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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.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Thank you Ronni.

I love old cookbooks. I have an old one where the instructions use a "fist full of this ". It concludes with, "The outcome of this recipe depends upon the size of one's fist".

You bring back such good cooking memories. Hope cookbooks don't disappear altogether since we can find nearly any recipe on the Internet. The comments and stains on a recipe or page tell their own stories and identify the most favored if we are lucky enough to find them in a treasured cookbook from the past. Thanks for sharing.

I gave away most of my cookbooks when I found you could get anything you wanted on the internet.I used to love to sit and read cookbooks and had a whole bookshelf full of them--now have a few special ones only, but I do print out ones that look particularly good on line, so I'll soon have to make up a folder,after all. Loved your post and all the memories it brought,

Loved the piece...made me remember our little kitchen on 62nd St & l0th Ave NYC l940s..my Mother used to clip out recipes from the papers, i.e., NY Daily News and NY Mirror, l940s, l950s..She didn't like to cook much, but must have liked to try out new things.I love cook books and have quite a few of them, even tried some of the goodies.I always go back to my Erma Bombeck with all the tear outs from magazines and papers and stained pieces of written down recipes from who knows where. Cook books, yet another treasure that will be replaced by the computer....remember all those dopey movies of the 50s when robots took over and we were all going to be replaced by them..am I laughing or did it happen? Just toking, loved the comments, miss my Mother, as if I needed a reason...

I was wondering if possible to purchase A Milwaukee Settlement House Cookbook I was born in 1943 and it interests me to have this book created in my birth year.

Many of the cookbooks in my collection are pre-1965, with recipes containing ingredients that I may actually have or be able to easily locate and that don't require small electrical appliances beyond a mixer. And they have personality and reflect the culture or lifestyle of their era.

Although going on the internet works when I need a specific recipe or one using a certain ingredient (...like zucchini...), there is nothing like paging through an old cookbook and finding an interesting recipe to try, one that I wouldn't have otherwise thought about.

Sometimes the tips on beating your own butter or killing the chicken and cleanly singeing off the pinfeathers or sugar rationing or mixing the yellow color evenly into your oleo...make them priceless.

I inherited my Mother's "New American Cookbook", which she bought from a door-to-door salesman in the early 50s. It's tattered and grease spotted, and has a section of recipes for wartime.

My other favorite cookbook is one I bought off the library "discards" table 40 years ago for the princely sum of 50 cents. It's "The Book of Latin American Cooking".

Its only flaw is that it has no tamale recipes, but then, as my mother-in-law was fond of saying, there's no perfection in this world and I know how to make tamales anyway. What it does have is 338 pages of recipes from countries all over Latin America. Makes me hungry just to think about it. Maybe I'll wander off to the kitchen ...

Thank you all for your wonderful notes. Yes Judith, go to ABE books or Amazon used books to find a copy. That cook book was my mother's favorite.

Oh Deb....I've never seen that book, but I sure will keep an eye out now. Thanks.

The saga of the cookbooks, especially the sorting journey that took us through decades of cultural change, was a tasty treat.

And Mage, your wrap-up was a masterful ending. Thanks, Ronni, for providing the Stoty Telling Place.

I enjoy your comments on the old cookbooks. The recipes seem to change with the culture and the decades. As for me, I can't cook. I make-up things. Sometimes it works; sometimes not. I am having fun "playing" with flavored Balsamic vinegar; expensive but tasty! I need to hide my lack of culinary expertise.

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