Old recipe book shows how business plans can change
by Ken Weyand
A comb-bound book was recently unearthed among my old files – a reminder of how far Discover Vintage America has come since my fledgling efforts as a journalist/publisher in the 1970s. “Recipes and Stories of Early-Day Settlers” was a collection of history articles and family recipes that had been published in the old “Discover North” since shortly after its introduction in 1973.
Back then, “family recipes” were a part of the paper’s content. Contributed by readers who were rewarded with free subscriptions, the recipes continued to be published for several years. The “Woodsmoke Series” actually evolved from the original comb-bound book to a softcover version a few years later that focused on “Steamboat Adventures” – some contributed and others that I wrote (or adapted from other sources) – about settlers using steamboats to settle much of the wilderness that would become America.
I remember that the books sold fairly well, and also served as inducements to subscribers. We even rewarded a lady from Alice Springs, Australia, with a subscription – although we lost money on the deal. She had picked up a copy from a relative who flew for Qantas Airlines, and sent us several “outback recipes,” which we published in the early 1970s.
We had no official “test kitchen” for the recipes, although my wife and I tried a few with good results. Obviously, the use of lard and other “natural ingredients” made it impractical to duplicate many of the older ones. Plus, many of the oldest recipes were vague about exact measurements, calling for a pinch of this or that, and “bake immediately in a quick oven.”
Probably the most unusual recipe was submitted by F. Maxine Adams, from Fulton, MO, entitled “How to Cook a Skunk.” Earlier she had gotten the recipe from her grandfather, then 81 and a Civil War vet, and copied it in his own words: “I recall a feller worked for me saying of all the wild meat he ever ate, skunk was the sweetest meat. Now I was willin to take his word for it without proven it. Me, I couldn’t get past the idea to try it. I reckon they aint no reason why skunk meat shouldn’t be as good as any. Skin clean, remove scent glands from under front and hind legs. Put in strong salt water and boil about 20 minutes or so. Boil off this here water add fresh and seasons: pepper, bay leaves, sage. Steam till tender. Larpen’ good eaten! Baked tater and wild greens go good with yer skunk.”
The recipe caught the attention of James L. Fisher, a columnist for the Kansas City Star. His “Midlands” column of Dec. 26, 1988 featured the headline: “Cooked a skunk lately?” Along with the skunk recipe, Fisher also described a few of the other recipes in the book: “vinegar pie, boiled dandelions, dried corn, castor oil cookies, suet pudding, cheap fruitcake, mush biscuits, and a dish called simply “meat substitute,” which asked the reader to “boil a quart of water, add a pint of corn meal, cook until done, then add a can of chopped salmon. Let cool, eat, cook or fry.”
Fisher also described some of the book’s “old settler stories,” including a tall tale about a farmer digging potatoes when a monstrous rattlesnake bit his spade’s wooden handle. The poison swelled the handle, broke the ferrule and kept on going. Finally the handle swelled to a point where it was seven feet thick, 163 feet long, and just right to be sawed up into enough lumber to build a tobacco barn.”
Fisher’s review certainly didn’t hurt sales any, and has been framed and hanging in my house ever since – a reminder of my early attempts at publishing. Although the days of “recipes and stories” are over, they helped start a newspaper that has evolved and served the Midwest collector community for fifty years.