floor like most everything else that isn’t pizza.
I found that many of the recipes were more like basic cooking know-how—to make fried fish, roll in flour, salt, and plunge in hot lard. Many included ingredients I either didn’t recognize or would not be acquiring at my local grocery store, like partridge breasts or something called “Pettyjohn’s breakfast food.” (A Google search told me it was a cereal first introduced in 1889 that was, essentially, bran flakes.)
Ingredient amounts were often vaguely described—”add 1 tumbler of milk” or “a piece of butter as large as an egg.” I was instructed to set my oven at “a moderate temperature.” Sometimes I was told for how long, sometimes not. Each recipe was only a small paragraph—no more than three to four sentences of instructions.
There was a chance I was going to screw this up, obviously. I decided to just approach it like a scientist time traveler.
Photo: Amanda Kippert
Recipe #1: Feather Cake
This was described as “a nice plain cake to be eaten fresh.” I decided to pair it with Cream Frosting, which I was told “tastes like Charlotte Russe.” I know that only as a clothing store I frequented in my teens. From the name, though, I expected something light and fluffy, maybe like angel food. This one had to be good, right? I mean, all these vintage cakes are delicious.
How It Went: It seemed odd to mix dry and wet—flour and milk—right off the bat, but I trusted Mrs. Leonard. I questioned the beating of the egg whites—should I stay true to 1920 and beat them by hand? I didn’t have one of those old-timey egg beaters. I ended up going with an electric hand mixer. Don’t judge me.
Conclusion: I don’t know where the feather connotation comes from—this cake is dense. A friend told me it’s because the recipe called for baking powder instead of baking soda. In any case, it was still delicious—soft, sweet and simple. Definitely the family’s favorite. No one questioned why we were having cake on a Wednesday night without anything to celebrate. Because, cake.
Photo: Amanda Kippert
Recipe #2: Sea Foam Candy
I liked the sell for this one: “A homemade candy that ‘melts in your mouth’ … it is not hard to make nor is it expensive.” Though I expected this recipe to go spectacularly awry (I’ve never made candy before!) I gave it a shot.
How It Went: As I measured out the third cup of sugar and put it in a saucepan to heat, I started having my doubts. This was a lot of sugar. My kids were going to be wired. Around minute 15, the mixture of sugar, water and a tablespoon of vinegar (odd) looked nothing like syrup. I messaged my friend Christina, a much better cook than I. “Settle in,” she said. “You might be stirring that for 40 minutes or so.” It took about 30.
Conclusion: After folding the syrup into more beaten egg whites and adding some vanilla and chopped nuts, I dropped the brown blobs by the spoonful onto waxed paper and realized I’d just made fake dog poo. I obviously still tried it. It tasted like meringue candy with an extra strong sugar rush. It made my teeth hurt. Not surprisingly, my kids liked it.
Photographing it proved the most challenging part—how do I make it not look like pet droppings? I started to stress until my friend Leigh put it into perspective for me: “If you really were a home cook in the 1920s, you wouldn’t have been Instagramming any of the food. You probably would have saved photography for really special occasions and funeral portraits.”
Photo: Amanda Kippert
Recipe #3: Turkish Soup
I was intrigued by the egg yolks in this one. Would it be like egg drop soup? I searched for this recipe online. The recipe was nothing like Turkish Wedding Soup, or corba. I guess the name meant something else in 1920. According to the ingredients list, though, it was essentially chicken broth and rice—my family would like this.
How It Went: The instructions requested I “melt the stock,” which made me wonder how stock used to be sold back in the day. I poured mine out of a carton. I was also supposed to “rub the rice through a sieve.” I’m not sure in what world that is possible. I used an immersion blender instead. Thanks, technology. The last instruction was to “take soup from fire.” It sounded like the line of a poem about saving soup from its own demise.
Conclusion: I found this soup delicious—and it did remind me of egg drop soup. It was salty and comforting. My 3-year-old at least tried it, so that was a win. My husband wasn’t a fan, saying it had “a weird taste.” He also asked if that’s all we were having for dinner. It was a little light on the protein. I told him he would have been thankful for this if it were 1920. He looked at me skeptically.
Photo: Amanda Kippert
Recipe #4: Johnny Cakes
We obviously needed bread to go along with our soup, and the name Johnny Cakes just made me laugh. I assumed the “Indian meal” it called for was cornmeal. Google confirmed my suspicions. This recipe, then, had to be a basic cornbread, though the directions were vague. There wasn’t even an oven temperature listed. Or any mention of an oven at all. Maybe I was supposed to put it in the fire I just pulled the soup from?
How It Went: Even though I didn’t have the “gem tins” the recipe called for—though I pictured muffin tins in the shape of large jewels, something my princess-obsessed toddler might enjoy—these still turned out just fine in a regular muffin pan. The “1 cup sweet milk” threw me for a second, but I learned this verbiage was often used to distinguish whole milk from buttermilk.
Conclusion: Holy dry cornbread. Even my carb-loving children shoved these to the side of their plates. I tried dipping one in the soup and it disintegrated. Johnny Cakes were a mystery. My parents later told me these were a staple of their childhoods, but that you needed to serve them warm and cover them in honey. That tip made all the difference.
At the end of our soup/bread/cake/candy meal, I revealed to my family that they had actually been sampling the flavors of a century earlier. Everyone cheered and said how amazing I was to recreate such historical dishes. Just kidding. No one was impressed and my toddler asked what a 1920 was. Still, the experiment was fun and I will continue to pore over the book, looking for more classic inspiration. For instance, the next time my children decide to throw their breakfast on the floor, we’re going to be enjoying a little something called Jellied Chicken for dinner.