Potatoes. Such a plentiful and cheap food for my Irish and British ancestors, and the early settlers in America. But they can get boring (apologies to my sister who never met a potato she didn’t like). So our ancestors in aprons found a variety of ways to cook them.
A dish of Scalloped Potatoes, likeWelsh Rarebit is a old-fashioned comfort food.
But before I get to today’s recipe for Scalloped Potatoes, I want to tell you about my experience at stoop labor–digging potatoes.
When I was attending Killbuck High School in Ohio, the class always wanted to raise money with various projects. Other than buying something to leave as a gift for the school when we graduated, I don’t know what the money was for. But I do know of one smart farmer up near Wooster who figured out how to take advantage of the high school slave labor market.
The potato farmer contacted schools and offered to pay some paltry amount to a class if they came and dug potatoes in his fields during potato harvesting time. Our class bit. It was quite a lark–particularly for the townies. The kids who came from farms may have been thinking we were downright crazy. On the other hand, they probably didn’t go along because they were doing actual work on their own farms.
We piled into a school bus (rules for outings were more lenient in the 50s) and were delivered at the potato field. The furrows had already been dug up mechanically, so all we had to do was pick up the potatoes and put them in a sack and carry them back to where they were being weighed. What was a lot of fun with a lot of joking and flirting and competition, got old really fast as dirt caked our arms and legs and muscles screamed from all that hauling.
In retrospect, that day in the potato field might have had something to do with the inordinately high percentage of students from our tiny school who wound up going to college. Anything but potato picking to make a living!
Meanwhile, although that experience might have had something to do with my disdain for eating potatoes, there was one dish my grandma Vera Anderson, and my mother, Harriette Kaser made that I loved for its creamy goodness.
scalloped potatoes ready for the oven with flour sprinkled over the slices.
I have tried to find out why scalloped potatoes are called “scalloped”. Among the various theories, the most likely is that “escalloped” refers to meat sliced very thin. The secret of success with scalloped potatoes is thin slicing–the term probably moved over to potatoes. I would have thought that might be a Norman word imported into England, but Google sources say it comes from the Old English word “collops,” referring to shredded meat. Whatever.
Basically, scalloped potatoes require only potatoes, salt and pepper, butter and milk or cream. I learned the hard way that adding flour helps make the sauce into sauce instead of just a bowl of milk. From the beginnings you can add cheese (for au gratin–or “cheesy scalloped potatoes”) or meat, or different seasonings.
The technique varies, too. Cook the potatoes first before layering and baking. Cook the sliced potatoes in the sauce before baking. Cook covered. Cook uncovered. Here’s a heritage recipe that worked well for me (and other than the fact that I don’t recall my mother using flour, seems to parallel the family recipe).
The Rector Cook Book 1928
From The Rector Cookbook by George Rector (1928)
Wash and peel the required number of potatoes and slice in 1/8 inch thickness. Butter a baking dish and cover bottom with a layer of sliced potatoes. Sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and flour and dot with several small pieces of butter. Continue layers of potatoes and seasonings until required quantity is used up. Then pour milk over all and bake in a moderate oven 50 minutes. Serve from baking dish in which they were cooked.
Oh, wait….you want details? Okay, here’s the recipe as I made it. (Except you have to decide for yourself how much salt and pepper to use.) The pyrex dish in the basket with a wooden base (pictured below) was a practical wedding present given to Ken and me and is still in use in my kitchen.
Butter a Pyrex baking dish. 10" round as I used takes longer to bake than a flat dish.
Make a layer of sliced potatoes. Scatter flour lightly and salt and pepper to taste. Dot with pieces of butter.
Repeat layers until you use all potatoes.
Pour Half and Half over potatoes. You need to have the cream/milk come to the top layer of potatoes.
Cover with glass lid or aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Test with fork to see if potatoes are beginning to get soft.
When potatoes are no longer crisp, but are not yet mushy, uncover and turn up heat to 400 degrees until potatoes begin to brown on top. (At this point I added three strips of cooked bacon, broken into small pieces.)
if you w ant Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes, add grated cheese of your choice in the last step.
Discovering three instances of female ancestors running a boarding house, or at least renting rooms reminded me of staying in rooming houses when the family took road trips. And all of that made me think about how our cooking culture changes through the decades. And why boarding houses faded away with the advent of World War II.
Maude Stout Bartlett in garden of her Buffalo Home where she rented a room.
There was a time in American history (late 1800’s through the Great Depression) when boarding houses and rooming houses were the prevalent place of relevance for unmarried men to live. (Less frequently women).Generally they were run by widows or single women who had no other means of supporting themselves.
Franklin Avenue house (on the left) nearly 50 years after we lived there. You will notice the iron railing seen in picture below is missing from the front stoop.
Their life story would run like this–get married, move with their husband and children to a large house. Years pass. Husband dies, or deserts wife, or does not provide for her, perhaps older children move away, leaving her with no skills to support herself besides housekeeping and cooking (actually pretty considerable skills, but not particularly valued). It was only logical for her to turn that extra space in her house into an income-producer.
The occupation was looked upon as a last resort. Women would prefer not to have strangers in their homes. And opening a boarding house or rooming house was an admission that you had no other way of earning a living, so if the woman was previously a respected member of her community, she moved down a notch.
