History on the Hearth:
Will translating A 90-year-old Van Camp’s cookbook into the modern day kitchen cause contemporary cooks some heartburn?

Today’s cook has many ways of finding a recipe — books, magazines, web sites, television, packaging labels and, of course, Pinterest. But not that long ago, recipes were passed from relative to relative by word of mouth and rarely written down; “cookbooks” were rare. In the twentieth century, there was a tremendous burst of new technology in the kitchen (gas ranges replaced wood stoves, refrigeration, electric appliances, etc.). Food companies nurtured a middle class interest in cooking and entertaining by publishing pamphlets advertising the foods they offered, or the equipment they manufactured. From peanuts to cook stoves, companies used cookbooks to introduce and promote their wares to consumers who came to appreciate the convenience of new products like packaged yeasts, evaporated milk, and baking powder. These advertising cookbooklets are now considered a valuable source for the history of the cultural meaning and evolution of food preparation.

Enter Gilbert Van Camp (1814 – 1900):
Van Camp began a canning business in Indianapolis in 1861, located in the Fruit House Grocery Building on Missouri Street. Van Camp’s company obtained its first major contract when it sold provisions to the Union Army. By 1882 the firm was producing 8 million cans of pork and beans annually from a factory in the 300 block of Kentucky Avenue. In 1928 the company acquired eight evaporated milk packing and concentrating plants. That year, Van Camp Milk earned $239,102 from its milk products, alone.

What accounts for this remarkable success for milk in cans? First, lax sanitation standards in the early Twentieth Century called into question raw milk’s safety. Secondly, refrigeration wasn’t commonplace in the American household until the 1930s and 40s, so a shelf-stable product made it possible to always have drinkable milk on hand in the pantry. At five cents a can, housewives could purchase cases of evaporated milk with no fear of it spoiling. And finally, Van Camp’s abundant advertising to the growing middle class included a series of cookbooklets that provided enthusiastic instructions on how to use their evaporated milk in everything from a replacement for breast milk in infant feedings to potato croquettes for the dinner table.


The 90 Year Old Cookbook Adventure
Cooking from vintage recipes like those in the Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk booklet (featured above) can prove challenging in the 21st Century. The standards of weight and measure that we take for granted today were hardly the norm for kitchens of the early 20th century. It’s not uncommon to encounter an older recipe calling for a “pinch” or a “dash” of something. Also, many of the products required in vintage cookbooks (lard, yeast… and even Van Camp’s evaporated milk!) are no longer available in their original form. Kitchen equipment has also changed remarkably in the ensuing years. For example, nowhere in the cookbook above were baking temperatures listed. Vague terms like “bake in a hot oven” and “cook until done” can leave the contemporary cook apoplectic with anxiety.

Enter six intrepid home cooks who were willing to try out some Van Camp’s recipes:

Van Camp Cookies
Cream one third a cup of butter. Add one cup of sugar, four teaspoonfuls of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk diluted with eight teaspoonfuls of water and one lightly beaten egg. Mix and sift three teaspoonfuls baking powder and two cups of flour together and add to the mixture. Then add enough more flour to make dough stiff enough to roll out. Roll a little at a time and cut out. Bake in a moderate oven.

Contemporary Cooks’ Notes: These cookies are like a cross between a sugar cookie and a short cake. They’re perfect with strawberries but served alone, they need an icing or custard to accompany. I substituted Milnot canned milk for Van Camp’s. I Googled the term, “moderate oven” which turned out to be 350 degrees. Don’t over-bake these! Remove them from the oven when they are just beginning to brown on the edges. — Lisa Lorentz

Van Camp’s Milk Custard Sauce
Let three-fourths a cup of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk and one and one-fourth cups of boiling water heat in a double-boiler. Beat the yolks of three eggs, beat again with one-third cup of sugar and one-fourth a teaspoonful of salt, then dilute with a little of the hot mixture and return the whole to the boiler, stir and cook until thickened to coat the spoon. Remove at once and when cold flavor with a teaspoonful of vanilla extract.

Contemporary Cook’s Notes: I substituted Milnot canned milk for Van Camp’s. I actually found this to be faster and just as successful when cooked directly on the stove rather than in a double-boiler. The custard was delicious. — Carol Sanchez


English Walnut Candy
Mix one-third cup of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk with two-thirds cup of water, and boil with two cups of brown sugar and one tablespoonful of butter, until when tried in cold water it will form a soft ball. Set off and beat until it begins to thicken. Then add one cup broken English walnuts and pour into a buttered dish. When set, score for cutting.

Contemporary Cook’s Notes: These are delicious candies, but rich. We suggest adding twice as many walnuts and, instead of pouring the mixture into a dish, “dropping” them into little puddles on parchment to be individually wrapped after they set up. We substituted Milnot canned milk for Van Camp’s. — Carol Sanchez and Lisa Lorentz


Van Camp Cocoanut Pie
Cream four tablespoonfuls sugar and two eggs. Dilute five tablespoonfuls Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk with one and two-thirds cups of water. Add this to the egg and butter with a little grated nutmeg and a cup of grated cocoanut. Put the pie dough in two pans and fill with the above. Bake in a hot oven thirty minutes.

