Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review and Author Interview: From Rivets and Rails, Recipes of a Boarding House Cookbook

 From Rivets and Rails is a charming cookbook that preserves a historical era as carefully as its cooks preserved their food---and their recipes. As many successes originate, the endeavor that led to this cookbook was started out of necessity, as Elizabeth Shade Kennedy found herself suddenly widowed with five young sons to raise. To support her family, she established a boarding house for railroad workers on the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad lines and kept a detailed cooking journal.
actual page from cookery journal

In From Rivets and Rails, Shaunda Kennedy Wenger pays tribute to a her ancestor, a great lady and a great cook. The recipes, tips and and anecdotal notes offer insightful glimpses into Mrs. Kennedy's life as a cook, mother, and boardinghouse keeper. No doubt her boarders were well-fed. This priceless journal documents recipes and traditions that have been passed to the present generation of cooks in Elizabeth Shade Kennedy's family. Historical footnotes add to the reader's appreciation and understanding of the recipes and methods described in the book.

From Rose Blossom Wine to Wampsie Pudding to recipes for gall stones and furniture polish, From Rivets to Rails offers a fascinating study of home management, cooking and cooks. Many of the recipes could be made today without any changes. Some ingredients and standards have changed since the early 1900s, but wisely, the recipes in this book remain exactly as they were written, and the reader can adapt as deemed necessary. Modern equivalents and cooking standards would have significantly reduced the charm and appeal of this book.

I loved the instructions for Mathiglum, (fermented honey, water, and brown sugar): "Take one glass before going to bed. Stay there for 48 hours, if you have no one to help you." No malady was listed, just a cure, leaving readers to imagine its many possibilities.

For a delightful read and a great historical cooking reference, I highly recommend Shaunda Kennedy Wenger's From Rivets to Rails, Recipes of a Railroad Boarding House Cookbook. Available at

author Shaunda Kennedy Wenger

Check out this article at huffington post:

Interview with Shaunda Kennedy Wenger

When did you first learn about the family's cookery journal?

I didn’t know about my great-grandmother’s cookery journal until my grandmother told me about it after The Book Lover’s Cookbook, Recipes from Celebrated Works of Literature and the Passages That Feature Them (Ballantine Books) was published.

My grandmother and I were sitting together at her table during one of my visits to Pennsylvania. She rubbed her hand over the cover of her copy of The Book Lover’s Cookbook and said, “Your great-grandmother would have been so proud of you.” Since I never knew my great-grandmother, I asked her what she meant. She went on to tell me that my great-grandmother had written a cookbook of her own. I couldn’t believe my eyes when she brought out the old, brown leather journal, with all its hand-written recipes included within. I immediately began pouring over the pages and was taken by her story of running a railroad boarding house while supporting her family. Her cookbook had the recipes that she used in her boarding house.

Have you made or eaten any of the recipes? If so, which are your favorites?

Absolutely! My favorite is the railroad cakes. I had been so tickled when I came across this recipe in her journal. It seemed so perfect, given that she provided a home away from home for railroad workers and travelers.

In doing research on railroad cakes, I found two different recipes. One resembles Irish Soda Bread, the other produces smaller, individual hand-held cakes that travelers would purchase from vendors at the stations (like the one given in my great-grandmother’s cookbook). I suppose both types of cakes could have been purchased from vendors, provided the Irish Soda bread was sold in slices. Either way, railroad cakes provided sustenance for railroad travelers as they made their way toward their destinations, much like the food stands, restaurants, and vending machines that are found at any transportation hub today. I imagine my great-grandmother handed these railroad cakes to her boarders, sons and husband as they made their way out the door.

My grandmother’s recipe delivers a thick batter, nearly resembling that of cookie dough, which gives a more substantial texture to the baked cake. However, the buttery lemon flavor is delicious! Since the recipe calls for baking the batter in small pans, I used four-inch tart pans that I had on hand; the recipe gave me 6 hearty cakes.

