Sometimes I like to look at cookbooks from the World War I era just to envision a period in modern American history that could compare to the past year for collective misery. About 675,000 Americans died from the influenza pandemic of 1918. Because the crowded conditions of military life fostered the spread of influenza, more American troops died from sickness than from combat during the Great War. Yet, no effective influenza vaccine was available until the 1940s.
On the home front, Americans practiced rationing wheat, fats, sugar and meat so that more of these commodities could be shipped to U.S. troops and allies. The S. Nelson Jr. company of Iowa published a little cookbook called “Pop Corn Recipes” to promote their popcorn as a substitute for wheat and meat. They hired a magazine writer, Mary Hamilton Talbot, to come up with the recipes.
Mary Talbot stretched the possibilities of popcorn beyond all reason; her recipes range from odd to truly dreadful. Do you need some new ideas for family meals? How about popcorn banana salad, mashed potato and popcorn balls, popcorn and raisin sandwiches mixed with raw egg white, or popcorn cooked in bacon grease? Feeling queasy yet? Consider prune and popcorn pudding, or that most American concoction, meatless meatloaf made with popcorn, onions and tomato ketchup. If this is what they were serving on the home front, you might feel inspired to enlist.
To be fair, a couple of Talbot’s suggestions were perfectly reasonable. You could crush popped corn and use it for breading fried foods to save on wheat, and popcorn floated on soup is a pleasant alternative to croutons. Her best recipes were already part of the American diet and featured in community cookbooks. Molasses popcorn balls were a traditional confection, and I have found popcorn custard in charity cookbooks published after the Civil War. Buttery popcorn contributes to the flavor of the following custard recipe from Talbot’s cookbook.
2 cups popped corn
2 Tbsps. melted butter
½ cup granulated sugar
2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs, well beaten
Remove all the unpopped kernels and stir the popcorn and the melted butter in a large bowl. Whisk in the sugar, milk and beaten eggs and let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour so the popcorn can absorb some of the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Stir the eggs into the milk mixture and pour it into a buttered Pyrex or ceramic baking dish placed inside a roasting pan. Put the pudding and pan in the oven and pour boiling water into the roasting pan outside the pudding to make a bain marie that will temper the oven’s heat. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until the center is set.