Mid-century teaching collection of cooking ingredients

  • A remarkable, home-made collection of 160 samples of cooking ingredients housed in individual glass vials in a portable case, together with a binder of typed notes on the properties and uses of each ingredient. The collection is in excellent condition, with all the fragile glass vials intact and most of the ingredients in good condition, save for a few with mould and one, the french yeast, which is empty and may have leaked.

    The collection dates from the mid-20th century, likely the 1950s, and was probably connected with a high school home economics class or a culinary or catering school. Neither the creator nor the institution is named, and it is unclear whether it was designed by a teacher for use in the classroom or compiled by a student as a major project. The largely well-preserved samples include herbs and spices, flours, nuts, beans, grains, infusions, cake decorations, and dried and crystallised fruits and flowers. The accompanying notes have been typed by hand on ruled paper, and are organised by fabric tabs corresponding to the organisational scheme of 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, though none are specifically cited by the creator.

    The text emphasises the culinary, practical, and nutritional aspects of the ingredients collected here. 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”. 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. A teaspoonful of the dried flowers is allowed for every cup of water. The boiling water is poured on the flowers, as on tea”. Potato is “useful as a thickening agent for soups, stews, broths, etc. Also for croquettes, rissoles. Can be used for making scones, and potato cakes”.

    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”, and there are occasional cultural and historical asides. Clary sage “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”. “The French use Dill seeds for flavouring sauces, but their use of them does not appeal to us in this country.”

    Descriptions are generally at an introductory level, as to be expected from material taken directly from reference works such as encyclopaedias. Ginger, for example, is described as “the underground stems and root of a plant with a hot, spicy flavour. When preserved or crystallised, it is used as a sweetmeat... or as an ingredient of cakes, ginger-bread or biscuits”. Occasionally 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 found in British kitchens, others are less familiar, or 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”. The “pawpaw melon tree is a native of tropical America but 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.”

    Interestingly, the entry for raisins states that, “in latter years there has been a scarcity of this type of dried fruit as it has not been imported in large quantities nor very frequently”, probably due to rationing.

  • United Kingdom, [c. 1950].

    Naugahyde case with handle and steel fittings, containing 160 glass sample bottles sealed with corks and held in place by metal spring clips, typed labels in red and black ink. Accompanied by a Twinlock ring binder of typed notes on the contents and their uses, the leaves on lined paper with fabric tabs at the fore-edge. The original key attached with string to the handle. Steel fittings of the case are rusted, small corroded spot behind one vial (french yeast), possibly where the ingredient has leaked, otherwise all the vials are intact and full. Mild toning of the notes and light rubbing at the tips of the ring binder. Excellent condition.