Start a Love Affair With Old Recipes and Cookbooks

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Old Recipes

Are cookbook collections a thing of the past?

Have you ever sat down and read an old cookbook, full of old recipes? I think many of today’s cooks tend to believe that having the latest and greatest information and recipes in the kitchen is the way to go. It seems that so many are turning to the Internet for a recipe rather than picking up a book. It is certainly convenient in a fast-paced world to type in an ingredient and return an unending search list of options. However, there is a charm and a purpose to old recipes/cookbooks that we would do well to honor.

When my parents built their new house the kitchen floor must have needed extra reinforcement to account for my mother’s cookbook collection. In our family, these books are treasured heirlooms that are passed from one generation to another. Both my mother and I have a tradition of asking for a new cookbook each year at Christmas as well, so you can imagine what our collections are beginning to look like. I will admit to being romanced by a new, glossy cookbook, but, rambling through the cookbooks my grandmother used to put meals on the table over 50 years ago gives me more than a feeling of nostalgia.

Hidden gems in old recipes/cookbooks

There is an art to reading a cookbook from the past. It is a little like going on an archaeological dig in a history that is still alive. You cannot pick one of these books up and use the outdated health information to immediately discount the entire book. Yes – I am momentarily horrified when I see a recipe that calls for margarine or shortening, or suggests that I wrap my food in foil to put it in the oven. My grandmother’s Good Housekeeping cookbook from the 1940’s is a moment in our food culture, captured in time. At this time we were losing some of our traditional foodways to the lure of convenience, but we hadn’t totally stepped away from the wisdom of our ancestors. You might still find such gems as:

“Drinks may be chilled, but not iced. If ice is used in their preparation, remove it before serving.”

When this cookbook was written we were still aware of how to care for our digestive system. It was a time when butter was served over steamed carrots and some sort of fermented vegetable was on the table at every meal. The new cookbooks on my shelf either attempt to reclaim this lost cultural knowledge, or represent the newest beliefs in food and nutrition. They are filled with large, drool-inducing photos where the old cookbooks would have filled the page with instructions in proper entertaining or how to properly carve a turkey.

Going through the Joy of Cooking today I found a section on how to cook with herbs. Today’s modern cooks may feel like they are being patronized by the level of instruction. I love all the tips and tricks and constantly find things I have taken for granted.

The Joy of Cooking suggests you “familiarize yourself with herb flavors.”

The book recommends getting to know each herb and its flavor before adding them to your food by doing a little experiment. In a bowl, combine the following:

  • ½ pound of mild cheddar cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons of vodka

Blend all the ingredients together, separate it into several small portions and add an herb or herb combination to each. Let the mixtures sit for an hour and you can easily taste what all the herbs you’ve been curious about might be like in your food. Sounds like a fabulous party idea or afternoon tea with the kids.

Will our children treasure the new flashy cookbooks filled with trendy diet ideas? I suppose there will be a few contemporary examples that might rise to the top. I will continue to comb the used and vintage bookstores for these priceless windows into our culinary past. I suggest you do the same; just try to beat me to the good ones!

Do you have old recipes or cookbooks you’d like to re-familiarize yourself with? Which one?


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

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  1. Mary R Zegilla says

    The hardest thing I have had to do in a very long time was to cull my cookbook collection when I moved across country. Before he died my husband used to tell me he needed to build an outbuilding or add on a room just for my books (most of which were cookbooks). How do you decide which books to keep and which ones to let go? It was extremely hard, cause each book had some special memory, recipe or was special just because. I finally put most of my books in storage thinking that if I don’t have them close maybe I can wean myself away. I know this may sound stupid to a lot of people. But to me books are not just paper and ink, They are the people who had the ideas, who cooked those meals and who had the courage all those years ago to write them down and get them published. This is probably too long a comment but I just wanted to share. Have a blessed day everyone

    • Dawn Combs says

      Thank you, Mary! I totally agree…. there is so much life and history in those books, and in the fingerprint smudges along the margins. So much love and life. There are some cookbooks that are easy for me to let go, the ones I got on discount at the local big box bookstore. The ones that were passed down or I found in a used bookstore are much harder! I think the storage unit is a good compromise. You can always swap the ones on your shelf with the ones in storage periodically so that they all get use from time to time and you have a fresh selection of much loved recipes.

  2. Leslie says

    I love this article and I love the comments from readers. I’m another fan of old cookbooks, and I’m happy to find so many others who feel the same way. Long ago I received the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (with the red and white checked cover) and The Joy of Cooking as gifts and learned a lot about cooking from those two. I also love the fundraising cookbooks from churches and workplaces. I love it when they have comments and anecdotes from the contributors. I also have handwritten copies of recipes my mom first got from other ladies when she was newly married and learning to cook.