Recently, my son and I were eating the cakes on route to school one morning (he’d missed the bus). The experience brought to mind the phrase, “Eat on the run.” I realized this phrase could have originated with railroading, since workers often called their trips to, from, or during work, “runs.” I just love that idea! Hint: see what the term, “given the Run-Around” means in my cookbook, near the end on page 69.

What was the biggest surprise you found within the pages of this journal

The biggest surprise was discovering that bell peppers were called “mangos” in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I couldn’t understand why so many recipes for relish, pickles, chili sauce, and sandwich spread would include mangos in the list of ingredients. I asked my grandmother about it, and her reply was, “Don’t you know what a mango is?”

Uh, I thought I did…

Use of the term mango in describing bell peppers is believed to have originated with the coal miners in Pennsylvania. In an 1887 edition of “The Original White House Cookbook,” a recipe for Green Pepper Mangos describes the bell pepper perfectly in removing the seeds and filling it with a vegetable mixture.

My confusion led me to wonder if review of historical recipes that featured “mangos” in the list of ingredients led to the idea of fruit salsas that emerged later.

As for other surprises, there were so many historical gems and trivia that I discovered and included in the cookbook as I put it together, like the fact that the inventor of the steam locomotive also invented gelatin! (Oh, how that man must have loved his wife! Apparently, he felt he should put an end to her having to bake hooves and bones all day in order to make the family some gelatin. Thus, the birth of powdered gelatin, brought to the modern housewife in convenient packets!)

You have chosen to self-publish your latest books. What have you learned from that process?

Self-publishing has been an exciting adventure. If it weren’t for the success of other friends who jumped into publication with alternative markets (e.g., Judy Torres, author of Duck, Duck, Moose and The Monster Under the Bed Loves Chocolate Chip Cookies), I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to try.

When I published my first novel, The Ghost in Me (which recently became a B.R.A.G MedallionTM honoree), so many people were against self-publishing. Essentially, self-published books had a bad rap. But I stepped into this venture the right way. I had my book professionally edited. I produced a good cover that was suitable for the market. I put my best work “out there,” much the way traditionally published authors do. And in the end, I prayed it would be well-received, just like any other author and editing team. The only difference was that I didn’t have the marketing, publicists, and connections of NY publishers; so I had a slow start. But I also haven’t had to divvy up my earnings with scores of other people standing in line before me at a publisher. Thus, I’ve been able to keep the price of my book down, making my book more affordable (and hopefully more appealing) to readers. All in all, self-publishing has been a good experience.

It’s been interesting to see that so many traditionally published authors, who were nay-sayers of self-publishing a few years ago, are now self-publishing their own books. Furthermore, some literary agencies now have “in-house divisions” that help their authors prepare their manuscripts for self-publishing. (And yes, they do charge for this service.) And it seems that NY publishers are no longer discouraging their authors from pursuing this option. In fact, many NY publishers are actually picking up on trends that were established first by self-published authors. For example, the short story is making a comeback in the traditional market; NY publishers are now seeking manuscripts in this genre. Yet, the short story has been a hot market by way of ebooks for self-published writers for many years.

The bottom line is, if you have a dream, you shouldn’t let anyone hold you back. However, in the end, it’s up to you and how well you executed your plans, as to whether those efforts will have been worth it. Ultimately, you do need to do your best work, and you do need to heed the advice that you hear from others who are experienced in the process. In this adventure, I needed to follow the advice of other self-published authors, rather than the traditional ones (and I guess I’m one of those traditional authors myself, considering where my writing career started with Ballantine Books and The Book Lover’s Cookbook!). Perhaps I should say, be your own guide, but by all means, travel down the path with others.

Thank you so much for having me, Janet! I loved answering your questions. I can tell you are very experienced and talented in cookbooks, and knew just what to ask! I wouldn’t have expected anything less from a fellow co-author! J

1 comment:

Shaunda said...

Your blog is laid out so wonderfully, Janet. Thank you so much for having me as a guest! Happy writing, as I'm sure you are well into one of your latest projects!