For Thanksgiving: A Look at Grandma’s 1930s-1940s Culinary History

Over Thanksgiving, I started the lengthy process of extracting all the food stories documented in letters between my grandmother (Margaret) and her sister (Jan) in order to explore how their work in the kitchen related to food history of the time. I still can’t believe that, 20 years ago, I transcribed 83 of their letters written between 1931 and 1947 and then organized them into a large notebook to give my mom for Christmas. Mom had tears in her eyes when she unwrapped the present as she saw so much of her mother’s history typed across the pages. She proudly displayed that notebook in her living room, which is where it still sits today. [Note: The top image is from my grandmother’s 1920s scrapbook which appears to be her version of a vision board for marriage and family.]

My grandma and mom spent a lot of time collecting and organizing family history and I do my best to build upon their work. These letters are a gold mine — full of stories of family drama, Los Angeles landmarks, and women’s history as it relates to home and hearth. Both sisters extensively detailed their daily lives to each other and spent paragraphs describing what and how they cooked. In these 1930s letters, my grandma was a new wife who left her Los Angeles home to build a modest new life in the mid-West with my grandpa, who didn’t think married women should work. In the 1940s, her younger sister (who was adopted into a very wealthy home in Burbank — long story) was a young wife active in Burbank’s social scene.

A few months ago, my #ArchivesCooking work with the Autry Library and Archives and the Homestead Museum inspired me to revisit their letters to read their food stories. Two recent virtual discussions — the Homestead Museum’s Everything but the Turkey and the Clements Library’s A Taste of History: Cookbooks in the Archives — had me wanting to better understand my grandma and her sister’s cooking as it related to broader food trends of the time. Culling all these food stories took several days and reminded me of the tediousness of my original project 20 years ago. Of the 83 letters, 37 contained references to cooking meals, hosting dinner parties, using kitchen appliances, exchanging WW2 ration coupons, and canning fruit (SO MUCH CANNING). Below is just a small sample of my grandma and my great-aunt’s food stories. While their meticulous reports can be a bit dry to read, their stories help me to understand how their white middle-class work in the kitchen fits into the collective history of women’s foodways.

August 17, 1931 — Margaret to Jan: “It was fun fixing waffles for breakfast. Donnie enjoyed having them so much. Our waffle-iron works beautifully. Waffles will always be the order for Sunday morning.”

September 2, 1931 — Margaret to Jan: “I’ve been putting up a few peaches now and then. The peaches have been marvelous here and so cheap — as low as $0.89 a bushel (60 lbs). My next effort is going to be pickling peaches. I’ve made one jar of pear honey. May make some more.”

November 20, 1931 — Margaret recounting a Bridge party she hosted in a letter to her sister Jan: “I used a green and orange color scheme. I had my green Bridge sets, a green candlestick with a tall slender orange candle, nut cups of orange and yellow with turkeys on the handles and a place for a place card. The menu consisted of pineapple relish jello salad, creamed chicken in patty shells, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and green peas. For dessert pumpkin pie and coffee — salted nuts were in the nut cups and candies in various color made of green drop stuff but cut in small circles. Now listen to the things I made — the patty shells, the cranberry sauce, salad and the pies — and if I do say, the pies were great. I’ve found a recipe that makes wonderful pumpkin pies. I used the gold etched plates for the pie tho’ with lace doilies under the pie. It was great fun planning and fixing things but of course making many of things myself it saved a lot of money.”

December 13, 1931 — Margaret to Jan: “Two fellows from Glenn’s office came over for dinner and we played Bridge afterwards. Menu:
–T-bone steaks broiled
–Cottage fried potatoes (Glenn fried them)
–Creamed onions
–Tomato Jelly Salad
–Celery and olives (green and stuffed)
–Bran muffins (i made them)
–Dessert and coffee
The dessert was a square of sponge cake (home made) covered with caramelized Eagle Brand milk and topped with chopped nuts and whipped cream. I hope your mother enjoys her waffle iron as much as I have mine. I make the best cinnamon toast in my iron too. I’ll send you the directions later on. It’s very simple.”

