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9 Useful, Good Housekeeping-Approved Cooking Tricks from the 1920s

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Most of the clever cookery timesavers women used a century ago don’t translate to today. The idea of serving breakfast cornflakes from a glass pitcher instead of the usual way (which was apparently with a teaspoon) is nifty, but has been completely unnecessary since Kellogg’s got the idea of making their cereal boxes narrow and tall for pouring instead of squat and square for dipping. But there are tiny corners of our kitchens where we still do things very much like our great grandmothers did. Here are some ways, suggested by readers of the era, tested by the Good Housekeeping Institute, and published in Good Housekeeping's Book of Recipes and Household Discoveries: Every Recipe Actually Tested and Approved by The Good House Keeping Institute, to do those things even better.

1. Keep Fish Firm and Flat!

When baking fish, a reader from Massachusetts always places “several strips of clean white cloth wrung out in cold water and extending a little beyond the fish.” (This publication predates the mass marketing of aluminum foil for home use by a few years, although cloth might still work better.) This way, when the fish is done it can be lifted from the pan without breaking to bits.

2. Under-Ripe Muskmelon?

Muskmelon was and is vernacular for many different melons and even cucumbers, depending on which part of the country you were in and when. In this case, the writers were likely referring to cantaloupe. And what’s worse than cutting into your cantaloupe and finding it too green? Don’t throw it to the pig slop just yet! The magazine advises the reader to cut it in half and to each half add “one-half tablespoonful of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Bake as if it were a small squash, and you will find that it tastes somewhat like one. Or you can cut the melon into thin slices, dip them in batter, and fry like eggplant.”

3. Fancy Pants Poaching.

Americans seldom eat carefully poached eggs served in pretty little egg cups anymore, but once upon a time they were a delicate and delicious part of breakfast. Poaching it so that the white was solid but the yolk soft was tricky. After trying years to poach her eggs “the restaurant way,” one lady discovered the trick was to “put a teaspoonful of vinegar in the water and cover the pan. The vinegar keeps the white of the egg from spreading, and the covered pan makes the white cook over the yolk.”

4. Ripening Roundly.

To keep fruit and vegetables from prematurely going brown while ripening, one reader put her produce on a wire cake rest. This way, “the air completely surrounds the fruit or vegetables, and there is no trouble of turning them over, and no bruises resulting from the pressure of a peach or tomato on a hard, flat surface. “

5. Classy Cakes!

One mother made a Pinterest-worthy project out of her daughter’s birthday cake, by using melted chocolate as paint and a hard boiled white frosting as canvas. Using a water-color brush, “I made a border of small objects in silhouette—cats, birds, etc.—around the sides of the cake.” She topped the cake with tiny candles and her daughter’s name painted in chocolate. 

6. Cup o’ Salad!

In the 1920s, it was becoming more and more common for people to be taking picnic lunches along as they traveled “by machine.” Sometimes this necessitated eating in car seats or other places where a full place-setting was unmanageable. So one reader from Washington DC suggests the use of “individual paper drinking cups” for serving a salad.  She commends the ability to hand out individual portions without mess, and even suggests the salad be “garnished attractively with a sprig of parsley stuck in one side.”

7. Shortcut for shortening!

Scraping the proper amount of shortening into a measuring cup is just as tedious now as it was then, but one lady had an ingenious solution for getting the right amount. “When one-half cup of shortening is called for, I fill the measuring cup one-half full of water, then drop in shortening until the water comes to the top. Drain this off, and one-half cup of shortening remains.”

8. Two Ingredient Maple Frosting.

It’s so simple it would never occur to most of us. One woman found a quick way to frost hearty cakes: Just add maple syrup to powdered sugar until it’s spreadable. 

9. Bacon Makes it Better.

One reader writes to tell Good Housekeeping that her family much prefers baked macaroni and cheese if raw bacon is first layered on top of the casserole before going into the over. We’ll file that one under “Blameless ignorance of a more innocent time.” Or just, “Bacon. Duh.”

BONUS: Combine Peanut Butter and Rice!

It was a fresh strange combination in the 1920s, and it seems to be a fresh strange combination now. We’re instructed to “Boil one-half cupful of rice until tender, in boiling, salted water. Pour over it one pint of thin white sauce, to which one-half cupful of peanut butter has been added.” The Washington reader who submits this idea is sure that you will find this “a tasty combination.”

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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