This Was Then: Old Island cooking

Interesting Vineyard cookbook recipes from a century ago.


Want to prepare an authentically old-fashioned Vineyard meal for the holidays? Look no further than the “Island Cook Book,” published in 1924 as a fundraiser to build the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Favorite recipes were submitted from cooks across the Island, and money was raised from advertising and sponsorships by everyone from Brickman’s to the Crowell Coal Co. The paperback was published by the Herald Printing Co. of Circuit Avenue.

From Lucinda Vincent’s Prune Whip and Walnut Sandwiches to an Edgartown recipe for Banana Salad, it’s all here. Four different recipes for brown bread, James Look’s clam shortcake, salmon loaf, Helen Mayhew Anderson’s English Potted Meat, mustard pickles, five recipes for doughnuts, and an Oak Bluffs recipe for mincemeat (“Cook slowly about all day.”). Almah Jernegan’s poultry dressing (“Put heart and gizzard in the pan. Let it get to cooking good …”) comes with a disclaimer: “It may not sound appetizing, but please try it and you will change your mind.”

Fresh fruits and vegetables are few and far between. The slim chapter titled “Vegetables” consists primarily of boiled recipes heavy with cream, eggs, or, in the case of Joseph Allen’s Necessity Mess, a half-pound of “mixed pork.”

A special section titled “For the Invalid” offers recipes used by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital nurses. (“[We] will, we hope, answer the often-asked question ‘What can I give my patient to eat?’”) The chapter features such delicacies as Toast Water (pretty much what it sounds like, only finely strained), and Jelly and Ice (exactly what it sounds like).

In the “Sandwiches” chapter, an unidentified Edgartown cook offers a simple one: “Peanut butter made into a paste with marshmallow mist makes a dainty sandwich to go with the hearty ones.”

For dessert, try some Molasses Sponge Cookies (“Delicious if made just right”) or Clara Athearn’s Fruit Cake (“Bake a long time”) or Mrs. Norton’s “Old Time ‘Tilton Cake.’” (Be sure to substitute pork fat for the butter.)

Fundraising efforts were a success. Founded in 1921, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital opened its brand-new facility at its current location in 1929.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.