Hello, again History Lovers,
Today’s article is another example of the hard work and ingenuity farm women demonstrated while supplementing their family farm income. Mrs. Alta Dunn uses her cooking and baking skills to establish a catering business in a small western town. Quality products and fair pricing are of supreme importance to her. Mrs. Dunn only planned to continue her enterprise during the tough economic times of the early 1920s, I hope at some point their farm became profitable.
Cooking For Cash
In common with other farm wives, I have needed money for household and personal use, and needed it badly, since the slump in crop prices. What could I do best? The answer came promptly—cook. Then, in a flash, the inspiration came. A businesswoman friend in my hometown had seemed to enjoy my occasional offerings of homemade cookery very much. Why not ask if she would not like to be supplied regularly with some of it. I did. She would, gladly.
First, I made out a list of the foods I wished to prepare for her, figured what each would cost as nearly as possible, and then tried to find out what such articles sold for at the local bakery and at the bake sales of homemade delicacies held frequently by the women of the different churches. Though I considered my product as good as the best, for I used the best materials and never offer for sale anything that is not strictly up to standard, my idea was to strike a compromise between these two in price. Bake sale prices seemed to me to be too high to be just.
I took this list to my friend and we went over it together, item by item, I explained to her just what the quantity and quality of each would be, and that it was my intention to fix a price that she could afford to pay and which would also allow me a fair wage for the time and labor involved. I knew that if the arrangement were to be satisfactory to both and to continue, we must have a thoroughly businesslike understanding from the first. She agreed with me on this. When I bought goods from her store, I bought a certain quantity or weight at a fixed price. I felt that I should be equally exact in selling to her. Despite my need for money, I had no mind to wreck an old and valuable friendship through the unbusinesslike methods which women all too often employ when dealing with each other informally, that is, not over the counter.
When our arrangement was first made, my customer had a standing order for two loaves of bread, a cake or cookies and a dressed chicken to be delivered every Saturday. However, it later proved more satisfactory to both of us to have this an elastic order, modified from week to week, as she can call me by phone at any time. Thus, if she goes out of town for the weekend or I have an unusual press of work, as in haying or threshing time, by mutual consent no order is to be delivered.
Friday, I devote myself to baking. The bread for my customer is a part of my weekly baking for family use, so it makes but little extra work. For a large double loaf weighing two and one-fourth pounds—and dough for bread to sell is always weighed before baking on small spring scales so that there is no guesswork about weight—I received twenty-five cents. This is at the rate charged by the local bakery. Though my bread is superior to bakery goods both in nutriment and palatability, I considered it best to meet their price, as people of moderate income do not usually care to pay fancy prices for such staples.
For a two-layer cake, frosted, I charge $1.25; the same cake baked in a loaf and frosted brings $1. The rule for these cakes if white or marble cake is desired, is: 1 cup sugar, ½ cup butter, 1 cup sweet milk, 2 cups flour, flavoring, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 4 egg whites stiffly beaten. If baked in layers, I scant the flour a trifle. For marble cake, I take one-third of the batter for the white part; and add coloring to another third, and chocolate or mixed spices to the remainder. If chocolate or gold cake is desired, I use the same rule, substituting 2 whole eggs or 4 yolks for the beaten whites. This makes a delicious, tender cake if carefully mixed and baked.
I use a cream and powdered sugar frosting either white, pink, maple, or chocolate. Any fruit juice may be substituted for cream, beating until frosting is the right consistency to spread.
Large angel food cakes, fruit cakes, plum puddings, and fancy cakes for special occasions are priced according to materials used and labor of making. Birthday cakes, much ornamented, sometimes bring as high as $3, but there is no more profit in them than in the above simple cakes, as they cost so much more both in time and ingredients.
These prices are given merely as a suggestion. They may not be high enough for some localities—or too high for others. I live in the West where long freight hauls from distributing centers make pastry flour, baking powder, extracts, and various other materials considerably higher than in the Middle West.
Since I have been catering for this businesswoman, orders from others have come and the list of goodies has expanded to include salad dressings, boiled ham, salads, cheese, and other delicatessen dishes. I have never yet had a complaint of any kind about my products and I could dispose of more of this cookery if I had time to prepare it without neglecting my other home duties.
If work of this kind is to be profitable it must be carefully managed. In my own case, most of the extra cookery is worked in along with that for home use. My own family is small and that of my chief customer also. This makes it possible for me to divide a large rule for chili con carne, spaghetti and cheese or with tomatoes or in various combinations, baked beans or other “made dishes,” and so provide sufficiently for a meal for both households.
These dishes which form the basis for a one-dish meal are cooked in brown earthenware casseroles and also delivered in these. My first customer has an electric range, so it is a simple matter to reheat food of this sort, as it is ready to slip into the oven when delivered. The made dishes are as a rule prepared on Saturday morning. This provides a substantial noon meal for my own family and insures having my customer’s dish fresh for her evening dinner. Chickens are dressed Friday and kept on ice.
It is surprising how many cakes and cookies and doughnuts may be made by one pair of deft hands in one day by early rising and good management of time and fire. To save time in delivery we “route” the list so as to avoid doubling back if possible. My husband drives the car and either my son or I run inside with the orders. Later I go back to collect. As our town is very small and orders are delivered to places of business, this is more expeditious than collecting as we go along. Where delivery is made to residences, this plan would of course not be practicable.
Though this is merely a sideline with me which I do not expect to continue after “times get better,” such a modest venture as is here outlined might very readily be developed into a profitable little catering business. –Alta B. Dunn
The above article was originally published in The Farmer’s Wife–A Magazine For Farm Women, March 1922, Page 786; Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul Minnesota. Articles may be edited for length and clarity.