27 June, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Antique and Vintage Cookbooks

Local cookbooks, published as fundraisers for churches, charities, and civic organizations, have a long and storied history.  I usually refer to them as "Ladies Aid Society cookbooks" because they were so often issued by the "Women's Auxiliary" or "Ladies Aid"  divisions of churches and lodges, back in the days when a woman's place was in the home and men were expected to do much of the directorial duties of the organization. Filled with the favorite recipes of their contributors, they are like culinary snapshots of the times in which they were published, and a study of them can be not only entertaining but quite revealing of trends in society as a whole.

For example, look at a series of Ladies Aid cookbooks from the 1920's to the 1980's, paying special attention to desserts.  You'll find that early cookbooks tended to contain a great number of different cake recipes and a few cookie (mostly bar cookie) recipes.  As time went on and women found themselves with outside interests, cake mixes from the supermarket became more prevalent because the preparation was easier and faster - and the results more consistent - than cakes baked from scratch.  Cake recipes in cookbooks have steadily dwindled since the 1950's.  Meanwhile, recipes for cookies - fast and relatively easy to make, delicious and totally more-ish to eat - have increased.  Betty Crocker saw it coming with The Betty Crocker Cooky Book, first published in the late 1950's and still so popular that the 1963 edition has recently been reissued after having been out of print for over 45 years!

Another trend you can easily pick up is the steady move toward more and better instructions.  19th and early 20th century American cookbooks assume that the reader has some measure of culinary skill already. Check out this recipe for "Loaf Cake Without Eggs" from the pictured L. W. Cook Book, printed in 1908 by Loyal Workers Society of the Advent Christian Church of Springfield MA:

One cup sugar; 2 tablespoons butter or other shortening; 1 cup sour or buttermilk; 1 scant teaspoon soda; 2 cups flour; 1 teaspoon cinnamon; 1/2 teaspoon cloves.  A little nutmeg and salt; 1 cup raisins.

That's it.  A housewife of the time would have no problem with this recipe at all; like her mother and grandmother before her, she learned her culinary skill first hand -  working side-by-side with her mother, her sisters, and perhaps her aunts -  from childhood.  She would know without being told that the butter and sugar would have to be creamed together before being mixed with the buttermilk; the dry ingredients sifted together in a bowl and then stirred together with the wet ingredients; the raisins folded in last.  She'd know how hot the oven would have to be, what size baking pan she would need, and how long the cake would need to bake. 

Antique and vintage local cookbooks are one of the main reasons why I haunt estate sales.  When an entire house is opened for an estate sale, the first place I head is the kitchen, to poke through drawers and the backs of kitchen bookshelves.  I can usually find a treasure or two, forsaken by the family or put aside long ago by the person whose estate is being liquidated. 

1 comment:

tree ocean said...

Fanny Farmer from my mother and Rumford cookbok from my grandmother and millions of loose recipes and those clipped from Gourmet and Southern Living..fun!