You know how sometimes you stop and say to yourself, “I wonder how women of the past cooked spaghetti with meat sauce?”

Well, asked myself thatSpaghetti with meat sauce is one my fastest, easiest meals. But where would a woman of the 50s get her ingredients? How would a woman in 1900 cook the meal? Did most American women even know about spaghetti in 1875? And what would a colonial mother have to do to set a plate of pasta, tomato, and meat sauce before her family?

Sounded like a school project if I ever heard one.

We spent the month of February on “The Spaghetti Project.” Each child chose an era of American history, and I created a research guide for them. I listed the ingredients needed, the cooking methods, and possible questions they could ask. The tricky part, of course, is that even all-knowing Google didn’t necessarily have straight answers to our questions. This wasn’t a case of finding pre-set answers, but reading and extrapolating to get the needed information.

(To narrow our focus, we always assumed that we had access to whatever technology was available at any given time.)

Bookgirl chose the year 1750. She has experience with research and essays, so she gathered information without much help from me. At the end of the month, she treated us to a Power Point presentation entitled “The Spaget Project” (because it’s funnier to say “spaget” instead of “spaghetti). We learned that a colonial woman would have to make her own pasta, assuming she’d even heard of it. She might not cook with tomatoes, as they were believed to be poisonous and used mostly for ornamental purposes. All cooking was over wood fire, making it difficult to brown meat; but her sauce wouldn’t contain beef anyway, since in pre-refrigeration days cows were too large to be used commonly for meat.

Quick, easy meal in 1750? That would be a no. My sympathies to my colonial foremothers.

Sparkler needed a lot more guidance from me. A couple of afternoons a week, she and I would formulate questions that might give us the information we needed. At the end of the project, Sparkler read her findings aloud to us. In 1875, pasta might have been familiar to someone of Italian descent, but it probably wasn’t universally available. Making pasta was (and still is) a time-consuming process—even though by this time big mills had begun to grind and ship flour across the country, so flour was easily available. Tomatoes were in widespread use at this point, but garlic was probably considered lower-class. (Spaghetti sauce without garlic seems like a sad way to live life.)

So in post-Civil War America, spaghetti with meat sauce was definitely not the meal for a rushed day when there’s only half an hour left before suppertime.

Gamerboy chose 1900. That was as far as he got before he completely hit a wall. He couldn’t find the answers he needed and had no idea what to do, but he thought he shouldn’t have to ask me for help. I explained that research was a learned skill, and he hadn’t yet learned it. So together we went through the process of gathering ingredients and cooking them. He presented his information interview-style. By 1900, he told us, this dish was starting to look more familiar to our 21st century eyes. The sauce might not contain much garlic, but it did have tomatoes and could include meat. Again, though, not beef; more likely it was pork, the most commonly-eaten meat in America at the time. The big change at this time, though, was how the women cooked their meals. This was the advent of the gas stove to replace the old wood-burning stoves. These stoves were much smaller, didn’t need a chimney, and cooked much more evenly.

So if you visited a woman in 1900, she might serve you spaghetti with meat sauce. But it would have taken her a lot longer than it takes me.

Lastly, Ranger and I looked into 1950. Spaghetti was a familiar food to Americans, and refrigeration meant that we now ate more beef. We researched grocery stores and food availability, but it was hard to figure out exactly what a 1950s woman could expect to buy. Then I was reading a 1935 Better Homes & Gardens magazine (a Christmas present from Darren) and saw an ad that answered our questions. Ranger drew each of the steps and explained it to the rest of us: you buy a can of spaghetti and Italian-seasoned tomato sauce, already cooked! You’d have to buy some ground beef from the butcher. Then you went home, opened your can, browned your beef on your gas or electric stove, and you were done. If that was the case in 1935, it was easy to assume that it was still available fifteen years later.

So my 1950s forebears actually had it easier than I do today, since I cook the pasta. But I think mine probably tastes better.

Although the Spaghetti Project didn’t go smoothly from start to finish, we all learned a lot and had fun discussing it as a family. And now, when I cook my easiest meal at least once a month, I have much more of an appreciation for the women who came before me.


Photo Credit: iStock.