Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Penny For Your Sauce


A few days ago I spent $120.00 at the supermarket. We are a household of only two now, and we are hoping to make the food we purchased last for at least two weeks.

The most expensive items on my grocery receipt were meat and fish. But every little item adds up. It got me wondering about how my grandparents managed their grocery expenditures a hundred years ago, during the era when their two cookbooks were written. This was of course before the rise of huge agribusinesses, before the Depression and the Post World War II economic boom.

Pork chops
The title of Grandma VandenBergh’s 1922 cookbook, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten is literally translated from the Dutch as “Simple Calculated Recipes.” We might translate it more loosely as “Simple Low-Cost Meals.” Each recipe includes a listing of the cost of each item (in 1920’s Dutch guilders), with the total cost of the dish at the end. Thus, a meal of pork chops and potato salad cost a total of less than two guilders for a family of four. [Note: In 1999 the Netherlands became a member of the euro zone, thus abandoning the guilder in favor of the euro.]

At today’s prices in the average supermarket in the Capital District of New York State, a similar meal would cost a little less than two dollars per person:

pork chops                        $4.84
lemon                                  0.79
salt, pepper, margarine       0.35
Total:                                $5.98

1.5 lb. potatoes                            $1.50
1 egg                                              0.10
mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil  0.35
parsley (from my garden)               0.00
Total:                                            $1.95


Compared to the era when my grandparents married and established their households about a hundred years ago, the share of the family budget that goes to food has declined drastically in the United States.*  I find this difficult to imagine, given how frugal that earlier generation was and how careful they were to stretch every penny. Grandma VandenBergh could peel potatoes so that the peel was paper-thin.

And Grandma Minnie, whose notebook was full of cake and cookie recipes, even had a recipe for “Economical Sponge Cake.” Why was it economical? I suppose because it called for only a half dozen ingredients, which were probably already found in the kitchen cupboard.

Here is how I adapted the recipe slightly:

Economical Sponge Cake

1 ¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup hot water
2 eggs
grated rind of ½ lemon

- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
- Separate the eggs; mix the yolks with half the sugar.
- Add the water to the remaining sugar, add the lemon rind, and mix with the yolk and sugar mixture.
- Stir in dry ingredients.
- Beat egg whites until fluffy; fold in beaten egg whites.
- Bake in greased pan in moderate oven (325 to 350 F.) for 20 to 25 minutes.

Even reducing the amount of sugar in the original recipe by half, the recipe made a tasty lemony sponge cake, for much less than the price of a cake mix.

Grandma Minnie's Economical Sponge Cake

Enjoy it plain, or with strawberries as strawberry shortcake!

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*According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending," in 1900 the average American family spent 43% of its household budget on food; this proportion had declined to 30% in 1950, and to 13% in 2003. See "How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget" for an overview of this report.

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