    My grandmother and I used to sit at her kitchen table reading cookbooks and reading interesting recipes out loud to each other, commenting on what occasions they would be good for, or what we’d serve them with, etc. I have a lot of her cookbooks now that she’s gone. I wish I had had room for them all, but I already had a lot, and she had scads of them, so I chose some of her favorites. She was from Charleston, South Carolina, and was a loving and gifted cook.

    My favorite cookbook now is the one my grandmother’s mother gave her for Christmas in 1943. It is called the “Victory Cook Book Wartime Edition with Victory Substitutions and Economical Recipes for Delicious Wartime Meals.” I also have the diary that she kept during that time, and I love to picture her as a young wife and mother in Charleston during those war years.

    These old cookbooks are treasures. As much as I love the convenience of looking up a recipe with specific ingredients online, it doesn’t come close to the feeling I get with these old books.

  3. Karen says

    I have one that I found at an old book sale called The Deaf Smith Country Cookbook. It is a treasure of natural food recipes, all meatless.

  4. Pamela K says

    I have all my mother’s cooks, which include a few of my grand mother’s cookbooks. The one that fascinates me the most is a Crisco Cookbook that my grand mother used. She wrote some of her recipes inside the covers. I also have an old Rumford Cookbook. I collect cookbooks too. My daughter works at a book fair twice a year. She earns $10.00 an hour for every hour she works. She can use her hours to purchase books. So she Buys me cookbooks & other books for my
    granddaughters for birthdays & Christmas.

  5. Vi Holman says

    Great comments. I, too, enjoy the church cookbooks. I live in an area where ethnic recipe books are common. After you attend festivals, church suppers and the like there are recipe books being sold as a fund raiser. The old family books are still the best!

  6. Ulrike says

    For me the most precious ‘cookbooks’ are the handwritten collections of grandmother from her pioneering days 1926 onwards as a young farmers wife in Namibia. At least 15 different recipes for lemonade.

  7. Judy Bradford says

    I love the really old ones that tell you to use a handful of ssomething, or a lump of butter the size of an egg. I have a cookbook from Dalton,Georgia that is dated 1896. It is full of this and baking temps are slow ovens and hot ovens. Love these.

    • Jayne says

      Wow, Judy. That one sounds really cool! Most cooks back then didn’t have measurements other than what they “eye-balled”.

  8. Pamela says

    Collecting recipes and books is really a sickness for me. I cannot stop. I have more that I have saved with good intentions but when I find myself needing a recipe, I always go to the cookbooks that have been passed down from mother to daughter for three or four generations now. The books are showing their age, discolored, held together by tape or whatever batter or dough has been splattered onto it’s pages. No matter how many books or recipes I have, I will never find anything like these ones. The recipes are simple and contain few ingredients which almost always equates to budget friendly and easily substituted or interchanged with modern ingredients is desired.

  9. Bex says

    Yes!! I have a few of them, also – I’m originally from the New Orleans area, so mine are from there, and I love them! (And I love the idea someone posted earlier of searching thrift shops when on vacation to find old cookbooks from that vicinity – what a great souvenir those would be, wish I had thought of it myself years ago! I have way more can huggies than I will ever need in my life, but can’t bring myself to toss them because they’re all travel souvenirs … yes, the really old ones sit in an old suitcase I have tucked away .. ). Those church cookbooks and ladies’ organization cookbooks are wonderful, with all their very localized recipes (and I love my latest addition from my former church in the N.O. area – there are some of my Mom’s favorite recipes, and my brother’s favorite recipes in there, and other friends from the church) – those are treasures!

  10. bobbi says

    I love the old church cook books-the recipes are facinating and you see how they used lots of things we would never eat! and some are puzzlers-like Oleo! or when they say a box of cake mix-well what size? things like that crack me up. and lots of them are great recipes.

    • Dawn says

      OH YEAH! That reminds me of a gem I came across recently in one of my grandmother’s church cookbook… velveeta fudge!!!!! I can’t begin to comprehend why anyone would attempt a dessert like that…. I don’t bring velveeta into my house, but admit to some perverse sense of curiosity…. =)

  11. Dawn says

    Holy cow! You guys are awesome! I feel like I’ve uncovered a secret society and didn’t know I was already a member. Unfortunately…. for my husband…. there are SO many cookbooks you all have recommended that I simply MUST go hunting for now! I love that there are so many of us that appreciate the cultural history in an old cookbook!

  12. gail says

    Even though I live in Australia, my favourite book is The American Woman’s Cook Book printed in 1947, six years before I was born.I have many old Australian cook books, but I have a saying if its not in my American cookbook it doesn’t exist. Its like a history book of how we cared about food and the people we cooked for, priceless.