For me, one of the great delights of my life as a writer is learning new things every single day. For the past several months, I've been working on the 2013 Garden Club mystery, The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star. Because the books are set in the 1930s, this involves a lot of research--and a lot of learning, some of which I've been photo-documenting via a Pinterest board.
Since this series is "cozy," foods and cooking are important, and of course there's a recipe section in the back of the book. Since the Dahlias are Southerners (the town of Darling is located in southern Alabama), the foods are regional. And since the action is set in the 1930s, the characters are cooking and eating 1930s food, both at home and in the local diner.
Well. southern food is pretty easy, as it turns out, and the information is easy to get. Witness the large number of hits you get when you google "southern food." And then of course there are the dozens of good Southern cookbooks. Hush puppies, grits, fried green tomatoes, red-eye gravy, buttermilk pie, stewed okra--there's no shortage of great regional foods for Lizzy, Verna, Myra May and the others to enjoy.
But while many foods are timeless (okra was first documented as a vegetable in Egypt in 1216), others are definitely rooted in history. In this case, in the U.S., in the 1930s. Vinegar pie, for example (I have my mom's recipe, clipped from a 1934 newspaper). And "Canned Sandwich Filling," from a 1932 cookbook, which begins this way: "At butchering time take the liver, kidneys, lights, melts, rinds from lard meat, cleaned, bony head pieces, etc. Cook until meat drops from bones..." Spam, anybody?
Let's cut to the chase. In the mystery I'm working on, the Dahlias are creating a party menu, and they would like to serve quiche. But wait! What about quiche? It's French, right? No, I remember seeing it--as a savory pudding--when I translated a 14th century English cookbook years ago. But what about 1930s Americans? Did they eat quiche? Was there a 1930s recipe for quiche?
Well, yes, there was. After a couple of hours of research, I think I've gotten to the bottom of this little culinary mystery. So far as I can tell, the first recipe for quiche, under the name of Cheese Custard Pie, appears in the very first edition (1931) of Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking. I'll write more about this wonderful book (I have the facsimile edition) later, in another post.
But for now, let me just say that the Dahlias will indeed be serving quiche--or rather, Cheese Custard Pie--at Mildred Kilgore's party in The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star. And if you happen to have the 1931 edition of Joy, you'll find Mrs. Rombauer's recipe for this dish on page 60. There, she tells a marvelous little story about the "vile tempered cook named Marguerite" that the Rombauers hired when they lived in Switzerland. Marguerite regularly served Cheese Custard Pie "in solitary state." Its flavor "varied with [her] moods and her supply of cheese" and was "never twice the same, as she had no written rule." Mrs. Rombauer's written rule is very simple: 3/4 cup top milk, 1 cup grated cheese, 2 eggs, salt, cayenne (a "few grains"), paprika. Sound familiar?
As I understand it, Irma Rombauer's 1931 recipe for what has become a weekend treat at our house is the first quiche recipe in an American cookbook. If you know of one that's earlier, please tell us. I would love to hear about it.
Reading note: Cook-books have always intrigued and seduced me. When I was still a dilettante in the kitchen they held my attention, even the dull ones, from cover to cover, the way crime and murder stories did.--The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954)