If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .

Mid-Century Modern Mommy Cooks Mid-Century Meals

Even in the 1930s, housewives were trying to find a way to spend less time in the kitchen. In 1939, Marjorie Abbott published Half Hour Dinners, a book of quick, three course meals. She addressed this book to the busy housewife, the business woman, the bachelor, and anyone who has to cook in summer.

Now, my house has no air conditioner. From the beginning of June until the end of August, temperatures are usually in the 90s, and sometimes they hit the triple digits. I have a lot of vintage techniques for keeping the house cool without an A/C, but the hardest thing is dinner. We can’t just cook outside, because the fire danger is usually too high for even charcoal briquettes to be safe. And cooking really heats up the kitchen. So I turned to my collection of vintage cookbooks to find out how pre-A/C housewives provided their husbands with a “proper” dinner, without roasting them out of house and home.

Marjorie Abbott’s Half Hour Dinners is really quite modern. It includes a menu, necessary recipes, and even a little shopping list for each dinner. She relies partly on convenience foods to accomplish each dinner in a half hour — apparently every food under the sun can be canned and stored in your pantry. She also expects that everyone will know at least the basics of cooking before they begin. (If you have ever tried to make a Blue Apron dinner, you know that it is really quite difficult to have it done in the expected time!)

Better Meals

The book starts with a section on preparing better meals. It recommends starting with the recipe that will take the longest, and preparing anything that needs to chill, or cooked eggs and potatoes for a recipe, the night before. It also gives a list of “simple but attractive” garnishes. (Garnishes! On a 30-minute meal!) There is a note that the menus serve two, and you should increase or decrease quantities accordingly. It discusses frozen vs. canned foods, tells the cook how to make white sauce and substitute whipped cream, and ends by telling the cook that they should choose their own beverage.

Next, the book lays out a two-page list of pantry supplies. Marjorie Abbott seems positively giddy about the range of canned goods available — her variety of canned goods to keep on hand includes 10 kinds of canned fish, 8 kinds of canned fruit, 6 kinds of canned juice (including SAUERKRAUT!), 7 kinds of canned meats, 17(!) kinds of canned soup, 22 kinds of canned vegetables, and 14 kinds of miscellaneous canned goods. She goes on to the kinds of varied and exotic canned foods that you can include to taste. I didn’t know you could get canned frog legs, but apparently they were available in 1939!

Meat and Fish Dinners

The very first menu in the book, a “meat dinner,” actually looks quite good. Personally, I would use frozen green beans, but that is the only change I would make.

The first menu from Half Hour Dinners, by Marjorie Abbott, 1939

From this menu, you can see that the cook is supposed to know how to cook. I mean, can you tell me, off the top of your head, what temperature to bake potatoes at? What about pan-frying the pork chops?

Here is a sample “fish dinner.”

A “Fish Dinner” from Half Hour Dinners by Marjorie Abbott, 1939

Now, this is just about the most retro dessert I have ever seen. I kind of want to try it — just to see if it is really as astoundingly sweet as it reads on paper. I might not make this menu for my family, though. Even though I love creamed salmon, my hubby doesn’t like things in white sauce.

Hot Weather Menus

Now, these are the menus I really want to try! This summer, it is already breaking 90 degrees in mid-May, and it is as dry as Ezekiel’s bones out there. I really need some ideas for attractive, easy, quick-cooking meals. Here is one:

A “Hot-Weather Dinner” from Half Hour Dinners, by Marjorie Abbott, 1939

Now, this is actually the only really edible-seeming menu in this section! I wouldn’t use canned spinach, but I might use frozen. Otherwise, this doesn’t look too bad. Just for fun, here are a couple of the ones that are PAINFULLY retro.

Another “Hot-Weather Dinner” from Half Hour Dinners.

There is a way to make a tomato jelly salad that tastes good. This is not it. Also, this is a two-course meal. And the pie is supposed to be bought. Here’s another:

Another “Hot-Weather Dinner” from Half Hour Dinners.

This is a lot of sides. That’s it. And baking potatoes will NEVER keep your house cool. Don’t try it. Save the baked potatoes for a snowstorm or something.

So, that is what women (and bachelors! Don’t forget about those bachelors!) in the 1930s did about quick-and-easy dinners. What do you do for summer cooking? I’d love to hear what some of you do for your summer cooking. Leave a note in the comments with suggestions for how I can keep my kitchen cool!

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