Polished versions of boxes of 'receipts,' these cookbooks put the past on the table.
A tasty treat, Bleu Cheese Chutney Spread goes well with crackers.
Gather a group of women together and, eventually, they’ll publish a cookbook. “Social cookbooks” are a cultural phenomenon going back generations, a more polished version of our ancestors’ hand-written journals or boxes of “receipts.”
The earliest printed British cookbooks that found success in America were John Partridge’s A Treasury of Hidden Secrets (1653) and The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May (1660). The first American cookbook was published in 1796 by Amelia Simmons, about whom very little is known, other than the supposition by researchers and food historians that she was unmarried, uneducated and possibly illiterate. Nonetheless, her American Cookery was revised and reprinted for 35 years – a testament to the author’s knowledge and skill in preparing food.
Early colonists brought family recipes with them, so most dishes did not include common foods such as pumpkin, cornmeal or molasses. Simmons’s cookbook incorporated these readily available ingredients, as well as introducing the use of pearl ash (potassium carbonate; salts of tartar) as a leavening agent. Additionally, the recipes were formulated for cooking in the fireplace, which was the primary cooking source of the times.
Because domestics were considered to be illiterate, recipe ingredients and directions were read aloud by the lady of the house, while overseeing the servants’ preparations. Thus, cookbooks were predominantly used by only the wealthy.
Eventually, cookbooks were created that catered to the middle class. By the 1850s, recipes were adjusted for use with cookstoves. During the 1860s, women turned to Godey’s Lady’s Book (national circulation 150,000) for information of all types, including cooking. The first all-electric kitchen was introduced at the World Fair in Chicago in 1893, and cookbooks evolved again. Throughout the development of cooking references, recipes expanded from simple lists of ingredients to detailed instructions including measurements, temperatures and other critical details. Fannie Farmer was the driving force behind standardized measurements because most American recipes described measurements in such ways as “a teacup of milk” or “a piece of butter the size of an egg.”
Church groups, literary and art groups, social clubs, grange women and women’s auxiliaries have long produced collections of favorite recipes, usually for fund-raising and gift-giving, but mostly to preserve the traditions of family fare for future generations. Most of these charming cookbooks aren’t available in bookstores or on Internet sites, but a search through thrift stores, used book stores and yard sales can unearth these treasure troves of delicious dishes and delightful insight into the women who compiled them.
My own collection spans 30 years and includes several well-thumbed and annotated books from my mother’s and mother-in-law’s kitchen shelves, as well as some I picked up at bazaars and fund-raisers. The titles are delightful, and a fascinating combination of ingredients reflects the era of each cookbook and, likewise, methods and appliances change the personalities of these cookbooks over time. Early 20th-century recipes incorporate readily available and inexpensive ingredients, with emphasis on frugality. A drawback to some of these recipes is the lack of instruction. “Combine and bake until done.” OK, in what? How hot? How long? The cook simply knew what to do, and writing it down wasn’t necessary. Once these recipes were handed down and incorporated into family collections, the missing data became important, as often the originator of the recipe was no longer around to remember the details. Another glitch in hand-me-down recipes is the margin of error. Grandma’s handwriting wasn’t too good and, along the way, one teaspoon became one tablespoon, or she forgot to include an ingredient. But that said, with a little thought, one can figure out how to successfully prepare these mystery dishes.
As the economy improved, more convenience foods appeared in the entries, and the housewife’s role as chief cook and bottle-washer was made easier. Recipes such as “Tomato Soup Cake” and “Mock Escalloped Chicken” used ingredients that cut preparation time by as much as half. With the introduction of the refrigerator in 1916, many “overnight” dishes appeared, such as “Refrigerator Salad” and “Ribbon Sandwiches.”
Another delightful aspect of these recipe collections is the insight into the women who shared them. Leafing through the pages, one can almost hear the comments and discussions as the cookbook committee made their plans. “Grandma Elsie’s Cornbread,” “Good Ole Soup,” and “My Man Cookies” intimate a special place in the heart of the person offering the recipe. Ethnic heritage became more apparent as America’s melting pot brewed a delicious mix of foods from many lands. Often the recipes included in these cookbooks are, indeed, company-published favorites such as the famous Campbell’s® “Green Bean Casserole” that appears on every Thanksgiving table, or the decadent “Chocolate Wafer Cake” printed on boxes of Nabisco® chocolate wafers. This, too, enhances family tradition – everyone wants to cook it the way Mom did.
Sprinkled throughout these cookbooks are bits of wisdom and humor that give each book its own personality through the individuals who contributed. “Sad fact of life: square meals make round people,” “Don’t put off until tomorrow the things you should have done yesterday,” and my own personal favorite: “Many a cook does wonderful things with leftovers – she throws them out.”
The following menu is compiled from several of the books I mentioned earlier. I tested 18 delicious-sounding dishes and settled on six, which span from 1960 to 2004. Brackets [ ] indicate my own notations.
The appetizer comes from Cooking for Applause, compiled and published by The Backers of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 1981. The sturdy hardcover bound with wire holds 286 pages, with categories divided into the traditional food sections and a full index. Combined first and second printings of this great cookbook totaled 25,000 copies.
[This creamy spread is delightfully different and goes especially well with water crackers and a fruity white wine.]
One of the best potato soups I’ve ever tasted came from Women of Good Taste, compiled by Beta Sigma Phi and published by Heritage House Inc. in 1998. The large-size softcover with wire binding contains hundreds of recipes in 222 pages, including a full index.
[No water is drained from the cooked vegetables, which allows the rich vitamins to remain.]
