The Iowan

Old Family Recipes & Cookbooks

Offer A Slice of History

By Anne Gilbert

Many years ago when I was closing out my mother’s estate, I came across some of her cookbooks and recipe pamphlets. Going through them was a trip down memory lane. 

A tattered book with yellowed pages, labeled “Recipes,” contained clippings from newspapers along with handwritten recipes from friends and relatives, such as “Aunt Addie’s cookies” and “Maudie Grove’s spice cake.” Special favorites had a check mark. Over the years I have tried many of them. And, in my teens I was allowed to try my hand in the kitchen. That was the beginning of my lifelong fascination of creating interesting new ways to prepare food and collecting cookbooks and recipes clipped from magazines. Alas, in this Internet era I find myself taking the easy way out and finding recipes there.

I grew up in a time when radios had just replaced wireless. Yes, I’m that old. There were no pasta machines back then. I watched my grandmother cut noodles by hand and hang them up on racks to dry. It was a time when special dinners meant Chicken a la King and a variety of aspics. Chicken what? Is an aspic an insect? They do still show up on Internet recipes listings in updated versions.

Cookbooks don’t have to date to the 19th century to be collectable. In fact collectors are honing in on the pamphlets and booklets from the early 20th century to the 1960s, put out by food processing companies such as Jell-O® and Heinz and major manufacturers like General Electric. Like the earlier cookbooks they offer a history of what was popular. Out-of-fashion recipes found in those pamphlets were trashed. These days they are being added to cookbook collections.

Hundreds of cookbooks were published in the 1940s by churches and social groups as fundraisers. It continues these days. In my mother’s collection was The All-American Cook Book. Several years after the end of World War II, it was published with the proceeds going to the relief of “needy veterans and their families.” It contained the favorite dishes of famous Americans. Thumbing through it I found a recipe for Mulligatawny Soup, favored by then Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur (later famed General), and Thomas Edison’s “cold slaw.”

The oldest known cookery book documented in the first century was written by gourmet M. Gavius Apicius. It was published in Milan in 1498 under the title Appicius Culinarius. While the work gives a list of ingredients for each recipe, there are few words of advice, listing quantity or cooking procedure. Nonetheless, this work was used by cooks for 1,000 years from Roman times to the Middle Ages. Imagine the royalties Apicius could have collected!

Another known early cookbook was done in the third century by Athenaeus. It was based on a symposium held by 21 artists, writers, musicians, and surgeons, and discussed all things that should, according to Greek custom, “adorn a banquet.” Just as today, there were reprints. Those printed in the 16th century periodically come to market.

As might be expected, most of the early cookbooks were written by men. An exception was the earliest known cookbook written in England, in 1747, by Hannah Glasse. The title was The Art Of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. It contained what the author considered valuable tips for the young homemaker of that time.

One of the most popular, early cookbooks ever written was Mrs. Beeton’s Book Of Household Management, published in England, 1861, by Isabella Beeton, age 25. It was reprinted for several decades. What made it so important? The book was a total guide to lifestyles in that day. It included information for all of the servants, such as upstairs maid etiquette. And there was even an account of the natural history of the animals found in the daily diet.

The first published cookbook in America is believed to be The Compleat Housewife: Or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, printed in 1742 in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was first reprinted in 1938, and continues on today. It is available in the Colonial Williamsburg gift shop.

Along with my mother’s cookbooks were recipe pamphlets and leaflets. A pair were issued in 1927 by Woman’s World Magazine. Their colorful covers were designed by famed illustrator Maxfield Parrish. One was a “cookery calendar” with “seasonal recipes.” Even before Dr. Oz, it had a “Building Up Diets” page, a “mid-morning luncheon,” and a “mid-afternoon luncheon,” in addition to breakfast and dinner. The other pamphlet was titled “The Fifty-two Sunday Dinners.”

An important year was 1927, with the promotion of the then new General Electric Refrigerator. It also marked the beginning of newly developed kitchen appliances promoting their products with recipes and information on how to use them. Those booklets are from another age. And yet, the introduction to that General Electric book said “To The Modern American Homemaker.” Among the menus were “Afternoon Bridge”, “After Theater Lunches,” and “Party Menu For Children.” GE also came out with a spiral-bound recipe book, The New Art. An updated version came out in 1935.

Banks and Life Insurance Companies used recipe pamphlets for promotion. With the modern look of the 1950s in fashion, Metropolitan Life Insurance company published a pamphlet using 1950s designs on the cover.

After World War II returning soldiers brought back recipes from countries in which they had served. The new trend was ethnic cookbooks and the opening of restaurants with new foreign flavors.

Young homemakers like myself began collecting recipes and menus from countries we knew little about. I was in “cooks’ heaven” experimenting with exotic cuisines and thinking up new spins on my mothers’ recipes. 

I subscribed to Gourmet Magazine and it was in their pages I learned that the magazine was pairing with Pepperidge Farm® bakeries to have a nationwide contest to create a recipe using Pepperidge Farm’s new product, a bread stuffing. I decided to put my brain to work. What would be a totally new recipe using bread stuffing? The result was to use the stuffing like a piecrust, with a savory filling instead of sweet. It would need an eye-catching name. What if I combined crab meat, sour cream, and colorful red and green peppers, and called it “Calico Crab”?

Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call a month later telling me I had won the second prize and my recipe would be in a forthcoming Pepperidge Farm cookbook?

The prize was a complete set of the then new Revere® Cookware and lunch at a fancy Chicago restaurant. I am still using the cookware and the recipe appeared in the 1963 Pepperidge Farm Cookbook, page 43. I am sharing it with you in this issue of Treasures magazine. I never entered another recipe contest.

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