Autumn Cooking, Smith College Relief Unit Style

We all joke about cooking with pumpkin in October, but guess what?  The Smith College Relief Unit was doing it, too, back in 1917!

They might be afflicted with rationing and war bread, but the Smith College Relief Unit found themselves the object of relentless invitations to dinner from neighboring groups of lonely American and Canadian soldiers.  Feeling they ought to return the favor, in October of 1917 the Smith Unit got out their favorite recipes, rolled up their sleeves, dug up some dishes (no, really!  they’d been buried by the gardener’s wife so the Germans wouldn’t get them), and invited twelve officers from the neighboring 11th US Engineers for dinner.

Of course, nothing quite went as intended….  They wound up short of dishes and had to run around washing out their tooth mugs to serve soup in and then re-washing them for desert.  The exhumed dishes turned out to be a bit loamy and had to be stealthily re-washed on the sidelines, with hopes that their guests wouldn’t notice.  And, of course, unexpected guests showed up in the form of a random British major, an American Army surgeon, and a French army camion with a delivery of pigs.  Because that’s the sort of thing that happens when you’re the Smith Unit.

Here’s the menu, as reported by one member of the Unit: “Pumpkin soup in cups, soup plates, tooth mugs, and glasses; roast beef, potatoes, cauliflower au gratin…  Chocolate rice pudding in said tooth mugs washed over– sounds good doesn’t it– and it was.”

Would you like to dine like the Smith College Relief Unit?  Get out your tooth mug and here are some recipes the Smithies might have used….

— Pumpkin Soup (or potage au potiron)

“Take three pounds of ripe pumpkin, peel and remove the seeds, cut into pieces of moderate size, and place in a stewpan over the fire with a pint of water; let it boil slowly till soft, strain off all the water, and pass the pumpkin through a colander; return the pulp into the stew pan adding nearly three pints of milk, one ounce or more of butter, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a few lumps of loaf sugar; boil for ten minutes, stirring often.  Pour it boiling into the dish, on very thin slices of bread.  The sugar improves the flavor but may be omitted.  It can be seasoned with a blade of mace or a little nutmeg.” — from Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, 1878.


“3/4 cup cooked squash, 1 quart milk, 1 slice onion, 2 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon salt, few grains pepper, 1/4 teaspoon celery salt.  Rub squash through a sieve before measuring.  Scald milk with onion, remove onion, and add milk to squash, season, and bind.”– from The Boston cooking-school cookbook, 1896.

Modern equivalent: a simple creamy pumpkin soup recipe from AllRecipes.

(Photo: moi)

— Cauliflower au gratin

“Boil the cauliflower.  Melt a tablespooon of butter in a saucepan and stir smoothly in one tablespoon of flour, thin with half a pint of milk, stir until boiling, add four tablespoons of grated cheese, a dash of cayenne and salt to taste.  Pour this over the cauliflower and serve hot.” –from The Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cookbook, 1909 edition.

Modern equivalent: Smitten Kitchen’s Cauliflower Gratin or Cauliflower Cheese

— Chocolate Rice Pudding

Okay, this one stymied me.  I scoured period cookbooks from the 1870s through 1917, from The American Housewife Cookbook (1878) to The Settlement House Cookbook (1901) to the Gold Medal Flour Cookbook (1917) and everything you can think of in between.  (Did I mention there were a LOT of cookbooks published in American between 1870 and 1917?)  I found innumerable recipes for rice pudding, including ground rice pudding, rice pudding with fruit, rice pudding for invalids, and tons of recipes for chocolate puddings, mostly involving bread, but nothing for chocolate rice pudding. The closest I came was a recipe from a 1930s cookbook (too late for my Smithies, but I was getting annoyed), from a promotional cookbook for evaporated milk.

The Smith College Relief Unit did use a great deal of evaporated milk, so here’s that 1935 recipe:

“1 tall cup White House milk, 1/4 cup rice, 2 1/2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup cocoa.  Boil rice in salted water until tender.  Do not drain.  Mix sugar and cocoa, add to rice.  Add milk.  Bake in a slow oven (300 degrees) for 1 1/2 hours, stirring twice during the first hour.  Allow to brown during the last half hour.  Serve hot or cold.” — from White House Milk Company, 1935, via Mid Century Menu.

Modern equivalent: Prepared Pantry’s Old Fashioned Chocolate Rice Pudding

As they said in their letters home, “Sounds good, doesn’t it?”

(I couldn’t find a photo of that specific dinner party, so here’s the Unit a couple of weeks later, eating a somewhat less elaborate meal– and with no tooth mugs!)

On a related note, if anyone wants to fall down the rabbit hole of period cookery, you can find a treasure trove of digitized cookbooks in MSU’s Feeding America collection.  If that isn’t procrastination enough, you can click on the purple hyperlinks below, arranged by time period, to find even more extensive collections of digitized cookbooks from the 1860s to 1900, 1900 to 1910, and 1911 to World War I.

What are your favorite autumn recipes?

You can read about that October dinner party– tooth mugs and all!– in Band of Sisters, available March 2nd, 2021.

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