What were they thinking?


Copy of the cover

Copy of the cover

Occasionally, a book comes along that just makes you go “Huh?”

I’ve got one like that now. It is the German language Praktisches Kochbuch für die Deutschen in Amerika, (second American edition) by Henriette Davidis, published circa 1897 by Geo. Brumder of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I say “circa” because some former owner (or possibly some unscrupulous seller) has scratched out whatever was directly above the printer’s name on the title page. In a first edition, this missing information would most likely be the city and state of printing. That may also be true for this book, but it could also have been the publication year, removed because it did not match the copyright notice on the reverse.

Frontispiece (my copy)

Frontispiece (my copy)

I know I don’t have the first printing of the revised edition because openlibrary .org has a scanned copy, and not only is their frontispiece different, but their title page is helpfully stamped with the Register of Copyrights stamp, dated November 30, 1897. I think it highly unlikely that George Brumder whipped out a first printing early in 1897 and then issued the second printing with new illustrations before the end of the year.

But that’s OK. It is an interesting book nonetheless. Wikipedia calls Frau Davidis “… the most famous classic cookbook author in Germany…” and says she was the German equivalent of Mrs. Beeton. That was probably a fine analogy for her time, but nowadays she might be likened to Martha Stewart, at least in the early years when Martha was still a only a homemaking expert and not an ex-con.

But back to the book. The Max Kade Institute for German American Studies has a fascinating article on  The Story of Immigration as Told Through Cookbooks  which mentions this book by name and gives an excellent account of the enhancements that arrived with the second edition, including the one that makes me wonder: What were they thinking?!

The snippet below is a scan of two recipes from the Suppe (Soup) section.

Sample recipes

Sample recipes

I’ve taken a crack at translating the first one, and it seems a pretty fair approximation of my own grandmother’s recipes: Sweat a little butter with a spoon of flour till yellow. To the necessary quantity of boiling water add blanched rice and raisins, sorted and washed. Let cook and stir in salt, sugar, some wine, egg yolks and cinnamon. How much butter? A little. How much water? Enough. And how the heck do you blanch rice?

Pretty standard for a time when women were expected to know a thing or two about cooking and shouldn’t need to be told every detail. (Or in some cases, apparently, any detail.)

What really caught my attention were the English titles in parenthesis behind the German titles. They have not only been added in this manner throughout the entire book, but there is a separate 22 page index of titles in English, following the equally lengthy index of titles in German.

It is possible that the English title in the recipe section might be helpful to the German Frau practicing her English. (“Ja, ich mache Reissuppe mit Rosinen — how you say? Rice Soup with Raisins.”) But I am at a loss to understand what good the English index would do. Someone who needed to look up a title in English would be pretty much unable to read the recipe once they reached the page it was on.

I would love to know what they were thinking!

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