Midnight oil

I am a night owl. Everyone knows this about me. My preferred hours of top activity are somewhere between 10 pm and 5 am, which sort of explains my well documented need to sleep until noon on a regular basis.

Even as a kid, I couldn’t sleep during regular sleeping hours. I consistently stayed up long after my mother and brothers had gone to bed, my feet up on the old linoleum table in the kitchen, reading and fretting and drinking tea and writing tales of dread and love and woe until the early morning hours.

But at some point in my teenaged insomniacal life, I discovered Midnight Cooking.

My great aunt Eva had been thoughtful enough to leave behind all of her old cookbooks and recipe cards when she left her house and all its contents for us to inherit when I was eight. Hundreds of cookbooks — from fat old Fannie Farmer encomiums to flimsy little wartime ration-cooking pamphlets — were jammed into the desperately untidy little butler’s pantry that lay just off the kitchen, guarded by a massive floor-to-ceiling flour sifter that was mounted to the hallway wall.

For a long time, my favorite was the old 1898 Fannie Farmer, which taught me when I was fourteen years old how to make meringues. This recipe involved beating your egg whites into “stiff white peaks” — an operation that was to be done by hand, naturally.

“Beat in a large bowl at least 200 times.”

Which, if you haven’t guessed, is a superb thing to ask an insomniac teenage girl to do at two in the morning.

Here ya go, kid. This’ll keep you busy for a while.

There was also something in that recipe about how many inches to leave your oven door open, and how frequently you would have to stoke the flame to keep your oven “slow” enough, but I usually just cranked it to 200 degrees and read another hour’s worth of whatever Dorothy Sayers mystery I was in the middle of at the time.

Then I ate a bunch of sugary meringues at three in the morning, which probably wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had. Ah, well. Youth.

There was also a tiny little box of recipe cards, all written in Eva’s delightful scrawl, which gave me hours of entertainment — and resulted in many, many failed experiments — as I tried to replicate decades-old recipes with all the wrong ingredients, and all the wrong techniques.

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

But I couldn’t keep away from this box of handwritten recipes, and I still can’t keep away from it today.

Because look at it. LOOK AT IT


Go ahead, open it up.


Can you even stand it?

There’s a note on the inside of the lid, says it was bought on March 5, 1935. Undoubtedly to replace an earlier box, since most of the recipe cards inside are much, much older.


Meats, muffins, soaps, cleaning silver. Poison ivy remedies. Turkey stuffing.


Most of the cards have an author attribution. Mother Howard’s Indian Pudding. Mrs. Bassett’s Pineapple Tapioca. Minnie’s Rice Pudding. Relatives and neighbors, most of them. I know some of the names. Not all.


Minnie, in case you have forgotten, is my great grandmother, who lived down the street from us, too. The whole of Perry Lane used to be dotted with my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great grandparents. And their dogs. Everyone had Newfoundland dogs.


Minnie Baker

Lots of recipes from Minnie. Most of them sweets.


Lucia’s doughnuts. 1919.


Mrs. Morse. Edna Tyler. Eda. Mother H. Auntie. Emma.


Always room for a little celebrity recipe, it seems. Mrs. Coolidge has her say:


Do not use too much flour.


This one is marked good, which is intriguing…


…but not as intriguing as the note on the back, which informs us that if you don’t have sugar, then sour cream and chicken grease is fine, too.


Eda Perry. Another aunt, another neighbor on Perry Lane in West Dennis.


There was a short-lived attempt to modernise at one point. One or two of the cards are typewritten. Not much more than that.

I am a little afraid of this recipe.


I pulled out all the cards for the first time this morning. And look what I found! A folded up scrap of newspaper! Very clearly hidden away from prying eyes! I have never seen this before! Could it be… A CLUE???

(I might have read quite a lot of breathless mystery novels when I was a teenaged midnight insomniac cookie baker.)



It’s a recipe for… firecracker pine cones?


Pardon me, but WT ever-living F?

Can you, in fact, still buy such things in the drug stores, as handy crystal formulas?

There was an old apothecary down at the end of Perry Lane when I was little. It’s a liquor store now, I think. It probably had the strontium nitrate sitting on the shelf right next to the goddamn laudanum.

Ah, but these were simpler times. Opium and explosives for everyone!

Perhaps this calls for further research.

(The pine cones, silly. Not the opium. Sheesh.)

Or maybe I should just stick with the meringues.

7 Thoughts.

  1. I came across your website via flickr when I was looking up “south mandelle,” the dorm I lived in in 1998-9. This post makes my day both because I love to cook and because I’m a historian. Oh, and because we’re MHCers :)

  2. Mandelle-ites unite! I lived there for all four years, you know, from 1989 to 1993. South Mandelle my first year, then North, North, North. Loved that place so much. Who gets to walk across a waterfall every day to work? We do, that’s who. :)

  3. LOVE this post, and your blog, which I discovered through a re-tweet on Twitter. Very much my cup of tea – what a fabulous recipe box! Oh god I have such recipe-envy.

  4. This was very intriguing! I quite enjoyed the wander through family history and it is an original way of studying how women socialized and lived in the early 20th century! I never thought to use my grandmother’s recipes and other relatives contributions as a way to look back on them :)

    As usual, you always impress me with seeking out history in the everyday 😉
    Bravo ma belle!

  5. What a treasure! My family recipes are still stuck in my Aunt Mary’s head. Must get her to write them down for me. Your blog is a revelation; aptly named and beautifully written. Best of luck with the manuscripts.

  6. I love this post! Perfect subject matter for a nocturnal person who collects funky antique cookbooks. This had me laughing out loud. I love the end of the pine cone recipe: “…for it will eat metal of any type.”

  7. I found this post because my own blog is called Midnight Oil, and to answer your question: no, no I can’t stand it. That box is some serious paydirt for recipe hunters: wacky, old-school, and freaking adorable! WANT!

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