Cookbook Review: The Grass Roots Cookbook

Nowadays new cookbooks seem to crop up every week. Some are by celebrity chefs, some are by self-proclaimed health gurus, and some are chock full of “quick” recipes. But vintage cookbooks are my favorite kind, and I like food memoirs and 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s cookbooks best of all.

This cookbook is a little bit of both. But I didn’t know that when I first saw it. Let’s face it – the cover is a dead giveaway that it was published in the 1970s (1974, to be exact). And I’d been burned by ‘70s cookbooks that looked great, only to be filled with recipes for sprouted wheat bread and nutloaf and wheatgrass pie (okay, I made that last one up). You get my drift. I’ve also been burned by old church lady cookbooks that look fantastic, only to find they are filled with recipes calling for Crisco and canned everything and “processed cheese food loaf.” Thankfully, this cookbook is neither of those things.

The Grass Roots Cookbook: Regional American Recipes from Across the Land: Appalachia to California, New England to the Great Plains, The Mountain States to the Old South is a celebration of classic, historic, and ethnic American food. Jean Anderson, who went on to write many more cookbooks, including the “American Century Cookbook,” plays the role of anthropologist in this book. Divided by regions, Anderson interviews a variety of women who grew up and got married during the 1910s, ’20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Most were farm women and their recipes feature many kinds of vegetables.

The 1970s were when social history (the history of everyone other than wealthy white men) was just getting started as a popular and academic discipline. Anthropology and history students across the country began talking to people born in the 19th and early 20th century about everything from old-time mountain music to historic trades to foodways. And thank goodness people like Jean Anderson took the time to record the stories and recipes of women whose ways were still relatively free of boxed and processed foods.

The best part of this lovely little book is the stories told first-hand by the women Anderson interviewed. With tales of kitchen disasters as young women, growing up cooking, learning from an expert mother-in-law, or inventing dishes on their own, these women share a piece of their lives with their collections of their best and most favored recipes.

Each recipe comes with a short description and often a little tale of where it came from or how the cook uses it. The little stories are told either by the cooks themselves, or recounted by Anderson.

Every time I go back to this book and flip through it I am inspired. These recipes could have been boring, “been there, done that” farm food like pot roast or fried chicken or apple pie, and there are some of those types of recipes present. But there are also recipes for “Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle Relish,” “Brown Sugar Pound Cake with Walnut Glaze,” “Batter Fried Dandelion or Pumpkin Blossoms,” and “Dilled Green Tomatoes.”

Here’s an interesting spring recipe to try. If you use dandelion blossoms that is. It comes from Mrs. Ruben Shoemaker of Ross County, Ohio.

Batter Fried Dandelion or Pumpkin Blossoms

Dandelion blossoms are not something most of us think of cooking – or pumpkin blossoms, either. But Mrs. Shoemaker likes to deep-fry both, jacketed in an egg batter. If you intend to gather pumpkin blossoms, she cautions, you must do so early in the morning. “They close up tight in the heat of the day.”

2 quarts dandelion blossoms, washed and stemmed (be sure to leave the green caps on the blossoms)
1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 eggs beaten well with 2 tablespoons milk
vegetable oil or shortening for deep-fat frying (you’ll need about 2 inches of fat in the deep-fat fryer)

  1. Soak the blossoms for about 10 minutes in a sinkful of cool water to which you have added 1 tablespoon of salt. Drain, spread blossoms out on several thicknesses of paper toweling and let “air-dry” about 15 minutes.
  2. To dredge the blossoms, shake – very gently – a few at a time, in a mixture of the flour, salt, and pepper in a brown paper bag. Using a slotted spoon, dip blossoms into the egg mixture, letting excess run off.
  3. Deep-fry at about 365 to 375 until golden and crisp – this will only take a minute or two. Drain blossoms on paper toweling, then serve straightaway as a vegetable.

Want to know the best part about this little memoir/cookbook? It can be had online for as little as $5 and I bet you could find a copy at a thrift store for even cheaper (mine was $2) or better yet, at the library for free.

This book is a fantastic read and will give you all kinds of ideas and good recipes to try, along with the classics.

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