Learning to Cook in the Mid-20th Century: A Teaching Collection of Basic Ingredients

I was thinking about Christmas baking today, and was reminded of these fun, mid-century cake decorations we have in stock. They're part of a remarkable collection of 160 samples of cooking ingredients, all housed neatly in glass vials and stored in a carrying case. There's also a guide to the collection ⁠— a binder of typed notes about  each substance. The set was probably connected with a high school home economics class or a culinary or catering school, and it may have been designed by a teacher for use in the classroom, or created as a student project.

The well-preserved samples include classic herbs and spices...

...as well as flours, nuts, beans, grains, infusions, gelatins, cake decorations, and dried and crystallised fruits and flowers.

The accompanying notes have been typed by hand on ruled paper, and follow the same organisational scheme as the samples in the case. The text seems to have been taken largely from reference sources, most notably Margaret Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (originally published in 1931), and emphasizes the culinary, practical, and nutritional aspects of the different ingredients. For instance, the entry for cocoa describes the processing of chocolate nibs into culinary chocolates and lists the constituents of cocoa powder, “Fat 50% (about 30% left in commercial powder), Starch: 16%, Theobromine (an alkaloid): 2-4%, Caffeine, Sugar, Colouring matter and Ash”.

Medical uses are included where relevant: “Gelatine is known as a protein saver; it has stimulating properties, and helps the flow of gastric juice and thus indirectly aids digestion”.

There are also cultural and historical asides. Clary sage, for instance, “was first brought into use by the German Wine Merchants, who employed it as an adulterant, infusing it with Elder Flowers and then adding the liquid to the Rhenish wine”. Camomile tea is “made from the dried flowers and is reputed to be very good for the complexion. It is so much drunk by American women after lunch instead of coffee that it is now obtainable at most fashionable English hotels.

Descriptions are generally at an introductory level, as to be expected from material taken directly from reference works such as encyclopaedias. But occasionally the entries are more technical, such as those for the raising agents: baking powder “consists of an acid (cream of tartar or tartaric acid) and an alkali (bicarbonate of soda) use (sic) in the proportion of twice the amount of acid to alkali... Immediately it is moistened, the alkali and acid combine to form a salt, and the gas, carbonic acid gas is given off”.

Though most of the samples are fairly standard ingredients often found in British kitchens, others are less familiar, or are used in unexpected ways. Mate tea, still many decades out from its status as a hip lifestyle drink, is included, the notes merely stating that it is “obtained from a shrum (sic) grown in Paraguay”. Raspberry leaves are “supposed to keep up the strength of the expectant mother". For some reason the "pawpaw melon tree", which is native to eastern North America, has been included, described as "a native of tropical America" that is "cultivated in China and other parts of the Tropics. The flavor is that of a bad melon and a white juice exudes from the rind and this juice should not be taken unless under medical supervision.”

The collection is in remarkably good condition, with only a couple of damaged or empty vials. It's an unusual and colourful widow into mid-century culinary education and the types of ingredients that a professional chef or home cook would be expected to be familiar with.


Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.