A reader sent me this message yesterday:
I had a great find at the used bookstore today. It was an old copy of the White House Cook Book, which was copyrighted in 1887! It’s not in the best condition, but it includes photos of the first ladies as well as rooms in the White House. I perused some of the recipes and as expected, they have lots of fat – heavy cream, lard, you name it!
She also informed me that the book is available online courtesy of Project Guttenberg. So I perused the text, and while there are recipes for breads and cakes and other sweet or starchy goodies, there is indeed a heavy emphasis on meats, butter, lard, suet, etc. Here’s a quote from a section on proper frying:
Many French cooks prefer beef fat or suet to lard for frying purposes, considering it more wholesome and digestible, does not impart as much flavor, or adhere or soak into the article cooked as pork fat.
What, no soybean oil? No Crisco? No canola oil? Of course not. Nobody cooked with that garbage back then. The technology required to extract garbage oils hadn’t been invented yet.
Since this book was written before refrigerators were common, there’s also a section on preserving eggs:
There are several recipes for preserving eggs and we give first one which we know to be effectual, keeping them fresh from August until Spring. Take a piece of quick-lime as large as a good-sized lemon and two teacupfuls of salt; put it into a large vessel and slack it with a gallon of boiling water. It will boil and bubble until thick as cream; when it is cold, pour off the top, which will be perfectly clear. Drain off this liquor, and pour it over your eggs; see that the liquor more than covers them. A stone jar is the most convenient—one that holds about six quarts.
Eggs can be kept for some time by smearing the shells with butter or lard; then packed in plenty of bran or sawdust, the eggs not allowed to touch one another; or coat the eggs with melted paraffine.
Butter and lard again. Who even keeps lard in the house these days? (Besides me, I mean.)
The book includes a brief section on how to handle common ailments: figs for constipation, alum and brown sugar for whooping cough, and so forth. But my favorite was the treatment for asthma:
Sufferers from asthma should get a muskrat skin and wear it over their lungs with the fur side next to the body. It will bring certain relief.
I was diagnosed with mild asthma some years ago, but it disappeared when I stopped eating wheat. If only I’d known about muskrat skins …
Amusement value aside, clearly people back then weren’t worried about butter, eggs and lard clogging their arteries and giving them heart disease. And why should they have been worried? Heart disease was rare. Yes, some heart attacks probably went undiagnosed, since the EKG wasn’t commonly used until the 1920s. But even after doctors could properly diagnose heart attacks, the rate of heart-attack deaths didn’t take a sharp rise until the 1940s – when consumption of butter and lard was dropping.
When I’ve pointed that out in previous posts, I’ve heard from lipophobes who insist that the only reason few people died of heart disease back in our lard-powered past is that they didn’t live long enough to die from a heart attack. “Of course people weren’t dying of heart disease!” they tell me. “Most people died before they turned 40!”
What they apparently believe is that most adults died sometime around age 40. That’s simply not true. They’re citing (without understanding) the average life expectancy in the 1800s. Before antibiotics were developed, lots of children and teens died of infections, which dragged down the average. But the people who survived into adulthood had a very good chance of living to a ripe old age, despite the lack of drugs and surgeries available today. You can get a clear sense of how dramatically childhood deaths affected the statistics by visiting this site, which shows not just average lifespan, but average lifespan starting from different ages. For example:
In 1850, the average lifespan from birth for boys was only 38 years. But for boys who had already reached age 5 in 1850, the average lifespan was 55 years. For young men who were already age 20, the average was lifespan was 58 years, and for men who were already 40, the average was 66 years. Keep in mind those figures would include violent deaths, not just deaths from diseases.
By contrast, the average lifespan for a boy born in 1950 is listed at 65, but for a young man who was already 20 in 1950, it’s listed at 68 — just a few years older. In other words, by 1950 antibiotics were saving a helluva lot of kids who otherwise would have died from some disease. That’s why the average life expectancy shot up, not because adults went from routinely dying at around age 40 to dying at around age 70. There have been 70-year-olds in human societies for a long, long time. Even in the Bible — hardly a modern work — there’s a reference to our lifespan being three score and ten years.
I recently finished reading Killing Lincoln (which I enjoyed immensely) and was reminded again of how common childhood deaths were in the 1800s. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had four sons. Eddie Lincoln died at age four. Willie Lincoln died at age 11. Thomas “Tad” Lincoln died at age 18. But Robert Lincoln lived to be 82. The average lifespan of the four Lincoln sons: 28 years. But Robert, the only son to survive into adulthood, certainly lived long enough to develop heart disease – as did most people who saw their 20th birthday.
When answering the “people died before they turned 40!” crowd, I’ve occasionally pointed out the longevity of some of the country’s founders: Thomas Jefferson died at 83. John Adams died at age 90. Benjamin Franklin died at 84. (One of Franklin’s legitimate children died at age 4. The other died at age 65. Average lifespan of his legitimate children: 34.5.)
Curious if I was cherry-picking the few old-guy founders who came to mind, I looked up brief biographies of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. This was not a group of old men — their average age in 1776 was 46. I excluded one who died in a duel and another who disappeared at sea when he was 30. Of the remaining 54, the average age at death was 68 – old enough to develop heart disease.
But again, that’s just an average. Of the 54 remaining men who told King George to stuff it, 43% lived past the age of 70, and 26% lived past the age of 80. In other words, there were plenty of very old Americans back in the day and therefore plenty of potential candidates for a heart attack. But heart disease was rare.
So here’s the history lesson: Cook like your great-great-great-grandma and don’t be afraid of meat, eggs, butter and lard. Follow the recipes in the White House Cook Book of 1887.
I predict you’ll like the squirrel soup in particular.