Kitchen Gems: Vintage Cookbooks

Antique cookbooks take us back to a time and place where we’ll always find comfort.

| January/February 2012

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.”

Recipes from vintage cookbooks:
Mayonnaise Cake Recipe
Cranberry-Jello Salad
Dutch Potato Salad
Scrapple Recipe
Whole Roast Chicken Recipe (Gebraden Kip)
Pie Pastry Dough Recipe

(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. 

1/27/2012 10:18:02 PM

When my wife's great grandmother died and again when her grandmother passed the family came in to take whatever had monetary value and my wife as one of the younger generation was left with her pick of what was discarded. Both times we found and saved those recipes that these women had found and treasured their whole lives. We are in the process of putting these recipes into book form with photo copies of the handwritten recipes next to the typed out versions of them along with photos and copies of the keepsakes of a lifetime lived well. Once we get these books finished we will pas them down to our three daughters. Along with the recipes we found several very old cookbooks and inside the margins are written various changes made to the recipes to personalize them I would not part with these books for love nor money.

1/27/2012 5:09:04 PM

I love to use and pick up those old cook books and I would never part with them. Some of my best recipes come from such books!Thanks for sharing.

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