Wednesday, 10 July 2013
The Cookbook Lady
By Mage Bailey of Postcards
Two weeks ago, a family donated 11 big boxes of cookbooks to the Cancer Society Discovery thrift shop. I’m the volunteer book lady there. Like an old style can of tuna, these books were solid packed. I made a decision to get those 11 boxes of books off the floor and out of the way as fast as I could.
We volunteers are a disparate bunch on Wednesdays. Three of us work in a far corner of the back room sorting area. I come in early to move everything out of the way for two ladies who work in the same small area.
I place Gloria’s favorite chair before her low table. Once a week she sorts the donated cards there.
I move all the hanging racks to the far side of the big room as Joan prices the books from our small corner also. She can’t reach the high ones, nor can she reach the low stacks, so I try to get these within her range before she arrives at the store. Joan lives in a wheel chair.
As the day goes by, I am able to slow down a little. The pile of totally worn out cookbooks catch my eye and I pause to see what they are.
A Milwaukee Settlement House Cookbook tops the pile with little bits of paper sticking out from its pages. Put together as a fund raiser for the Settlement House in the 19th century, this book is a treasured repository for middle European family recipes such as kuchen and torten.
Both the front and back boards are detached. This edition is from 1943, and though the interior paper is acid free, perhaps the World War II shortages hurt the volume’s exterior construction.
Not the contents though. I find myself glued to the three pages of apple desserts with, I am sure, a happy smile on my face.
“To my friend Miss Lillian Kemp and to my pupils and radio pals…” says the dedication page for Mrs. Peterson's Simplified Cooking. The author, Mrs. Anna J. Peterson put this volume together in 1924 for the Home Services Edition The Peoples Gas Light & Coke Co.
The yellowed paper, brown fabric cover, small type size all make the book unsalable. The contents look interesting though. Great effort was made to make these recipes easy to follow.
They list first a basic recipe and follow it by a list of variations. No 21st century, single page instructions here. No giant photograph filling the facing page.
Instead, how to stuff a tomato is described in one terse paragraph. It’s followed with three even shorter paragraphs of stuffings. I could use a slaw but I’m not enticed by the suggested peas with walnuts.
Two more ruined books wait for me. The New American Cook Book and The Chicago Daily News Cook Book.
The Daily News volume is a sad case. The spine is gone and the signatures and stitching flap in the wind but it has kept its well-designed title page. Using nice Deco type styles, this page compresses an amazing amount of information in a little space. Price, $1.00, it says. That was a lot in 1930.
Inside, the type is tiny, ten point and typical newspaper font of the early twentieth century similar to Times New Roman. Very unreadable for blind old ladies like me.
I move on to the New American and find it carefully planned. I can put cabbage and apple slaw together with cooked salad dressing, number 737, and never have to use the index at all.
There are color pictures to tempt the palate to try beet or potato salad, numbers 782 and 780, and an even more fulsome title page that left me feeling as if I were reading Victoriana.
Although the spine and boards are held together with an enthusiastic application of packing tape, the contents charm me by bringing back memories. Number 3045 are hermits. Mother made that very recipe for me when I went away to boarding school. Grandmother’s peanut butter cookies are just across the page.
Modern 21st century cookbooks are wonderful marvels. They are well illustrated, well designed for ease of use and easy to understand. They list fewer recipes and their glossy pages show you how to eat well with less of all the things that taste really great.
Inside these old books reside lard, suet, salt, sugar, meats, memories and love.
Sometimes you can’t beat memories or love.
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