Cooking with fire 

“Pluck and singe a duck.” “Add a large lump of butter.” “Cover and bake with the greatest heat.” The recipes in more than 300 old Montana cookbooks lack in sophistication, make up for it with charm, and serve as the primary source for a Montana Historical Society 2005 Calendar.

“We just robbed two collections and plunked them together,” explains Charlene Porsild, director of library and archives at the Montana Historical Society Library. It was the photo archive and the recently acquired cookbook collection that were plundered. On Friday, Dec. 17, between 6 and 7 a.m., KECI’s Montana Today will feature Porsild making potato patties from a recipe in the cookbook calendar.

Admittedly, the dishes in the cookbook collection and calendar may not render Wolfgang Puck speechless and salivating.

“I have to tell you, most of them aren’t very delicious,” Porsild says.

Rather, the cookbook collection was captivating to Porsild and its previous owner because the ingredients, directions and authors’ names and society affiliations provide a glimpse of life in early Montana.

“I got to the point where I was reading them so much I wasn’t cooking anything,” says Maureen Hathaway, a Michigan resident who donated the collection to the Montana Historical Society Library in 2002. Since 1996, Hathaway and her husband have spent part of the year in the Flathead. She’s been collecting old cookbooks since the 1970s. Hathaway acquired Montana cookbooks with the intention of establishing a collection and eventually donating it, she says. Porsild, says Hathaway, realized immediately the historical value of the old cookbooks. (Now, the collection takes up six full library shelves.) Many cookbooks, often church or society compilations intended for fund-raisers, provide a brief introduction to old Montana groups of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In addition to the historical value, though, Porsild says she finds the collection “charming.”

“I find cake batter on them,” she says. And “handwritten recipes stuck between the pages.”

The potato patties featured in the calendar, a 1913 Miles City recipe from the Ladies Social Society First Presbyterian Church, shows that some things never change. The recipe calls for flour, which, Porsild says, was used to stretch the potatoes: “People in Montana have had to always pretty much get by.”

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