Boarding and rooming houses evolved into more temporary lodgings–as opposed to the semi-permanent homes of single men–the forerunners of today’s Bed and Breakfasts. I remember my family seeking out respectable rooming houses when we took road trips. I can remember staying in spotlessly clean rooms with polished wood floors on second floors. It was just like visiting an elderly aunt. Very homey.
In scanning census records, I came across an entry in the 1925 census that surprised me. Aunt Maude’s husband Carlos died in 1914. She may have given piano lessons, but I don’t know of any other means she had survive other than a pension or life insurance policy from Carlos. In 1925 another person was living in her home: Arthur C. Willets, 62, an American citizen originally from England. He worked for an advertising agency.
It must have been difficult for a woman who had once entertained a Queen to have to rent out a room. I can’t imagine her cranking out meals every day. On the other hand, I’m sure she was proud to have an Englishman to whom she could serve tea and cookies instead of some country bumpkin.
Harriette Anderson Kaser, the Reluctant Landlady.
Friend Judy, Brother Bill, Bunny (Vera Marie) at Franklin Avenue house in Columbus. (I think that is a girl scout uniform I’m wearing).
Although in my memory, full of rich detail of that period, it seems that we lived on Franklin Avenue in Columbus for many years, I know that in fact we only lived there for a short time, between 1947 and the end of 1948. Clues that cement the time period: toward the end of that period, Mother took my brother and me to Killbuck to be with Grandmother Vera because she was ill, and I know that Mother learned she was pregnant with my sister while we lived in that Franklin Avenue house. However we had moved to another Columbus neighborhood by the time my sister was born in March, 1949.
Sometime during the time we lived at the Franklin Avenue house, mother and dad rented out rooms to one or two men. My father was traveling for his job and money was tight. Mother was used to earning money teaching school, but renting rooms was more practical. She later told me she was very frightened to be alone in the house with these men that she didn’t know.
The house would have made a perfect boarding house, however she did not cook meals for the lodgers. The house had a large kitchen and a big walk-in pantry. Even more intriguing to a young girl, it had a pass-through –like a secret compartment–from the kitchen to the sizeable dining room, through a portion of a built in china cabinet that filled one entire wall. With its back stairs from the kitchen to the 2nd floor maid’s room, the house reflected a different way of cooking and eating forty years before we lived there.
NOTE: After publishing this post, I was re-reading some of mother’s memories and learned that she and my father also rented out two rooms in a too-large house they lived in in New Philadelphia, Ohio when I was just a toddler. She said it was her favorite of all the houses she ever lived in.
Grandma Vera Stout Anderson and the Boarding House that Became a Restaurant.
Vera and Guy Anderson, 1941 in Killbuck. Grandma’s swollen legs show the mark of long years on her feet in the kitchen. Grandpa wears a pocket-sized hearing aid.
I have talked a lot about the restaurant that my grandmother and grandfather Anderson ran out of their home in Killbuck, Ohio. However, I just learned–again thanks to a census report–that the restaurant was preceded by a boarding house. Daddy Guy bounced from business to business after he left farming, so this was just one more.
In the 1930 census lists, along with Leonard Guy Anderson (Daddy Guy) and Vera M. Anderson, my mother (23) and their son Herbert G. Anderson(21) and his wife and one-year-old son, also five men as lodgers. This makes perfect sense. I can see how cooking for that many people might evolve into the idea of cooking for anyone who wanted to pay for a meal. Plus, with young men enlisting at the onset of World War II, the demand for rooms would have disappeared.
The same hearty fare that made up blue plate specials in the restaurant–meat loaf, beef stew, pot roast and pies of every variety–would have filled the table at the boarding house. When I think of Grandma Vera cooking for ten people every day, I realize how difficult it must have been for her in later years to adjust to being alone.
She did not leave recipes for these hearty main dishes, because she just knew how to make them, and any housewife worth her salt should know also.
1925 Cook Book Cover
So I perused the Buffalo Evening News Cookbook (1925) for a look at what assumptions were being made about cooking during the 1930’s. It was, after all, tough times, and you had to stretch what little meat you had, although it was assumed that there would always be meat on the table. And bread and butter. And salt and pepper. So I turned to the “One Dish Meals” chapter of the Buffalo Evening News Cookbook and found a recipe that definitely sounded like something grandma would make, the salty ham a lovely contrast with the crusty skin on top, potatoes creamy underneath.
One more note–in another twenty years, mushroom soup would have become the standard substitution for milk or cream in recipes like this, but I never liked it as much as the plain milk in my scalloped potatoes.
Cooking for the Boarding House
Recipe Type: Entree
Author: Vera Marie Badertscher
Ham and potatoes
1 lb. ham
2 Cups Milk
Pare potatoes and slice thin. Cut ham in pieces suitable for serving. Lay in the bottom of a casserole, season with pepper and put the sliced potato on top. Add the milk and bake slowly until the potatoes are tender. Sprinkle chopped parsley on top just before serving. (A step Grandma would probably have skipped)
I’m sure that for ten people, Grandma would have doubled or tripled this recipe. She could easily have cooked a whole ham for Sunday dinner, and then used the leftover scraps to make this dish later in the week.[br]”Cook slowly until the potatoes are tender”in modern terms translates into 350 degree oven for one hour to 1- 1/2 hour, depending on type of potato.