What To Read: Jolene Handy is channeling her retro kitchen

This week, we interviewed Jolene Handy, who writes Time Travel Kitchen, a publication that revisits classic recipes of the early 20th century.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

Time Travel Kitchen chronicles my obsession with baking and writing about the recipes of the early 20th century out of my 1927 apartment kitchen.

You take readers back in time by combining personal anecdotes with recipes and food history. Can you share a brief autobiography?

I’m a native New Yorker who moved to Chicago a few years ago when my brother opened a restaurant here. I love both cities, but I’m staying in Chicago for a while – I can’t leave my kitchen! 

Back in the 1990s I went to cooking school and worked as a baker at Sarabeth’s restaurant and at Gourmet magazine in the executive dining room. I also did some recipe testing for cookbooks before making a career change, moving into the nonprofit area for the rest of my career before moving to Chicago. 

I’ve gone full circle: I was an English major in college and baked brownies all the time when I was a kid, and now I’m writing and baking again.

What inspired you to write about recipes from the ’20s and ’30s specifically? 

I moved to this building in January, and the minute I stepped into my kitchen, I was transported. There is something about the touch and feel of this place – it’s a small galley kitchen, with a bread drawer and an attached cutting board where a hundred years of residents made their mark. I was moved by it and wanted to learn about and make what they may have made during the decade the building was built and into the 1930s. They went from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression into World War II. So much history!

As an aside, this apartment also has a time-travel bathtub … a cast-iron 1927 tub where I’m convinced bathtub gin was made during Prohibition. On Repeal Day, December 5th, I’m going to do a special newsletter on Prohibition cocktails. It would be a missed opportunity not to.

Which baking trends from the early 20th century have come back around? Conversely, which trends will probably never make a comeback?

So many! The first thing I made in this kitchen was a pineapple upside-down cake from a 1927 recipe, one of the most popular desserts of the 1920s. I looked at Instagram a short time after and saw that Nigella Lawson had posted a beautiful one, and now I’m seeing all kinds of upside-down cakes posted. 

Icebox cakes were everywhere during this hot summer, and Gramercy Tavern in NYC posted a beautiful peach melba parfait recently – two perfect, vintage warm-weather desserts. Banana bread, which became so popular in the 1930s (baking soda and baking powder had just entered the chat, ushering in the era of quick breads), was the most Googled recipe during the 2020 lockdowns. 

I never say never about anything, but I do think elaborate towers of molded gelatin salads may have a tough run. I could be wrong, though.

What unknown or underappreciated cookbook do you think deserves more love or a closer look?

The 1931 first edition facsimile of The Joy of Cooking. It’s certainly not unknown, but Irma Rombauer’s wry and witty entries at the beginning of the recipes in this edition are gold. I also learned about her story: widowed tragically right as the stock market crashed, needed money, by all accounts struggled as a cook, wrote the book anyway and then self-published it. The cover art is done by her daughter, Marion Rombauer Becker, and it’s a cutout of St. Martha of Bethany, patron saint of cooks, slaying the dragon of cooking drudgery.

I find it inspiring that one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time was initially self-published. I also love the cheekiness of opening the book with a recipe for a gin cocktail, considering it was still Prohibition. (The latest edition, published in 2019 by Irma’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife Megan Scott, is also terrific.)

What recipe would be featured on the cover of your cookbook?

Crumb cake! It reminds me of my parents and grandparents. I love a good piece of crumb cake with coffee or tea on a Sunday morning.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

I love Ruth Stroud’s Ruthtalksfood. It’s got history and recipes shared in Ruth’s warm storytelling voice. In fact, Ruth is going to be a guest of my newsletter in November with her beautiful blueberry coffee cake recipe. It will be delicious and fun.

Subscribe to Jolene’s newsletter, Time Travel Kitchen, and find her on Twitter and Instagram.