December 28, 1931 — Margaret to Jan: “And now our Christmas dinner. We had it by ourselves as John S______ went home to Kansas. Fried chicken, tomato jelly salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, green peas, cranberry conserve (like i sent you – Glenn likes it very much), crabapple jelly, grape sherbet (I made it in the Frigidare), mince pie and whipped cream and hot spiced grape-juice drink. But we couldn’t eat the mince pie. We also had fruit cake to eat. I bought a nice one at the store mostly because i wanted the tin box. And candy, my dear we made ourselves two kinds. I made fudge and Glenn divinity. Also I blanched and salted some almonds and we had Christmas candy besides.”

March 21, 1932 — Margaret to Jan: “You should be here to taste my orange sponge cakes. I made on Sat A.M. and we finished it last night. Can you imagine it? It was about the size of an angel food and the same shape. Mrs. Brown gave me the recipe and it certainly makes a nice cake if it is baked just right. Glenn surely likes it. I am to have the Bridge club a week from Thursday. That will mean two tables. For eats, I shall have my orange sponge cake, ice-cream (made in the Frigidaire), coffee, divinity or mints. I’m planning to carry out a yellow and green color scheme. Green Bridge lunch cloths, you know, yellow flowers for center of tables, the candy will be yellow and white, I think I’ll color some of the ice cream and have green drinking water (you know by coloring the ice cubes). I’ll use the gold etched glassware and gold creamers and sugars and have tables made to represent tulips or daffodils in yellow. You should see how nice the gold etched glassware looks on my green Bridge sets and when we have coffee in our green cups and saucers it makes a lovely green and gold color scheme. Believe me, we have ‘gangrene’ (gone green) in our house.”

Black and white photo of a 1931 dining room table.
In 1931, Margaret photographed the rooms in her newlywed apartment and included the photos in letters to her sister.

April 25, 1932 — Margaret to Jan: “The past ten days has been one round of dinners for me. Last Sat. night we had the bride and groom — menu — fried chicken, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh green peas, fruit salad, orange sponge cake, (canned my own) peaches and whipped cream, bran muffins (home-baked) and jelly, coffee and salted nuts. On Sunday the Smiths were over for supper — menu: fruit salad, toasted cheese and toasted boiled ham sandwiches, coffee, orange sponge cake, peaches and whipped cream. The object of this supper besides have[sic] the Smith’s up was to show off our sandwich toaster. Mrs. Smith was one of the hostesses at the party where we won the toaster. Wed afternoon, I had Mrs. A____ and her mother, who was here visiting and Mrs. Smith in for lunch. Menu: Ham au gratin, fruit cocktail, diced carrots and peas, tomato jelly salad, bran muffins, jelly, maple nut cream cake, canned peaches and coffee.”

“Well you can guess from all this that the past week has been one round of cooking, cleaning and cake baking. I wish you could have tasted yesterday’s chocolate cake. It was so soft, light and fluffy it was a surprise to even me. I heard the recipe on the radio and then sent for it. It has been created especially for Kate Smith. Mine surely turned out great. Glenn doesn’t mind all the cakes. He never gets enough anyhow. He’s decided that I’m not such a bad cake baker. I might as well practice now while eggs are cheap and the weather is cool. I certainly won’t be baking when it gets hot.”

March 26, 1940 — Jan to Margaret: “And I have made a lot of cakes. Wish you were here to test them. Yesterday, I made chocolate angel food. I have an angel food twin in the oven now. It uses the yolks from the angel food. I’ve never tried this recipe before. Hope it turns out all right. I am giving mother half of the other cake so we will not kill ourselves eating cake. And I’m not having party today. Just the baking bug.”

“The dinner party for the boys and their fiancés was quite successful I thought. I served baked ham, stuffed baked potatoes, asparagus, molded beet salad, spiced peaches, grape jelly, hot rolls and chocolate angel food cake iced with whipped cream and coffee. I served the cake at the table, it looked so beautiful.”

