This is only one tier of this four-shelved cheapo baker’s rack I bought at ALDI. I have Betty Crocker, Better Homes and Gardens (seen here), assorted pamphlets and booklets ranging from a Gold Medal flour cookbook from 1910 to a recent issue of Reminisce with a delicious sausage and potato recipe. I have a Jack Benny Jello premium recipe pamphlet, a Riceland Rice one with a horribly racist cartoon of a little Chinese guy, and a really interesting one with all the foods from the Little House books. No, really.
Cookbooks are hugely popular. They get on the bestseller list. Whenever I go into the library, I see them on the New Arrivals shelf. Someone, somewhere will always need the perfect baked zucchini a la Parmesan for a fancy dinner, or Henry VIII’s Turkey Legs for their Tudor-themed party, or to know how to eat like a celebrity.
My cookbooks are a little slice of life from each era. Reading them is fascinating. The 1910 Gold Medal flour cookbook is very different from any of the others. It refers to things I’ve never heard of. I had to read it several times before I figured out what “forcemeat” was. (It is bits of leftover meat forced through a sieve to mince it for making meatballs or croquettes. The Victorians wasted nothing. Get your mind out of the gutter!)
Back then, they didn’t write recipes, or receipts as they were known, the way they do now. I searched for twenty agonizing minutes and I can’t remember where I put the book, so here is an example I found on the Internet:
Now this soup is made of left over meat and the bones of roasts, put them on in cold water and boil slowly; you may also add a little fresh meat; then dice some potatoes, strain the stock and return to the stove, put in the potatoes and some rice, boil until tender, then heat a little grease and fry onions until glazed, add a little flour, brown with onions in grease, then pour the soup into this hot mixture, and let it come to a boil. That is fine.
UM, OKAY YEAH. To modern people used to precise measurements and temperatures, this is nearly incomprehensible. Add cooking it on a wood stove and it gives you some idea of what being a housewife must have been like back then.
The Better Homes and Gardens series of illustrated cookbooks that came out in the 1960s and 1970s is an exercise in overdone excess. There was a book for everything— one on cooking for two, one for cheese, meat, fish, salad, and so on. I’ve found darn near all of them at the flea market.
Betty Crocker is the queen of the cookbooks. She’s been plying her kitchen magic since 1921 as a cheerful fictional mascot for the General Mills corporation. Yes, it’s true; Betty isn’t real. No worries. Her Dinner for Two, Pot Luck Meals and the ever-fabulous Cooky Book will still hold a revered place in family kitchens for years to come.
So far I’ve only cooked hasty pudding from The Little House Cookbook, rice cakes from the Riceland one and a fantabulous lasagna from some Italian thing that’s my fallback impressive dish. I suppose if I ever move I’ll have to cull some of them, but I’m not looking forward to it.
Many of the older books aren’t very healthy by today’s standards. Fried foods, Crisco, cheese and a ton of butter abound. Funny how we’re so much fatter now. Perhaps these recipes had more flavor, so we didn’t eat as much. Or, and I think this more likely, when we had time to cook our dinners and eat them sitting at the table, there was less mindless eating.
Food is what brings people together. It’s how people connect. Food is the ultimate icebreaker and the best way to get to know another culture. As a writer, you can use meals to show the closeness or strain of a family. You can show the fish-out-of-water traveler facing an exotic dish, or how capable his companion who knows what fork to use.
Have a favorite dinner scene from a book or movie? Do you enjoy collecting cookbooks yourself? Can’t stand to go near the kitchen? Feel free to share in the comments.