Part of the joy of collecting old cookbooks is the thrill of the hunt. Whether I’m browsing through the book rack at the local Goodwill or scouring the piles at an unkempt used bookstore I want to come away with something new. Something that before the start of that particular day I hadn’t known to exist. This is an experience that’s difficult to replicate shopping online, where algorithms will push you towards what’s popular or a paid product placement. But occasionally those algorithms push me in the right direction, towards a cookbook that’s popular and influential but still new to me. Which is how I happened across Mrs. De Graf’s Cook Book.
The titular Mrs. De Graf is one Belle Rankin Shattuck De Graf, who was the editor of the Cooking Information Page in the San Francisco Chronicle ca. 1920. She had gained some renown as a cooking instructor and consultant for various companies and trade groups. At the height of her popularity her column was syndicated widely in newspapers along the West Coast of America. In spite of her onetime prominence, there is precious little information about her online. What little biographical information I can find comes by way of the Lovely Antique Ladies website, which carefully reconstructs her (somewhat colorful) life from census records and newspaper articles.
Mrs. De Graf’s Cook Book was published in 1922, by the H.S. Crocker Company. Their role appears to be more a sponsor and distributor than a traditional publisher. The primary business of the H.S. Crocker company was (and remains) printing labels for packaged foods. The book was brought to market quite literally by popular demand. As per the forward:
To the many whose requests that the works of the author be put into book form, and whose interest was the main influence that prompted the publication of this book, a deep feeling of thanks is extended.
Despite its origins in a newspaper, Mrs. De Graf’s Cook Book is arranged as a conventional cookbook rather than a disconnected collection of articles. There are extended prose sections which may have originally been newspaper columns, but they are supplemented with lists of relevant recipes, sometimes lengthy, that seem beyond the scope of a usual newspaper. I’m aware that newspapers were once much more verbose and, frankly, more informative than what passes for journalism today, but it still stretches credulity to imagine a newspaper devoting a full page to cooked salads. From what fragmentary evidence I can find from early newspapers, my best guess is that Mrs. De Graf’s columns were arranged as logically as possible, with relevant recipes collected and added as filler.
The end result is frankly more encyclopedia than conventional cookbook. There is little here to suggest Mrs. De Graf’s personal style or tastes: this is a book designed to teach proper discipline and technique for “uniform cooking”. There are recipes for dozens of different salad dressings, instructions for properly cooking various meats, suggestions for plating and garnish, and meticulous directions for how to achieve the perfect custard. There are recipes for preparing lobster and steak along with egg salad for sandwiches and bacon on toast. And every recipe comes with some context; the home cook is not left out to puzzle over difficult recipes on their own. For every unfamiliar term or technique there’s a paragraph or a page to explain it.
But can a twenty-first century cook still cook from it? Undoubtedly yes! The formatting is decidedly vintage, but don’t let that put you off. About half of the recipes are written in the list-and-instructions format that modern cooks are accustomed to while half are written in a narrative style, which was more common in the 1920s. The recipes written in narrative style assume some familiarity with the kitchen and are vague on amounts and ingredients, but they are still quite tractable, especially if you have taken the time to read the surrounding prose. Virtually all ingredients are still accessible in modern grocery stores. Mrs. De Graf is very much a proponent of from-scratch cooking, so there is little risk of needing a convenience item or canned food that’s a century obsolete. And while many recipes suffer from heartstopping amounts of fat and cholesterol, there is also an uncharacteristically strong emphasis on fresh and dried fruits, perhaps due to Mrs. De Graf’s ties with local agricultural interests.
One of the more pleasant surprises in Mrs. De Graf’s Cookbook is a simple recipe for scalloped onions. The original recipe is written in paragraph form: heavy on technique but light on amounts and proportions of ingredients. This should not be intimidating; it should give you confidence that you can’t screw it up. There are dishes and preparations where precision is paramount. Scalloped onions is not one of them. In my adapted recipe below I’ve been a little bit more explicit about ingredient amounts and proportions than Mrs. De Graf, but rest assured there is a wide margin for error.
In modern parlance the term scalloped is often taken to imply a cheese-based sauce. For example, my go to recipe for scalloped potatoes includes nearly a pound of shredded sharp cheddar. If I am being precise this recipe would be properly called scalloped potatoes au gratin, where scalloped refers to cooking in dairy or cream, with au gratin specifying the addition of cheese. Mrs. De Graf’s scalloped onions follow the more traditional definition, being little more than onions cooked in a simple white sauce. The white sauce forms quite naturally during cooking; there is no need to make a separate roux.
The one key addition I’ve made to Mrs. De Graf’s recipe is to infuse a little bit of rosemary into the milk. My reasons are selfish and simple: I like to serve scalloped onions with steak and rosemary and steak are a perfect pairing. This requires a little bit of advance preparation and is not at all necessary, or you might reasonably consider choosing another herb that pairs well with your main course (although steer clear of mint and lemongrass).
As mentioned, scalloped onions pair well with steak and potatoes but would work just as well with a pork chop or ham. The long cook will make the onions quite sweet: serving a bitter green vegetable alongside will help to balance the meal overall. Leftovers can be warmed and served over buttered toast. Enjoy!
For infusing milk:
- Heat milk until hot but not boiling. Add rosemary sprig. Remove from heat and cover and let steep one hour (or longer, in the refrigerator)
For the final cook:
- Preheat oven to 400º F.
- Peel onions and slice into rings approximately ½ inch thick. Dredge in flour and layer in a small casserole dish. Dot with butter and season liberally with salt and pepper.
- Add additional layers of dredged onions, butter, and seasonings as above until casserole dish is full or onions are used up.
- Pour rosemary-infused milk over the top, adding more fresh milk or cream as necessary until the onions are just covered. Bake uncovered for 1 hour. Check halfway through cooking and submerge any onions that are poking out of the liquid.
Mrs. De Graf’s Cook Book is (presumably) in the public domain, and can be found in various formats on the internet as well as publishers specializing in vintage reprints. I’ve found that vintage reprints vary widely in quality and fidelity to the original; my hardcover copy from Forgotten Books is quite good quality, and includes vintage advertisements.