From an Old Trove of Recipes,
Cottoning To a Tasty Oil

My mom saves everything. When I helped her move last month, I begged her to jettison the trunks and boxes and tubs of old papers and letters she'd held onto for decades.

She's not a hoarder, more of an archivist. She reached into one box and fanned out 11 little pieces of cardboard -- all her report cards from first to 12th grade (she skipped the 8th grade back in the early 1940s). I noted that Mom was a straight-A student at Farmersville High, except in one subject: home economics.

They still had home ec when I was at Woodrow Wilson High School in the 1970s. I didn't know anyone who took it, and because I took Latin, I didn't have to take it either. Translating the dirty parts of The Aeneid suited me better than apron-sewing anyway. It took me years into adulthood to learn to cook rather than just heat up meals that came out of a box or a freezer. I now specialize in soups and a few other from-scratch dishes, including an easy but impressive holiday meal item called "Carrots Vichy," which I perfected thanks to a fevered fascination with all things Anthony Bourdain. Mom still doesn't cook much, preferring to read biographies of serial killers and watch marathons of Snapped. (She's 82 and colorful.)

So it was a nice surprise when Mom burrowed into the family archives and produced a little stack of recipe books. They'd belonged to my late grandmother, Ivy Watkins, who collected and used them in the 1920s,'30s and '40s. They're slim booklets and pamphlets sent out by the makers of Knox Gelatine, Clabber Girl Baking Powder and the Frigidaire Refrigerator. Many contain my grandmother's added notes, her graceful script penciled in the margins.

One small, well-thumbed book has a Gibson Girl illustration on its cover, dating it to the early 1900s. It's from the Cottolene cottonseed oil company. Slogan: "Shortens your food, lengthens your life." Home Helps: A Pure Food Cook Book begins with a page of endorsements from "eminent physicians" attesting to the health benefits of cooking with cottonseed oil. "Nine-tenths of all human ailments are due primarily to indigestion or are aggravated because of it," wrote one "noted expert." "The chief cause of indigestion is food prepared with lard."

The next 75 pages offer recipes for such quaint-sounding things as "Sally Lunn" (a sort of breakfast cake), "Creamed Fish," "Spanish Hash," "Saratoga Potatoes" and "Huckleberry Pudding." There are lots of basic how-to's for pancakes, baked beans (using Cottolene instead of pork fat), creamed soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, pies and a few items of "Invalid Cookery," which are foods to feed to the sick. These include "Beef Juice," "Gruel" (a strained oatmeal) and "Junket," which combines small amounts of heated milk, salt, vanilla, wine and coffee with an egg and stewed fruit (and no Cottolene).

We still eat a lot of cottonseed oil, you know. This site offers some history, which began in 1794 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. The first cottonseed oil was bottled in the United States in 1882 and seven years later, chemist David Wesson developed the process for taking the bad smell out of it, thus inventing Wesson Oil. Crisco, introduced in 1911, was named for "crystallized cottonseed oil," and was the first cottonseed-based shortening. By the 1930s, cottonseed oil was the main ingredient in margarine, overtaking coconut oil. Cottonseed shortages in World War II led to the rise of soybean and corn oils.

Cottonseed oil didn't get its next boost until this century, when domestic demand for it by the snack and fast food industries produced 900 million pounds of it in 2004, the first major jump in usage in a decade. Crisco introduced its Zero Grams Trans Fat all-vegetable shortening made with cottonseed oil that year, followed by a new Wesson-brand cottonseed oil blend. FryMax and Mazola oils, which came on the market in 2007, contain cottonseed.

Cottonseed oil does not require hydrogenation, which allows restaurants and food manufacturers to tout it for "healthy trans-free" foods. The American Heart Association regards cottonseed oil, which does contain essential fatty acids and Vitamin E, as "healthy when used in moderation." Like other vegetable oils, it is nearly cholesterol free. Because of the high demand for it by snack food and fast food producers, cottonseed oil is hard for individual consumers to find on retail shelves. The best time of year to buy it is before Thanksgiving when sporting goods stores stock it for turkey frying. I might be looking for some to use in a bit of Spanish Hash.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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