Post contributed by Michelle Wolfson, Research Services Librarian for University Archives.
For as long as I have worked at the Rubenstein Library, I have heard about the Test Kitchen—staff members trying out recipes from our collections and experiencing the complete surprise or regret of trying the tastes of a simpler time.
When I joined the Rubenstein as a full-time staff member (I was an intern before), I thought it would be a safe time to dip into the archives and get cooking. Loving the #girldinner trend, I gathered as many cookbooks that seemed to fit that particular bill, such as The American Girl Cookbook, The Barbie Party Cookbook, and The Political Palate: A Feminist Vegetarian Cookbook (all from the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture). I also pulled from University Archives the Law Dames records, 1951-1973. The Duke Law Dames was an organization mainly made up of law student wives (though it was also open to women law students and wives of the law school faculty and alumni) and the records contain two member-made cookbooks.
Again, feeling safe as a full-time staff member, I decided it would be perfectly fine to subject my taste testers to…the asparagus cream mold.
This simple dish needed only four ingredients (Cool Whip, mayonnaise, gelatine, and canned asparagus) and minimal time. Perfect for a busy gal who wants to entertain new friends on an unassuming Monday afternoon.
The first observation from the small but supportive group that had gathered was that the color of it was…unexpected. It looked in color and texture a bit like tofu, which many of us are big fans of, but we were not big fans of the canned asparagus that flopped out as I cut the cream mold into bite-size chunks. The asparagus had floated down to the bottom of the dish, like a mysterious and dangerous deep-sea creature lying in wait.
Three of us (out of maybe ~70 people) tasted the asparagus cream mold. It was described as “shocking”, “special”, and “wild”, three adjectives I pictured in explosive bubbles on a poster featuring the latest 1950s movie monster, The Asparagus Cream Mold. For me, the asparagus taste was overwhelming, while a coworker found the mayonnaise flavor to be prevalent. 0/10, do not recommend you put on a charcuterie board and serve to your besties.
Luckily, right above the asparagus cream mold recipe was the recipe for Bing cherry/Coca-Cola salad. (Have I mentioned we are in the salad section of the cookbook?? We are so healthy.) The very next week, to clear the palates and memories of my coworkers, I made this, another quick and minimal-ingredient dish. I did not have Coca-Cola in my fridge, so I went with the Wild Cherry Pepsi that I did have because who can say no to extra cherries? (Some people might say ‘no’ to Pepsi and I would not blame them.)
I attempted to make the Bing cherry/Coca-Cola salad into a more appealing shape, on a prettier dish (as if that was the main problem with the previous recipe). At least six people participated in the official taste test, and we were all surprised with how it was actually…good? I do not think we would have been as surprised if we did not have the asparagus monstrosity to compare it to, because how can one go wrong with a salad made of Jell-O and soda? Mostly we were all wondering how the pineapple would taste, as we had some self-proclaimed canned pineapple-haters (barely noticeable!) and how the pecans fared (the texture they provided was nice!). It was declared by some to be a bit too sweet (but it’s salad!) and it was not as tasty the next day (when two of your taste-testers were actually kind of craving it??).
The Rubenstein Library Test Kitchen: Once again, up and running to provide both regret and surprise from the archives.