When asked about the one item they’d grab on the way out of their burning house, people usually cite the family photo album. For me, it’d be a cookbook. Not just any cookbook, but my Great-Grandmother Pansy Van Loan’s handwritten recipes in an aged, olive-green, water-stained binder simply titled Receipts, the old-fashioned word for “Recipes.”
(Editor’s Note: All the recipes in this article are transcribed exactly as they appear in the various cookbooks, so part of the “fun” is to decipher them. Look for the “modern” translations of them after each original recipe.)
This binder represents my family’s culinary history in all its majesty. Yellowing, brittle pages, runny ink, recipes torn from old magazines and food boxes, and my favorite, the personal notes scribed on various recipes like “mommie’s” and “own” and “very good” that offer me a portal back to the kitchen of my maternal ancestors and allow me to cook right alongside them.
Antique cookbooks are portals to another time and place that doesn’t exist anymore in this day of the Internet, iPads, apps and Kindles. They served as not only inspiration for dishes and ingredients, they also functioned as instruction manuals for devoted housewives. Most cookbooks published from the early- to mid-20th century begin with an illustrated course on how to set the table for various occasions; what the various dishes, glasses and silverware are to be used for; and basic nutrition and meal guidelines to follow.
During the 1920s and ’30s, a proliferation of food-company sponsored cookbooks hit the market, such as those published by the Royal Baking Powder Co., Proctor & Gamble, and General Foods. These cookbooks delved into the science of cooking and explained the chemistry behind combining certain ingredients like baking powder, baking soda, fats, acids, and different types of milk – sweet, sour and butter – in an effort to teach the reader how to cook, rather than simply follow a recipe. Grids were a common graphic element that made it easy for the reader to compare different ingredients and methods, and – it was hoped – to start to see the big picture.
Vintage cookbooks usually assumed a certain level of kitchen acumen among its readers and, accordingly, gave quite simple instructions. Recipes never spelled out what size bowl to use (come on!), what size flame to cook over, or other basic considerations that today signal the amateur. Cooks of yesteryear were skilled because they were in practice every day, with every meal. When a receipt stated to “add enough flour to make a stiff dough,” terror didn’t strike the reader’s heart because she knew what stiff dough felt like.
I’ve heard that “great cooking not only celebrates the ingredients, but also celebrates the moment.” Old cookbooks celebrate their special moment in history, whether that was the 1930s when Depression-era food consisted of making do in every possible way; the 1940s with creative “wartime” recipes that substituted or omitted rationed items like sugar and butter; or the 1950s and the dawn of highly processed “convenience foods” like condensed soup, margarine, mono-sodium glutamate, and the ubiquitous gelatin molds.
I enjoy the old ingredient lists that tended to be simple and natural (lard, sour milk, bones), and sometimes unusual (mayonnaise and sauerkraut in cake?). Really old recipes were never highly seasoned or overly done. In some of my favorite books, it’s evident that cooks of the day weren’t out to “impress” their friends or neighbors; they were out to simply satisfy hungry mouths with common pantry staples. Cooking was, and still is, a beautiful art, but as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Learning from the past and deciphering old-time recipes in your modern kitchen can definitely improve your cooking skills, and more importantly, it will put you in touch with a time long, long ago.
Collecting vintage cookbooks
Old and antique cookbooks are truly diamonds in the rough. When found, they’re rarely in “mint condition” because they were often used over and over again by their former owners. I love to hunt for old cookbooks at antique stores, estate sales and flea markets, where they were usually acquired from a (deceased) cook’s estate. Good online sites for old cookbooks are Alibris and OldCookbooks.com.
Many are filled with poignant inscriptions, evidence the book was given as a gift:
“May 17, 1980 … To Alice, I volunteer my services as official taste tester as you experiment with these recipes. Hope you enjoy it. I know I will. With love, From Sandy. Congratulations Graduate!” (inside my copy of The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook), or “My brother Raymond Moulds gave this book to me Oct. 15, 1974. Gladys H. Quiring” (inside my copy of Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery 1874-1974).
Another true “gem” I stumbled upon in my forays is an original copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook from 1961 with “drawings by Andrew Warhol” (Andy Warhol) that I picked up from a local antique store in Topeka, Kansas, for $12. Lovely, Warhol-esque line drawings of food and cooking utensils adorn the pages and give me that “before-he-was-famous” feeling, imagining him as a struggling artist – a publisher’s hack, even – just trying to pay the bills.
Antique cookbooks aren’t usually expensive, unless someone in the know has gotten a hold of something rare or in demand. Rare or commonplace, they hold the same value in my heart and prominence on my bookshelf.
I had no idea that the Pepperidge Farm Co. – the one we all associate with packaged bread, cookies, crackers and pastry – actually had a real person and story behind it. When I obtained a circa 1960s copy of The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook and read Mrs. Rudkin’s story, I couldn’t put it down.
Beginning in the 1930s, she became intensely interested in proper nutrition and began baking 100-percent whole-wheat bread, which at the time, no one thought could be made palatable. When she mentioned it to her doctor and provided a sample, he immediately ordered some for his patients, even though she wasn’t selling it. Her bread became immensely popular in her Connecticut town, and eventually throughout the country.
This charming book chronicles her life with husband Henry living on the (Pepperidge) farm, starting the business, and summering in Ireland. I read with eager anticipation of the delicious whole-wheat bread recipe that launched this mega-success story. But … wait … she didn’t give it! I chalked it up to a company secret, or perhaps it’s framed, hanging in the Pepperidge Farm Museum.
As an alternative, see Pie Pastry Dough Recipe for the recipe for Mrs. Rudkin’s pastry, another item for which her company is renowned.
Looking to publish your own cookbook? Contact one of these companies for assistance.
410 Highway 72 W
Collierville, TN 38027
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Kearney, NE 68847
The Cookbook People
2033 N 35th St.
Boise, ID 83703
Fran Gillette’s Country Cookbooks
P.O. Box 351
Yacolt, WA 98675