Mother’s kitchen

Antique cookbooks contain more than old recipes—they’re historical documents

WHAT’S COOKIN'? <br>A small sample of the writer’s collection of vintage cookbooks.

A small sample of the writer’s collection of vintage cookbooks.

Photo by Tom Angel

So maybe it’s a little geeky and food-obsessed, but I love reading old cookbooks.

I started up a small collection about four years ago, when my husband’s frail grandfather was moving out of his house and we were helping to clean everything out. Being a cookery type, I naturally gravitated toward the kitchen, and I managed to spend the better part of the day sitting on the floor paging through some of the most interesting cookbooks I had ever seen.

I took the books home (his grandmother had a slew of cookbooks that dated back to 1927) and started buying up cookbooks at antique stores whenever I saw them. I now have a whole cabinet full of them, although the oldest is my grandmother-in-law’s Good Recipes and How to Prepare Them, published in 1927.

So what’s the fascination? These books aren’t just the standard Martha Stewart ‘here’s how you make potatoes croquette” guidebooks, they’re really pieces of history being passed down generation to generation.

So what have I learned from my collection? Plenty. For one, I would be one heck of a busy homemaker if I was cooking for a family back in 1927. Good Meals and How to Prepare Them, published that year by the Good Housekeeping Institute, outlines a week’s worth of astoundingly formal everyday meal ideas meant for the (then) average family of six. Here’s what you would have (probably) eaten in a day back then—breakfast: waffles with sirup (sic), grapefruit, bacon, coffee and milk; luncheon: creamy eggs on brown bread toast, scalloped tomatoes, pear sauce, cookies; dinner: green peppers stuffed with meat, potato and onion pie, raw carrot and apple salad, and snow pudding with orange custard sauce.

Whew! You’d never leave the house, cooking like that, everything from scratch.

There’s also a bunch of revolting recipes that I can’t even imagine preparing—Lima Beans en Casserole, Raisin-Stuffed Beef Hearts, Creamed Codfish and Baked Banana Steak, which all sound about as appetizing as Sweetbreads Mousse (page 61).

The cookbook contains a discussion of the cost to prepare certain foods and a list of tips for the “Thrifty Homemaker” that you’d never see today. When Good Meals and How to Prepare Them came out, electric ranges were still novel, and relatively expensive, pieces of equipment. The book gives the cost of electricity to prepare a week’s worth of meals: For example, a breakfast of rolled wheat, cream, scrambled eggs, and whole wheat muffins cost $.063 to prepare, and a dinner of braised beef, roast potatoes, buttered carrots, coleslaw and rolls cost $.132 to prepare.

You’d never find that kind of information in Martha Stewart’s cookbooks.

There are also nutritional recommendations for children and adults that are somewhat in line with modern nutritional guidelines. Here they are: “One pint of milk a day either as beverages or partly in soups, two generous servings of non-starchy vegetables (raw whenever possible), one serving of fresh fruit, one moderate serving of meat, one egg a day in addition to this; to make up energy requirement for the day, add whole wheat breads, cereals, desserts, butter and cream. Drink plenty of water, at least six glasses a day. Take outdoor exercise daily.”

Making old fashioned beef stew

Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook

The cookbooks from the 1950s and early 1060s are appropriately kitschy.

The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook, published in 1959, contains the following flowery recommendations for setting an appropriately festive holiday table: “Before you lay a table laden with festive foods, a pretty punch bowl filled to the brim, trays of sweet cookies gaily bedecked for the holiday season, tiny sandwiches spread with spicy mixtures and colorful garnishes. All of these foods are fun—fun to make, for gay spirits abound during their preparation, fun to see their rainbow finery and fun to eat for they contain a great abundance of fine ingredients.”

The book gives advice on properly serving a meal with and without the help of servants (servants should serve each dish to the guest of honor first, who should always be seated to the right of the hostess), and recommendations for the conduct of kids at the dinner table (they should “be kept quiet and respectful, as a peaceful dinner table is a blessing to the happy family.")

There’s also a recommendation for the happy homemaker when welcoming home her tired husband at the end of the work day. “Take care to be presentable, and give a kiss before he settles in for some relaxation before dinner. And remember: pleasant smells coming from the kitchen will make him glad to be home.”

Indeed. Feel inferior yet?

Reading these old cookbooks, I admit, is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I love to read about the more formal rules of food preparation, dining and socializing that existed back then. I love the plain old assumption apparent in these old books that families will sit down to eat together several times a day. I think it’s a shame that it’s now assumed that the family will more often grab a quick bite of frozen or pre-prepared meals and eat in front of the television.

I think that society would benefit from a common social custom of the past discussed in The Complete Family Cookbook (published 1961): taking care of sick neighbors and friends. The book gives recipe ideas and serving tips on foods they can be served.

Such as this, in a chapter called “How to rise to the occasion.”

“When a neighbor is ill, perhaps the most helpful thing you can do for her is take on her children—full time if you can, but for meals if you can’t, and for luncheon anyway.

Or, you could go to her house in the middle of the day and prepare luncheon for her and her children, and a comforting dinner for her to reheat later.” The recommended menu: Cream of Tomato Soup, Salad Boats, Butterscotch Brownies and Chocolate Milk.

For the non-cooking husband of a sick woman, the book gives menu advice and direction (for Quick-Frozen Chicken Dinners) and advises that neighbor women of the ill housewife should double their own families’ recipes for a week or so and bring the extras to her house. There’s also quick advice for feeding a bereaved family (bring over patters of cold cuts, breads and fruit to leave on their table while they’re at the service) and feeding kids in the hospital (read: lots of ice cream).