Even if you could find an outward flight, because of Covid-19 we can’t leave the country without a special exemption. So with actual travel off the agenda for the foreseeable future I’m visiting other places through my collection of cookbooks and culinary literature.
Where to start this journey? The Basque country? India? Britain? Korea? I’ve got a fair number of books from these regions—recipes, kitchen tales, horticultural and food histories.
How about Kobe?
Favorite Recipes Kobe Women’s Club, 1953. I found this book in a charity shop in Brisbane, paid $2, took it back to the apartment I was staying in and Googled the title. As you do.
Originally known as the Saturday Morning Club, the Kobe Women’s Club was established in 1914 by a group of expat women who recognised ‘a strong community need for an organisation that would offer English-speaking women of all nationalities an opportunity to socialise on a regular basis’. Eight years later the Saturday Morning Club became the Kobe Women’s Club—and it’s still going strong …
Back to the book. It has no introduction and is entirely composed of recipes contributed by individual members. Measures are imperial or in American cups and the dishes are divided into the usual categories of the period. Chapters entitled ‘Cookies’ and ‘Cakes and Frostings’ indicate the book’s American leaning. Perhaps reflecting this—or the make-up of the club’s membership—the offerings are more culturally diverse than many community cookbooks of the 1950s. There are recipes for beef stroganoff, sardines Swedish style, pizza, linzertorte, an unpleasant-sounding veal scallopini and from Mrs Harry Witt, ‘Chief of Dixie Mission’ chili con carne.
I’ve got a few cookbooks like this one. Compilations put out by clubs, community associations and specific groups—often as fundraisers. The Kobe Women’s Club Favorite Recipes, like others of its ilk, has a mix of recipes, some quite appealing, others not so much. Baking powder biscuits, anyone?
Although the authors were living in Kobe, there’s little mention of Japanese ingredients or culinary techniques. The final chapter is called ‘Oriental Dishes’ and as well as sweet and sour pork, nassi goring (sub-headed ‘fried chili rice with meat’) and samosas (‘minced meat pastry’) from Mrs J S Wadia, there are two specifically Japanese recipes. Tempura and chawanmushi, which is a savoury egg custard, made in this case with chicken.
December before last I was in Japan and visited Kobe. It’s an attractive and cosmopolitan port city. A maritime gateway from the earliest days of trade with China and home to one of the first foreign settlements after Japan reopened to the world in the mid-nineteenth-century. If you’re a meat-eater you may know Kobe for its famous marbled beef, but is is also known for its chocolate and for its Western-style cakes and confectionary. Not to mention okonomiyaki and sobameshi, a down-home local speciality of stir-fried noodles and rice.
The Kobe Women’s Club was one of several women’s clubs that emerged in the early twentieth century in Japan. The Tokyo Ladies’ Debating Society was founded in 1908 under the direction of Dr Marie Stopes. In 1910 it became the Tokyo Ladies’ Club until three years’ later when the ‘Ladies’ became ‘Women’ and the club was thereafter known as the Tokyo Women’s Club.
Tucked inside my copy of Favorite Recipes was a handwritten letter to ‘Dear Alfhild’. Two recipes, one a citrus-flavoured dessert, the other caramel pudding. ‘These sweets are rather nice for the hot weather, and sending them in case you haven’t them. Buy gelatine loose—is cheaper than done up in cartons, Mum.’
I find these old community cookbooks fascinating. For what they tell us about everyday eating, about home cooking and changing attitudes towards foreign fare. About what foods were affordable and readily available and what weren’t. And for the homesickness I read between the lines.