Traveling through time, via food


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Contrary to classic science fiction films, a time machine isn’t needed in step into the past. Just stopping by a Historic Foodies meeting is enough to be taken to another era through food.

The Iowa City Historic Foodies group meets the last Wednesday of every month somewhere in Iowa City to go over recipes from a specific time period they’ve researched and made.

Colleen Theisen, a member of the group and a librarian of the University of Iowa Special Collections library said the idea for the group sprouted from a large supply of old recipes in the UI library.

“We have more than 20,000 cookbooks and hundreds of handwritten ones, from the 1600s to the present,” she said. “[The library] put up the handwritten cookbooks to try and get people to help us transcribe them, then we realized figuring out what they say doesn’t actually tell us how to make the recipes.”

After they had been transcribed, the group soon found out certain measurements did not add up.

“So many times it will say take some butter the size of a hen’s egg and bake it in the usual way,” Theisen said.

Baker and member of the group Tammy Coverdale agrees, and said she also has trouble figuring out how to cook the old recipes.

“The thing of it is when you’re reading these recipes, depending on how far back you go, they used implements that had different names,” she said. “This wasn’t a pan, this was a spider. The measurements were different. You have to decipher all that stuff.”

“We’ve definitely had things fail,” Theisen said.

Member Theresa Carbrey said deciphering the recipes has always been a fun challenge for her. She also adds that the historically recent development of cookbooks also makes recipe reading harder.

“Things were different,” she said. “The [uncertainty] makes it exciting, fun and increases your risk of failure, but you also have fun. There used to not be cookbooks. You and your mother had a folder of recipes and it was treasured, so [cookbooks] are relatively recent.”

Coverdale’s interest in cooking had always been present and she said the group seemed like an interesting twist to traditional cooking.

“I’ve always been interested in reading old recipes,” she said. “I would read a recipe book before any other type of writing.”

This month’s theme for the group was “Railroad.” Members researched and found a recipe from the time period when eating on a train was a five-star experience and made it for the group. Pullman trains, the Fred Harvey trains and Harvey Girls, who made the food on the trains, were the topic of conversation.

With a more recent point in railroad history, Carbrey found personal connections when researching for her recipe.

“I have experience as a child riding on the Pullman trains,” she said. “It was very exciting to go to the dining car and it was considered very elegant and high class. It was at the end of the line for the train, all the food was going to go nowhere. So [the train assistant] just piled us children with all kinds of things and we ate and ate until we were full.”

Pullman trains often used dining cars from the Fred Harvey Company, a hospitality chain of restaurants and stores.

Carbrey was looking for a recipe to use up cabbage she had and found a coleslaw recipe from the time period online.

“I was looking for a coleslaw to use up this cabbage, and I found the Fred Harvey railroad coleslaw,” she said.

The group’s next meeting will be on Aug. 26.

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