Contemporary Cook’s Notes: While I was reading this recipe and thinking about baking it in the early 1900s, I was thinking about my grandmother who might have baked this pie.  I was able to find a coconut without difficulty and it was already scored to make opening it more easy.  I am sure this was not so easily available at the time this recipe was written.  The process of prep of the grated cocoanut was about 1-3/4 hours, and difficult.  This included draining the coconut water  after I punctured the “eye” with an ice pick, cracking it open with a hammer on the back step, prying all of the coconut meat out with a “stout” knife, peeling each piece with a “sharp” knife and finely grating 1 cup of the coconut meat. I didn’t think that nutmeg would have been available in ground form when the recipe was written, but finding a whole nutmeg was more difficult that expected.  The price was a bit surprising – small glass bottle with approximately 6 whole nutmegs was  $11.00 at the grocery, I used about 1/4 of one nutmeg. Total prep time was about 2 hours. If baking these again, I would bake them at 375  degrees for about 40 to 50 minutes. Impressions of the end product:  I thought it was a light dessert, not too sweet, but flavor was light and tasty.  The recipe was short and a little vague, there was a typo error in the middle of recipe, “add this to the  egg and butter” (should have said sugar, I think).  I was thankful to not have to monitor a cook stove! — Gretchen Smyth

Creamed Chicken with Curry of Rice
Melt one-fourth a cup of butter; cook it in one-fourth a cup of flour and half a tablespoon each of salt and paprika. When cooked a little, gradually stir in one cup of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk, diluted with one cup of water. Let cook, stirring constantly until the mixture boils, then add a pint, well pressed down, of chicken meat cut in small cubes. Let stand in over hot water to become very hot. Cook an onion in halves, in three tablespoonfuls of curry powder, and when blended with the butter, gradually stir in half a cup of water. Have ready half a cup of rice, heated to the boiling point in a quart of cold water, drained and rinsed, add this to the Milk and curry mixture with a teaspoonful of salt; let cook over hot water or on asbestos mat, until the rice is tender and the liquid absorbed. Remove the onions, add a tablespoonful of butter and a dash of pepper and dispose on a serving dish as a border; turn the creamed chicken into the center of the dish.
Contemporary Cook’s Notes: Though the recipe is somewhat difficult to follow, the results were spicy and delicious. The chicken mixture reminds me of my Mother’s chicken gravy. — Mary Pat McElhiney
Lunch Muffins
Sift together two cups of flour, one tablespoonful of sugar, two tablespoonfuls baking powder and a pinch of salt. Mix four tablespoonfuls of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk, five tablespoonfuls of water, two tablespoonfuls of melted butter and one beaten egg. Pour into the flour and mix well. Bake about twenty minutes in hot muffin pans.
Contemporary Cook’s Notes: Indeed, these are much like biscuits. And, I may have encountered a typo in the book, as it’s likely they meant 2tsp rather than 2tblsp of baking powder in the recipe. Delicious when served hot with jam and butter! — Jo Ann Koekenberg
Apple Fritters
Add to two well beaten eggs, on-fourth cup of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk, three-fourths of a cup of water, one cup of flour, and a pinch of salt, one teaspoonful of baking powder, and beat until smooth. Chop two or three sweet apples very fine and mix into the batter. Fry in very hot lard and sprinkle with powdered sugar when done.
Contemporary Cook’s Notes: I used lard that is recommended for pie crust; it’s leaf lard which I get from Dietrich’s Meats in PA. Their website is Lard that is sold at regular grocery stores isn’t the quality you’d want — especially for baking items! The recipe is very easy and I finally found very small cans of evaporated milk so I don’t have to throw so much away!  — Henrietta Elston
Van Camp’s Milk Bread
Warm one and a half cups of water and half a cup of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk, and pour into a mixing bowl. Add one tablespoonful butter and one teaspoonful salt. Cool and add half a cup of yeast and three or four cups of flour, sufficient to make a drop batter. Beat until smooth. Cover and let stand over night in a warm place. Next morning add sifter flour enough to make a dough, or the remaining portion of about two quarts. Mix and knead until smooth. Let rise and when light turn onto the floured bread board and shape into loaves, kneading as little as possible. Let rise to twice their size and bake in a hot oven about an hour.
Contemporary Cook’s Notes: The recipe called for a cup of yeast — an amount that would have caused gigantic sponges of bread dough to bulge out of the windows of my house by morning! I decided, therefore, to brew my own yeast the week before I baked the bread, in the same manner that my grandmother would have used. Once the bread was baked, the official taste tester (my nephew) applied butter and jam and pronounced it delicious. The bread had a substantial, “sink your teeth into something” texture without being gummy or doughy. — Jo Ann Koekenberg
Dutch Apple Cake22
Dutch Apple Cake
Sift together two cups of flour, half a teaspoonful of salt, one heaping teaspoonful baking powder, and rub into this one large tablespoonful butter. To one beaten egg add four tablespoonfuls of Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk mixed with three-fourths cup of water and add to the flour. Beat well and spread to half an inch thickness in a shallow baking pan. Pare and cut six apples into eighths, lay them in rows on the dough, sprinkle over with one-third cup of sugar and a little cinnamon, or grated nutmeg, and bake in a hot oven thirty minutes.
Contemporary Cook’s Notes: My parents both immigrated from Germany (Mother from Berlin, Father from Seigberg) and my mother made a German Appfel Kuchen like this, that is wonderful; the crust is on the German version is much more well done than the Dutch version.  I baked it at 350 degrees and added an additional 20 minutes so the cake could bake a bit more. I also add much more cinnamon that other people would, I imagine, but only because I love the taste! — Henrietta Elston
So tell us in the comment box below, have you had any culinary mishaps trying to follow an old family recipe?
Do you have fond memories of baking with an older relative?

2 responses to “Sunday Adverts: Van Camp’s Cookin’ Up Some History”

  1. Jim says:

    Milnot is/was not milk. Not sure if they even sell it anymore. My mother used it back in the day for many uses. It’s okay you can my EMA if you like.

  2. Anonymous says:


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