I have an admitted weakness for shabby old cookbooks. To me, a slightly abused old cookbook full of stains, with torn pages is a cookbook that has been well loved and well used. I’ve been known to walk out of estate sales with cookbooks that are absolutely in shambles because I just couldn’t leave them sitting there feeling abandoned. Friends that know I cook and how I feel about old cookbooks routinely share gems with me that were from their mother/grandmother/aunt that no one wanted, but they didn’t feel they could just give away to a stranger, or worse, throw away.
I feel like I can get to know a person through their cookbooks – the recipes they favored, how they marked them up shed light upon a personality. Some cooks leave notes on recipes in the book making adjustments or reminding themselves to not make something again. Some cooks only marks in the book are stains on pages for clearly well loved recipes while some whose only evidence the book was used is wear and tear on the pages of their preferred recipes – the print may be faded or the binder holes slightly ragged (I envy the cooks who can not completely destroy a cookbook, I do). I love finding other recipes stashed within the pages – either handwritten or cut from of the local newspaper and/or magazines. I feel a kinship with cooks over their choice of bookmarks, which are almost always a bit of a time capsule. Like the time I found an old Columbia House Record Club insert advertising 8 track tapes in a vintage Betty Crocker. I seriously geek out over this sort of thing. To me, sitting down and perusing an old cookbook is like a treasure hunt. I love that I’ve been handed these gifts to preserve and appreciate.
While I have cookbooks that belonged to various friends’ extended family as well as Pat’s Grandma (and her stash of handwritten recipes!), the only cookbook I have from my side of the family is an old canning book of my mother’s. It falls right open to the Bread & Butter pickle recipe, which I still make every summer. That changed this week however, when I came home to a package sitting on the front porch from my aunt Jenny.
Inside, was a battered old cookbook, with no cover, although the front end paper was (mostly) in tact albeit covered in a child’s writing. The note from Jenny said it had belonged to her mother, my Granny, then Granny’s daughter, my Aunt Loretta, Jenny’s older sister. Both women learned to cook from this 1942 edition of the Women’s Home Companion Cook Book. Printed in 1944, the cookbook has a Wartime Postscript that closes with the sentence “A healthy nation is the best contribution our homes can make to our war effort.” Totally the sort of thing that I love stumbling across. History is found in the darnest of places, including cookbooks. Maybe even most especially in cookbooks.
I realized the child’s writing on the front paper was an early attempt of my mother’s to write her name. Not entirely legible, she’s the only one in the family who’s name starts and ends with an “A”, so there’s not a lot of suspects to choose from. Flipping through it, I found a few handwritten recipes on index cards. John’s Hot Chicken Salad made me wonder if I wonder if the John in question was the one who lived next door to Granny & Granddad with his wife Margaret for years? An old Montgomery Ward paint chip was serving as the bookmark on the pie crust page – a recipe that I recognized as my mother’s minus the sugar. Further back in the well worn dessert section, a small photo fell out – I didn’t recognize her, so I snapped a shot and sent it to Aunt Jenny, who told me it was her cousin Dottie Schaefer, her Uncle Freddy’s daughter. No clue as to how Dottie came about to marking the page for boiled and 7 minute frostings, but there she was.
As I flipped through the cookbook, I definitely recognized some of the dishes from Granny’s repertoire that the pages fell open to, like Stuffed Peppers and American Chow Mein. The most stained pages of the whole book though were of poultry stuffing, particularly the turkey stuffing. Granny loved Thanksgiving and that holiday will always be associated with her for me, so it there is something about that being the most stained page that makes both the cookbook geek and the granddaughter in me inexplicably happy.
The truth is, the dishes I remember of Granny’s the most, besides Thanksgiving dinner, are most likely not in this cookbook. Her brisket with gravy and mashed potatoes, her pancakes, chipped beef and gravy, crab soup, potato pancakes, fried green tomatoes (which I turned my young nose up as weird the first time they were presented to me if I remember correctly) and her fried chicken, also with gravy. I think she made hamburgers with gravy too. There was a lot of gravy at Granny’s. There were also a lot of hot dogs and bologna sandwiches as well as tomato sandwiches, but only with tomatoes out of the garden. I also seem to recall a number of short cuts she used when I was a kid, but I now realize she was a cook that came of age in the Depression and WWII – with 4 kids and a full time job, I understand how and why she embraced the short cuts that Bisquick and the like offered in the years following. Her egg nog at Christmas was legendary – she taught me how to make it one year when I was in college, insisting I beat a dozen egg whites by hand until stiff, because how did I ever think I was going to learn to be a decent cook if I didn’t do things by hand? That egg nog, despite the freshly beaten eggs, also had a few short cuts, as well as loads – and I do mean LOADS of booze. Years earlier, her husband had taught me to make oatmeal in a pot – calling it real oatmeal, ranting about how my mother had let me get used to that lousy packet shit, when it was cheaper and healthier to just make it from scratch. There may have also been a few choice words on how my mother let me consume way too much sugar that my daughter would no doubt nod in agreement with. (My mother always admitted to her sweet tooth, as do I, although I simply can’t handle sweets like I used to.)
Clearly, these cooking lessons took hold at some point, but not necessarily in my grandparents’ lifetime. Nor my Aunt Loretta’s, the next owner of the cookbook, who the last time I saw her, made sure to write out by hand a cheesecake recipe she knew I loved that she had made for me without fail for years. It was that handwritten recipe that inspired me to learn to bake, so this gift of a cookbook that taught both her and her mother before her to cook is the sort of gift that leaves me more than a little verklempt. I love spending time pouring over cookbooks like this, wondering about the cooks that used them. I have found many a kindred spirit in the pages of a worn cookbook over the years, but in the case of this particular cookbook, I’ve gotten to realize a little bit of my own family food history. There is something grounding and fortifying in realizing your cooking habits as well as your cookbook keeping habits, come from somewhere in your DNA. I know others look at that ragged, smelly, stained old book and wonder why I hang onto it. I see it as a bit of history that has been loved and therefore deserves to be loved. Thanks for sending it Chichi. I will be sure to take care of it and use it and pass it along.