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Unearthing the Cookbooks of Yesteryear

Posted on 1st Aug, 2011 by Mariana Abdala
The classic art of cookery.

Cookbooks come into your life in funny ways. You probably got a generic, everything-you-need-to-know-about-braising-meat-while-chopping-onions guide when you started living on your own, or for your first housewarming. Maybe you got a slightly dressed up version of one as a wedding gift. Many a man and woman have owned this cookbook at some point in their lives; it comes in the uninspiring form of a binder or a reference-style hardcover with lots of prose surrounding and obstructing the actual recipes themselves.

Not Useless Junk

This type of cookbook has fallen victim to thrift stores, garage sales, and cardboard boxes filled with objects that people have baptized as ‘useless junk.’ We can safely say these are now ‘vintage’ (full of character but past their prime). But hidden amidst the junk are also heirloom cookbooks. These are rare cookbooks that house seemingly pragmatic but ultimately gut-busting recipes for boiled everything, molded mousses, and unthinkable animal parts. You may want to think twice before buying supplies for a recipe in One Pound of Hamburger 58 Recipes, or at least keep in mind that it was written in a time when high-quality meat was scarce. Then, there are the jewels; the cookbooks that were written a thousand years ago, boast scratchy sketches or photos of dull-colored meats and plastic props, but that manage to surprise you with pleasantly simple and tasty recipes. A recent favorite of mine that I discovered in an antique store in Nebraska is Slenderella. Elegant black and white illustrations flank the simple and healthy recipes for grilled chicken, broiled fish, and fruity desserts. And it’s not just 1957 healthy, the recipes are very acceptable for today’s dieters. Other classic gems include Fannie Farmer’s original cookbook- you can’t help but chortle as you read her description of cookery and fire, and the rarest of them all, the spiral-bound pamphlets compiled by volunteer women for small town charity and community events.

Then and Now

As you glance through recipes like canned peach floating island and tuna pot pie, you can’t help but get that tinge of nostalgia. Much like oggling at relic clothing outfits or gasping at an ethnography on housewives in the fifties, these cookbooks reveal amusing notions about cooking in a bygone era, teaching us a lot about why our mothers and grandmothers acted the way they did in the kitchen, and why we’ve evolved to cook the way we do in our modern-day kitchens.

Contemporary cookbooks are a totally different animal in every way. Despite their occasional lack of practicality, the cookbooks of today are stunning visual masterpieces, with brilliant photos and bursting graphics. Contemporary authors include snippets of their personal lives and reflect on the inspiration behind every recipe, making their cookbooks more like delicious novels with meaningful recipes, rather than just ordinary reference books, or contrived collections of how-to’s and ought-to’s. But never will another cookbook be written that can take the place of the refrigerator thumbprint cookies of the original Betty Crocker, or Good Housekeeping’s Potato Cheese Whiz Gratin, or the marvelous Tomato Aspic from the 1933 edition of The Joy of Cooking.

So, I implore you, hit up your neighborhood yard sales, browse the book section of your local thrift store, and next time you’re on eBay, check out the amazing selection of rare books and pamphlets. You’ll be a fine vintage cookbook collector before you know it.

Happy hunting!


When not hunting for vintage cookbooks or caring for stray cats, Mariana Abdala works on Semantic Search Development at Foodily.

Food, we love you.

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