When I moved, I took with me a reprint of Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, circa 1950. I really liked the color photos of food, which is like color on steroids. The Jell-O is really GREEN and the pineapple garnish with the cherry in the middle is perhaps the most jarring contrast of yellow and red that exists in print.
In the dim recesses of my memory, I am familiar with this food, but it is not from any table where I ate. The familiarity comes from the hundreds of vintage magazines that populated the basements and attics of my mom and grandmother. If you are of a certain age, leaf through Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook from 1950, and become reacquainted with those perfectly arranged dishes---armies of detailed cookie men on cooling racks, appetizers so festive one could almost forget that the commies had the bomb, roasts shiny and bright. Yes I remembered this kind of food. We never had it. We ate hearty, very tasty, but coarse food, and by the later 1970's, produce from our garden, and fresh baked bread all the time. Thanks mom...
So when I bought my second brick of salt cod, I turned to Betty to see what she had to say. Now I'm aware that Betty Crocker is a fictional kitchen maven, originated by early 20th century corporate marketing men to push Bisquick on the American Housewife, but I had not been so sadly disillusioned then. I was surprised that Betty had virtually nothing to say. "Cod, mackerel etc. require removing excess salt. Soak overnight in cold water. (Or soak for two hr....then simmer in fresh water fro 30 min.) Cook as desired." That is enough to get started, but clearly, if Betty knew about cooking salt cod, she wasn't telling. The next page has only one reference to cod and that is "Codfish Balls: Favorite Sunday Breakfast of New Englanders." The rest of the recipes don't call for any particular fish. Just fish. And no good pictures.
I wasn't really limiting myself to vintage cookbooks, but this is what I had on hand, so I turned to the Women's Club of Westport's The New Connecticut Cookbook, 1947. This was a volume of recipes, hunted down and collected, with the name of the source and sometimes her location. For example, page 138 gives us a recipe by Mrs. M.T. Hazelton of South Norwalk for Pheasant in White Wine. Mrs. DuBois P. Lennon of West Haven contributed Codfish Soufflé, while Emma F. Patton of Greenwich gives us her Lemon Cake.
But Mateel Howe Farnham's Oyster and Salt Cod Pie is what caught my attention. (This recipe appears in the upper right sidebar for those who are interested.) Mateel had for her pie ample and cheap cod, from an industry that had yet to enter the period of decline resulting in the 1992 Canadian ban on cod fishing. I bet Mateel couldn't imagine the unlimited plenty of her day coming down to a few smallish cod, being chased by giant factory ships. But nevermind Mateel, Rest in Peace.
The recipes from these Connecticut women are lively and show a delight in the nearness of the ocean. Betty Crocker's idea of serving fish is to make it bland and innocuous, even funny (Cod Fish Balls), and try to disguise the fact there's fish in there. The Nutmeg State ladies have nothing to hide, and even give their fish recipes heroic names like Fish For The Gods, contributed by Lousene Rousseau Fry, which calls for sole, wine, whipped cream, spinich, mushrooms, and so on. Mrs. O's Fish Dish makes no bones about what's for dinner.
I settle on Phebe V. Tate's Creamed Codfish, because it sounds the most coarse and is just a small variation on my previous efforts. I ate it on toast and thought about the creamed chipped beef on toast my mom used to make for me, which was affectionately known by it's WWII era nickname, S.O.S.
It was hot outside when I made Creamed Codfish, and I turned on the air conditioning. I thought to make it authentic, I should leave it off and cook this utilitarian New England meal in a hot kitchen, made steamy by potatoes and milk-simmered cod. Dinner was served simply with pepper that, if the air wasn't on, would be too hot to use. But I wasn't working for that effect. I just wanted to eat this stuff on toast and then figure out what The New Connecticut Cookbook had that looked good for my next attempt. There was a lot to choose from. Thanks ladies....