My Grandmother-in-law’s attic is a fascinating place to spend an hour or two. My mother-in-law is trying, slowly, to empty it of the amassed detritus of a long life, but when I go up to help, it seems I can even less bear to throw anything away than her mother. We found old carved beds, cinema seats, a school desk, carnival masks, wardrobes full of vintage dresses, sack-loads of wool, and hundreds of books. Huge drifts of books, piling up against the walls and undulating into the distance. Of course, that rendered me completely useless, as I spent the next few hours digging through the gold.
Two of the books had to come home with me. Although the house is in Lorraine, France, these two books were written in German, dating them to one of the periods of history when Lorraine belonged to the neighbouring country. Bloody periods of history they were too, which made the content of the books feel strangely out of place in their time. I found a torn-off page of a calendar in one of them, with a plan for the next day’s meals on the reverse. The date was August 31st 1916. The First World War was raging, claiming millions of lives, and yet between the faded cloth-bound covers of the book was a world of newlyweds learning how to pickle-cure hams and prune a cherry tree.
The books are called Das Hauswesen and Gritli in der Küche., or Housekeeping and Gritli in the kitchen. Gritli is an imaginary Swiss girl who has come down from the mountains to find work in the house of a professor. The books were written for young women leaving home for the first time and take the form of letters, or conversations. Both times an older woman passes on her knowledge to a younger, and urges her to find joy and satisfaction in the kitchen, saying at one point in Das Hauswesen, “Cooking is taking the finest gifts of nature, and transforming them into that which sustains soul and body.” A beautiful sentiment, I think.
It was not just the wisdom of the author that the books contained. Trapped beneath the pages were handwritten recipes and preserved flowers. They blew away to dust when I opened the pages, as well they might, they had been picked on a summer’s day over a hundred years ago. While the guns blazed on the battle fields to the north, my Husband’s great-great grandmother picked flowers and learned how to cure an ox tongue.
Apart from the typeset of Das Hauswesen, which is that particular style of gothic print we associate with the darkest days of German history, I found them to be surprisingly modern. Gadgets and conveniences are praised, and one picture shows a kind of hand-kranked KitchenAid.That would be a very hipster way to make a cake. The adverts feature Kellog’s cornflakes and Maggi würze, both still mainstays of the German shopping basket. The only difference was that you bought the maggi stock cubes individually, which must have driven the cashier crazy.
I am going to try and cook from the two books. The kind words of Marie Kübler, and the simplicity of Emma Coradi-Stahl will once again put food in bellies. I am not too sure where I would buy the ingredients for an ox-mouth salad, but the elderflower season will soon be upon us, and I would like to try the elderflower lemonade carbonated by wild yeast. Some of the offal recipes may seem off-putting to modern sensibilities, but these books were written by women whose readers understood that a cow does not consist solely of roast beef and rump steak. Pickled tongue sandwiches sound delicious, and like so many of the recipes, a classic which carries an echo of a different, less wasteful time.