For a cook, there’s something very endearing about a cookbook that contains a recipe that begins with, “For 1,000 pounds of pork…” For a modern chef that would translate into 12 eighty-pound cases of pork butts. And that my friends, is a lot of pork.
From Rivets and Rails, Recipes of a Railroad Boarding House Cookbook, is full of such charm. The new cookbook from author Shaunda Kennedy Wenger is a modern day reprisal of the cooking journal of her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Shade Kennedy. Elizabeth married a railroad man, Charles William Kennedy who passed away in 1920 leaving her with five boys to take care of. So Elizabeth turned her Avis, Pennsylvania home into a boarding house for railroad workers employed by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. And she started cooking, and taking notes which became a journal passed down between the Kennedy women.
And now Mrs. Wenger, Elizabeth’s great granddaughter has taken that journal, transcribed it and published it as is. From Rivets and Rails is not a cookbook for the average home cook, it’s full of recipes that start with such startling amounts as 60 small cucumbers, nine pounds of pears or one peck of ripe tomatoes. One of the recipes calls for five cents worth of both black and yellow mustard seed. There’s recipes for homemade wine too; dandelion, elderberry, cherry and rose blossom and although these recipes date back to the throes of Prohibition, it was still legal to make household wine which was considered a “non-intoxicating drink.” Hhhmmm, a little sugar, some yeast, water and fresh fruit? Thirty days later I can pretty much guarantee an intoxicating drink.
All of the notes that Elizabeth wrote next to the recipes are also intact, one states that “Mr. Ready is coming!” One can only speculate as to the significance of a Mr. Ready but I love that nickname. Most intriguing are the dessert recipes such as Hickory Nut Cake, Rhubarb Custard, Marshmallow Gold Cake, Pop Corn Pudding, an “Old Fashioned” Jelly Roll and a pie called Wampsie Pudding which is an early forerunner to a Sour Cream Apple Pie. Fortunately most of the dessert recipes are scaled to make one cake or a reasonable number of servings. I see several of these in my kitchen’s future and my wife, a popcorn lover, did a double take when I mentioned Popcorn Pudding.
From Rivets and Rails is a light book, only 70 pages and it is self-published, though Mrs. Wenger is a successful author having published five titles for the educational market, several successful children’s and young-adult novels and a highly regarded cookbook, The Book Lover’s Cookbook which was an NPR Holiday gift pick in 2003. From Rivets and Rails is the sort of book that makes self-publishing sense. It’s a delightful slice of Americana and a glimpse into the life of a hard working cook at a time in our country’s history when self-sufficiency was a matter of life and death. Yet a publisher would have insisted on modernized recipes that were scaled, tested and retested to the average home kitchen. And would a publisher have allowed the furniture polish recipe that blends a gallon each of sweet oil, kerosene and rain water or the several recipes for medicinal remedies featuring such ingredients as turpentine, sugar of lead and sulfur? Doubtful. And therein lies the charm to this book, it’s a window into the breathtakingly challenging life that many Americans lived only 100 years ago.
From Rivets and Rails on Amazon