For the salad selection, I chose this yummy slaw-type salad (now a family favorite) from the oldest book in my collection. We Can Cook, Too! was put together in 1960 by the Oak Grove Garden Club in Oak Grove, Oregon. Hand-typed recipes were mimeographed and bound in a black, 3-ring notebook. Hand-drawn illustrations and cute sayings enhance the 180 pages of one-of-a-kind recipes. Many of the entries have been annotated in blue ink.
An old favorite with a spicy twist makes up the entrée found in Trinity Treats, a spiral-bound fundraiser produced by the members of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio. More than 250 recipes in as many pages are all cross-indexed.
[Leftovers make terrific sandwiches.]
Ohio corn produces this great side dish and Ohio farm cooking at its best. The Grange Women of Ohio State Grange started publishing the Ohio State Grange Cookbook in the early 1900s. Hundreds of recipes are in this spiral-bound softcover that is a fixture in many Ohio kitchens.
The sweet ending to any meal comes from the dessert section of Thank Heaven for Home Made Cooks, put together by the Christian Women’s Fellowship of the Central Christian Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Another hefty volume with hundreds of recipes in a spiral-bound softcover, it was published by Circulation Service Inc. in 1968.
The foods of our childhood, our holidays, our families and our memories are strong ties with the past and the future, and women have been keeping those traditions and memories alive for decades. Take some time to look through your own collection and see if you find something you’d forgotten. Then make it a part of your present.
She measured out the butter with a very solemn air,
The milk and sugar also, and she took the greatest care
To count the eggs correctly and to add a little bit
Of baking powder, which you know, beginners oft omit.
Then she stirred it all together and she baked it full an hour,
But she never quite forgave herself for leaving out the flour.
– Excerpt from a World War I Davis Baking Powder booklet, printed on title page of We Can Cook, Too!
Toni Leland is an Ohio writer and photographer. She writes for several publications and Dave’s Garden, an international gardening website. She can be contacted at www.ToniLeland.com .
Ann Gubler, of La Verkin, Utah, writes to say a neighbor would like Salt Rising Bread. She’s seen the old-fashioned recipe but hasn’t been able to find it.
Betty Stanaland, Medford, Oregon, sends this version from The American Heritage Cookbook, published in 1964.
Martha Sheldon, Metairie, Louisiana, asks if anyone has adapted this recipe to a bread machine. What do you think, readers?
Sometimes called lightnin’ bread, Salt Rising Bread was popular at a time when homemade yeasts were both unrealistic and troublesome to prepare and keep.
Several recipes for Salt Rising Bread that appear in the rather thick folder I will be sending on to Ann included potatoes, including this recipe from Mattie Henry, Troy, Alabama.
Travis Massey, Idabel, Oklahoma, requests a recipe for Vinegar Pie. A popular request among Grit readers, vinegar pie has appeared in Recipe Box before.
Connie Moore, Medway, Ohio, wrote a food column for her hometown newspaper. She talks vinegar pie in a 2004 column and sent a copy to us. “All things have a season,” she wrote. “Vinegar pie is a March pie because the spring rhubarb is not up yet and the winter supply of fruits is gone. … It was an ‘adversity pie,’ there were no freezers, no fridges, no pressure canners or rings and lids to seal autumn’s bounty in Mason jars.”
Shirley Alston, White City, Oregon, added this note: “Rumor has it that Vinegar Pie originated in the Texas Panhandle in imitation of lemon pie, lemons being hard to come by in the old days many miles from nowhere. New Englanders and Southerners counted it a favorite, too, so wherever it came from, it was popular in 19th-century West Texas.” The recipe she sent came from The Wide, Wide World of Texas Cooking by Morton G. Clark.
Note: Old pie tins were 8 inches. A 9-inch pie shell makes a thinner pie.
Sharon Threatt, Booneville, Arkansas, sent a cobbler recipe I thought you all might be interested to see.
This tastes like apple cobbler without the apples. Some people use pie dough sprinkled with sugar, covered with hot liquid and baked in a 350°F oven until pie dough is done. This was a treat only enjoyed during canning season.
Joyce Woods, Guthrie, Oklahoma, is looking for a recipe for Gravy Train, a recipe that was served at her local school.
A number of readers remembered the same recipe, as do I, and we received a lot of recipes. Alice Knox, Rochester Mills, Pennsylvania, sent one that might have appeared in an old social cookbook.
Terry Ball, Neehan, Wisconsin, sends another recipe for Gravy Train. She writes, “We ate this too, probably at least once a week. Plus, we raised four children on it as well. A great way to stretch a pound or two of hamburger. The six of us ate a good supper that filled everybody up on 1 1/2 pounds of hamburger. With three boys, there were no leftovers.”
Betty Maclam, Mikado, Michigan, sends another version.
? Phyllis Lewis, Satanta, Kansas, is looking for an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe that uses cooking oil and raisins soaked in pineapple juice.
? Yvonne Lavender, Mansfield, Arkansas, hopes someone will share a recipe for soap, as well as turkey leftovers.
? C.V. O’Bryant, Hernando, Mississippi, writes, “I have lost my recipe for friendship cake. It makes three cakes, one for me and two for friends, and it calls for yellow and white cake mix. I tried it with a chocolate mix and it was really delicious.”
? Debra Bailey, Warsaw, Missouri, is looking for a gum-drop cake recipe. Her mother used to make the cake for holidays, and the recipe wasn’t passed down.
? J. Harman, Holyoke, Massachusetts, hopes someone has a recipe for a no-bake, refrigerator cookie made with rolled oats as well as an apple dumpling recipe made with milk and vanilla ice cream.
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