A delightful Depression-era coleslaw moves into the 21st Century with just a few slight modifications!
I got sidetracked this summer with a project from 85 years ago, and boy was it fun.
WPA project on today’s table
My husband and I are members of the Vermont Historical Society and we attended a dinner this spring that was entitled “Vermont Eats” an exploration of recipes that were compiled by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The project sought to employ writers and photographers throughout the country by compiling information on what America was eating at the time, recipes in common use during the 1930s and into the early 1940s. Although they never published a finished work, there are archives of massive amounts of material that was compiled for the project, state by state.
An upscale presentation
The VHS presented a meal of some of the recipes compiled at the time for Vermont that included New England fish chowder, Saturday night baked beans, New England boiled dinner, chicken pot pie, and Vermont apple tart with Cheddar cheese (the only way a true New Englander would eat apple pie). The recipes were quite familiar to most of us present who were from New England, and even to a few who weren’t, and were served up in fine dining fashion in a hotel ballroom, fine china, candlelight, musical entertainment.
The talk was given by the society’s executive director Steve Perkins, and we knew he would be guest speaker at our local pilgrimage event earlier this month at the Rockingham Meeting House, so this would be a sneak preview of his talk. We loved the event, and it helped us plan what we would offer for samples at our pilgrimage.
We decided on traditional baked beans, spiced currants (which I also made, recipe here), the buttermilk coleslaw, Indian pudding, and strawberry or peach shortcake. We also served haymakers’ switchel, which we call the original energy drink, popular here since Colonial times.
Our event was casual, outside, under a tent, not fine dining, but great sharing. I made a large triple batch of the coleslaw for the event. The recipe, at the end of this post, was simple and included a delicious buttermilk dressing, which I will use again and again with just a few minor changes.
While everyone liked the dish, there were a couple of comments about the processed cheese. First off, it was odd to have cheese of any sort in a coleslaw, and I’m sure it was both an attempt to add protein of sorts and also an opportunity to use a relatively new cheese-like product. But in this instance, it added too soft a texture to the slaw. It was just a bit strange.
A few changes
When I thought about remaking this, I knew I would need to swap out the cheese and I ended up using a one-year Cheddar, not too sharp, but firm enough to stand up to the salad.
I really couldn’t find much fault with the dressing because it tasted so good, but I bumped up the cayenne a bit, reduced the salt from 2 teaspoons to a half, and used honey instead of brown sugar. I will most definitely make this again, although I used a lot less than the recipe called for and it was just right.
Add some color
I added a little yellow carrot for color interest, and some goji berries for texture and a little nutritional pop. My last swap was a small sweet red pepper for the topping rather than the green peppers in the original recipe. I found the peppers at the farm stand that morning and couldn’t resist.
Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing (my way)
For the dressing:
1 cup buttermilk
3 tbsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. native honey
1/2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
For the salad:
5 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 small carrot, shredded
1/3 cup goji berries
4 ounces Vermont Cheddar cheese
1 sweet red pepper cut in rings
Shred the cabbage and place it in a colander. Massage in 1 tbsp. coarse salt. Let this set for at least a half hour to extract some of the extra liquid in the cabbage.
While this is resting, make the dressing. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like.
Shred the carrot and cut the cheese into roughly 1/4-inch cubes. Add these and the goji berries to a large mixing bowl.
Rinse the cabbage well, squeezing it out as you do so, then dry on a tea towel. Once thoroughly dry, add it to the bowl, and mix everything up well.
Add the dressing a little at a time until it is how you like it. I still had about a third of a cup of dressing left over, but you might like to use it all. Salt and pepper again, to your own taste.
Slice the thin pepper into rings and garnish the top.
Refrigerate for a couple of hours for the best flavor
The original recipe from the WPA project:
Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing
“Finely shred the cabbage to make five cups. Toss this in a serving bowl with a good half cupful of chopped cheeses (American or “store” as it is sometimes called). Then having mixed 3 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, 2 teaspoons each of mustard, salt, and brown sugar, with a grain or two of cayenne and a full cup of buttermilk, pour it over the cabbage and cheese. Toss more and garnish the whole with rings of green peppers.”
This recipe was originally submitted to the WPA project by writer Cora A. Moore who researched the recipes.
© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen.
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