Thursday, July 7, 2016

Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery

Who is Mrs. Rasmussen and why does she only have one arm? I hear you ask.  Well, she actually has two arms, although they're both fictional.  Let me explain.

In 1942, Mrs. Rasmussen was introduced to the world in the pages of the book Suds in Your Eye, by Mary Lasswell.  It's a book about three women of a certain age who find themselves somewhat down on their luck in San Diego, California during World War II and wind up living together.  Here's a fuller description, on the Neglected Books page.

So, yes.  It's one-arm cookery so that the other one can hold your beer!

In 1944 Mary Lasswell published a second book about the same characters, High Time.  After the second book came out, she was apparently inundated by requests for "Mrs. Rasmussen" to put out a cookbook.  So says the introduction to the cookbook, and also this review (?) from The Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun.

And so Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery was born.

It's a fairly simple cookbook with good food, and the occasional comment from Mrs. Rasmussen or her friends Mrs. Feeley and Miss Tinkham. It was followed by four more books about the same characters, and in 1970 by a revised edition, Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery with Second Helpings.  The main change was that more recipes were added, and the cover isn't as delightful.

In 2006, in a piece called "Save These Books!" for the New York Times Book Review, Betty Fussell spoke up for Mrs. Rasmussen: What first put me in the kitchen was "Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery," written by Mary Lasswell in 1946 and illustrated by George Price. One arm was all you needed for cooking if your other held a schooner of suds. Lasswell's popular novel, "Suds in Your Eye," had immortalized a trio of beer-drinking elderly women, one of whom could really cook — beer-friendly dishes like chicken-fried steak, Mexican tripe, pasta fazoola, oyster loaf, huevos rancheros. This was wartime America, when food was not supposed to be fun. To a college kid, Lasswell's instructions were heaven-sent: "Take a bottle of cold beer out of the icebox. Place an ashtray handy to the stove." No surprise to me that Lasswell's book was one of James Beard's favorites.

And other folks speak out for Mrs. Rasmussen.

The recipe I'm going to give you, though, is for something that jumped out at me when I read Suds in Your Eye.  I could just taste them!

Fried Chicken Loaves

1 small French loaf for each person
3 large pieces of chicken for each person
Salt and pepper
1 c. pork lard
Melted butter
Dill pickles, sliced thin
Green onions
Potato chips
Lemon slices

Only large pieces of chicken are suitable for frying. Buy the pieces at a chicken-part store, or use cut-up fryers, reserving backs, wings, and necks for soup or chicken and noodles. One three-pound fryer will make fried chicken for two loaves.

Clean and pick over chicken carefully. Put flour, salt, and plenty of pepper in a paper bag. Drop the chicken in and shake the bag well to cover evenly. Have one cup of pure pork lard  —Crisco if you must — heated in a big deep frying-pan.  The fat must send up blue smoke before the chicken is put in. The hotter the fat, the more brown and crisp the chicken will be, with all the juice inside. As soon as the pieces are all red-brown, turn often and move them about keep the color even, reduce the heat and finish cooking over moderate flame. Chicken, like all white meat, must be well and thoroughly done, no red around the bone. Chicken cooked this way will be crisp, red-brown outside and juicy inside. When the chicken is nearly done, scoop out the center of the French loaves, spread with melted butter and heat in the oven. Pile of pieces of chicken in each loaf; garnish with dill pickles, green onions, radishes, potato chips, and lemon slices. Serve in small individual wicker baskets with big paper napkins and no knives and forks.

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