On a rainy, dreary November afternoon, Sue complains to her mother that there’s nothing to do. Her brother is at a friend’s house, As for her best friend Ruth Ann — well, she cries all the time now that her mother has been sent away for her health. This is the beginning of When Sue Began to Cook, the last book in the Bettina storybook trilogy by Louise Bennett Weaver.
The complete title of the book is When Sue Began to Cook with Bettina’s Best Recipes. Bettina’s Best Recipes became the brand name of a whole line of cookbooks in the 1920s. Bettina was an authority on cakes and cookies, desserts, sandwiches, and salads. And each topic found its way into one of the Bettina’s Best Recipes cookbooks.
Like all the Bettina books, Sue’s story begins with some really bad poetry:
To every other little maidDedication, When Sue Began to Cook, Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron
Who longs to learn like Sue,
But feels a tiny bit afraid
It’s all too hard to do,
To all the little girls who sigh,
“I need a simple book
To help me!” “Here it is!” we cry,
When Sue Began to Cook
Bettina suggests that Sue invite Ruth Ann over for weekly cooking lessons. Then Bettina will teach them both to cook. The plan will occupy Sue at the same time that it gives Ruth Ann something to think about besides her sick mother. (In 1924 when the book was written, Ruth Ann’s mother probably has tuberculosis and was sent to Arizona for the dry air in hopes that it would cure her. The book, however, never says.)
Sue loves the idea, and runs to tell Ruth Ann about the new Saturday plans. The girls’ story unfolds from the notes that Sue keeps after each cooking session. Here are her notes from the first day:
I found Ruth Ann crying, as usual, but it didn’t take her long, after she heard about the Cooking Class, to hustle into a clean dress and hurry over. And oh, the cookies were delicious!
I intended to save mine for dinner tonight, but of course Robin and Ted came in perfectly ravenous and teased so hard that I had to give them ten or twelve apiece and that doesn’t leave many for Father when he comes. But how proud he’ll be to try his daughter’s first cookies. That is, the first ones I’ve made entirely alone, even to lighting the oven and washing the dishes afterwards.When Sue Began to Cook, page 14.
As a first recipe, Sue and Ruth Ann make Cocoa Drop Cookies. Then the next week they start at the beginning and learn to make Frizzled Beef over Toast. This recipe is known regionally under many different names in the United States. Chipped beef, SOS, and S—- on a Shingle are but three of the ways people refer to this dish.
Each week Sue and Ruth Ann tackle a new recipe or cooking method, and they build a nice repertoire of recipes through the year. A winter Wheat Cereal with Dates progresses to gingerbread. Then spring brings Baked Ham with Browned Potatoes. The heat of summer brings recipes for Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce, Fruit Sherbet, and a Fruit Gelatin. Then the autumn rolls around again, with its traditional Twenties recipes for doughnuts, peanut brittle, and popcorn balls.
In Chapter 52, the last week of the year’s lessons. the girls present a party for their friends. They cook an entire meal from recipes in the book, and proudly present the fruits of their yearlong course.
When Sue Began to Cook makes a good beginning cookbook for teens interested in cooking history, for cookbook collectors, and for people who want to learn to cook simple recipes. Currently this book is unavailable in any free downloadable format, so you’ll have to search out a 1924 copy yourself.
If you’re new to the world of Bettina cookbooks, I wrote about the first one in the post A Cookbook Worth Reading.
Cocoa Drop Cookies
- ½ cup lard Mother says butter makes them too rich.
- 1 cup light brown sugar No lumps, remember!
- 2 eggs
- 4 tbsp water
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2⅓ cups flour
- 4 tbsp cocoa Leveled off with a knife blade.
- 2½ tsp baking powder Leveled off with a knife, too. This is important.
- ¼ tsp salt All good cookies have salt in them.
- Mother had us each put the lard in a nice round-bottomed yellow bowl and cream it. (That means mash it down with a big spoon until it is very soft.) And then add the sugar and keep on creaming until the mixture looked all one color. Then we broke the eggs into a little dish and added them one by one to the sugar mixture. (Mother said to break and add them one by one so as to be very sure they were good.) Then we kept on stirring with the big holey spoon for two whole minutes. Then we added the water and the vanilla.
- We put a little more than two and one-third cups of flour through the flour sifter and after it had been sifted once, we measured it out and took exactly two and one-third cups of it. Then we put it back in the empty sifter and added the cocoa, the baking powder and the salt. We sifted them through twice all together.
- (Mother says we must always be very sure about the level spoonful. She had us take a knife and level the filled spoons off very carefully. This is important.)
- We dumped the flour mixture into the bowl with the other things, and stirred just enough to be sure everything was well mixed.
- Then we each greased our cooky-sheet with a clean piece of paper that had been dipped in a little lard. (Several pie pans will do instead, Mother says.) Then we took up a little of the cooky-dough on the end of the mixing spoon and scraped it oiff on the cooky-sheet with a knife. (She told us to be sure these little cooky mounds weren't too large; they oughtn't to be more than an inch across.) We dropped these bits of dough about three inches apart on the greased sheet and flattened each of them down a little with a knife that had just been dipped in warm water.
- Then we baked the cookies in a moderate oven for about fifteen minutes. [Moderate oven: 350-375º F] Mother had us light the oven a few minutes ahead of time, and then turn it down so it wouldn't be too hot when the cookies were put in.
- Chocolate or cocoa cookies burn easily, she said, so we looked at them often. Sometimes those on the edge of the pan got done first and had to be removed carefully and slipped onto another flat pan to cool. All our cookies couldn't be baked at once, so we kept the dough in a cool place (not near the stove!) until the oven was ready again.
- As soon as the cookies were all finished and cool, we each packed them carefully away in a stone jar.