April 14, 1940 — Jan to Margaret: [Writing about hosting a dinner for Jan’s adopted mother] “So I am preparing dinner and having it as mother’s. Mother has a dish washer now, she couldn’t stand the way the dishes were washed. Mrs. B______ can help with the serving, too, so it won’t be so hard on me. I am planning to have turkey, asparagus, potatoes, molded beet salad, picked peaches, celery, etc. and chocolate angel food cake with ice cream. Mother is fond of angel food so that is to be her birthday cake.”

September 19, 1943 — Jan to Margaret: “Such a busy summer this one has been! I have tried to be a good housewife and can as many things as possible. I can’t remember what i have already listed to you. I guess I have canned two and one half boxes of pears, (about 50 lbs of pears), thirty pounds of tomatoes (half i made into chili sauce) and now I am working on twenty pounds of figs, spicing them. I also made some bread and butter pickles. I want to get another box of tomatoes this week if I can.”

December 8, 1943 — Jan to Margaret: “Thank you for your extra generous gift of brown stamps. They were grand — mother and I got some ham with part of them. Mother has wanted ham for quite awhile. Either we don’t have the points or the market doesn’t have ham, so we were fortunate to find both at the same time. I am sending a sugar stamp I hope you can use for some Christmas sweets or whatever you wish. We seem to have enough even though I made all the jelly and jam, etc. I wanted to make. The ration board gave me thirty pounds extra for canning, so I guess that is why we are doing so well. I have made cookies for all of Neal’s (three) nephews in the service and assortment of sweets for Arthur — sugared walnut nut bread, cookies, etc. for Thanksgiving. I haven’t decided what to fix for Christmas.”

July 2, 1944 — Jan to Margaret: “I’ve begun canning season with Bing and Royal Anne cherries. They were quite expensive but I feel money spent on food is well spent. I have sixteen quartz and 18 pints of cherries. I canned seven quarts of boysenberries. The cherries came the week Art came home. I was canning cherries Wednesday night and Thursday morning and had the folks here for dinner Thursday night. Judson will have apricots for us from his place next week. I will probably can forty or fifty pounds.”

September 18 (mid-1940s) — Margaret to Jan: “Have been canning just our smallest needs this year — about 30 lbs each of peaches & pears. Used only Colorado peaches this year. The Calif. peaches were nice for fresh eating but not as sweet a flavor for canning as the Colorado. the Calif. peaches were the Elbertas — have never seen any Clings. The pears were Wash. Pears. There are Californias on the market now but are some higher & come in 46# boxes whereas the Wash pears were in 20# crates. Don’t know how customs is selling fruit out there, but think it might surprise you to see how green much of the fruit is here when it comes to town & even when the customer gets it. I had pears around here from Tues. until Fri. & Sat. before I had to can them. Also canned a bushel of tomatoes last Wed. eve. Did about 20 pts of Italian blue plums this eve before supper time. Am not planning to do any kind of pickles or jams this year. I don’t feel like the extra work. Haven’t got the sugar anyway. I suppose I’ll get some concord grapes and at least can some juice.”

January 21, 1946 — Jan to Margaret: “By the way, what is the butter situation back there? We are really having a shortage here [in Los Angeles]. If you don’t know the right people, no butter is available. If you have a surplus around there, we would be glad to send you the money to send us several pounds so we could give some to mother and keep the rest in our freezing locker. If it isn’t convenient don’t put yourself out but keep us in mind. We have a freezing locker at the Freeze-It Locker place here in town. We have really been fortunate to get meat. Since rationing we were able to get 1/2 of a pig and a hind quarter of beef. The beef is what really tastes good. We had so few roasts during rationing. We will barbecue some good steaks when you get here, so get well so you can eat them.”

February 28, 1946 – Jan to Margaret: “The really short items here are the butter and bacon. We can get bacon on certain days at the locker if we get there in time and sometimes at the store where we trade. Pineapple is available once in awhile as is Kleenex and dreft. I get tired of dashing to the market one day for mayonnaise, another day for bacon, another for butter or nucoa, etc. We manage pretty well on most things except the butter. Do you ever get bacon in a piece — a side? The bacon keeps pretty well in the frozen food locker if it is in a piece, we so we could get some ahead to use when you come. However, I may be able to get some pork and have it cured and smoked at the locker before summer. I am trying to save some of the butter to have when you folks get here this summer.”

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