Cooking without counting the cost

When Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady of the United States in the winter of 1933 the Great Depression was at its height. A true believer in the government leading by example, Eleanor introduced economy cooking into the White House. Mrs Roosevelt even worked with the Home Economics department at Cornell University to devise a menu (main course and dessert) that came in at just seven cents per diner! Mrs Roosevelt hired her frugal friend, Henrietta Nesbitt, as housekeeper to spearhead the economy drive.

Henrietta Nesbitt in 1939
I have decided to celebrate Mrs Nesbitt, who inspired my novel The President’s Lunch and who plays a small but vital role within that book. To do this I will serve her recipes to my family for the month leading up to the release of the novel. As I have pointed out in a past post, Mrs Nesbitt’s meals were famously terrible. But they were also incredibly cheap, and I’ve been keen to discover whether any of them were any good.

I began with something that felt fairly safe (serving my husband and sons sweetbread and mushroom patties first up might just be taking this celebration a little too far). Here is the recipe:

Henrietta Nesbitt’s Macaroni and Cheese 
(The Presidential Cookbook, by Henrietta Nesbitt Doubleday & Company, 1951)

½ pound sharp cheese, cut in small pieces
1 9-ounce package macaroni, broken in pieces
2 cups thick white sauce (see below)
½ teaspoon salt

Gently stir the cheese into the sauce. After it has melted, pour the sauce over the macaroni which has been boiled and placed in a casserole dish and stir lightly but well. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons grated cheese and 2 tablespoons cracker crumbs over top and bake in 350 degree oven 40 minutes. Serves 6.

Thick White Sauce
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk or other liquid
¼ teaspoon salt

Prepare in a double boiler. Melt butter, add flour; blend well; gradually add liquid and salt. Beat constantly until thick. Cook another 10 minutes.

Pasta – 50c
Milk – 25c
Butter – 40c
Flour – 40c
Cheese – $2
Crackers - I used Jatz  - 10c

TOTAL COST : $3.65 for six people, or 61c per person!

Before cooking...

THE VERDICT: The dish was consumed with gusto. Everybody loved the substitution of cracker crumbs (I used Jatz) for regular bread crumbs - they added saltiness and texture to what would otherwise be a fairly insipid and bland dish. My husband asked for seconds. My fussy-eating eight-year-old licked his plate clean for the first time in living memory. And my eat-anything two-year-old put two of his favourite words together to say, ‘Nice cheese!’.

After cooking!

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