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Cookbooks: Vintage, antique, and lovingly used

April 1, 2010

Slightly shorter version posted to KPCC’s Off-Ramp blog. Which by the way, is a slice of radio heaven here in L.A. Listen online.

My attraction to cookbooks started early  in my life with my dad’s carefully cataloged library of clipped recipes, magazine folders, and cookbook collections.  There was never an unused book or clipping.  He took notes.  He marked pages with post-its and stickers.  He created binders full of meticulously tabbed clippings.  He taught me very early on that there was nothing really sacred about a book or recipe except in its usability.  Its ability to add to your life was its real value.  And from that I learned to value vintage cookbooks, not for their condition or whether or not they still had their original jacket sleeves, but for their content.  And not just their original content, but what was added later by the book’s owners.

The Haul

There is nothing to me that is quite like flipping through the pages of a dusty old cookbook, stained from recipe splatter and carefully annotated by a previous owner along the margins with personal thoughts, alterations, and outcomes.  In some ways, it’s a bit like flipping through a meta-diary, the creation of a pre-food blog world that lacks the artifice of the usual self-aggrandizing nature of a blog, this one included.  The words I read were meant for a select few, or maybe even just one, so the language is personal and familial.  I have whole cookbooks full of notes by women who marked recipes according to which members of their families like what.  I have one cookbook that was owned by a man who wrote half and quarter portions of recipe measurements in the margins – a bachelor trying to feed himself well without creating massive servings for people not there.  I love these insights and treasure them almost as much as I do the recipes themselves.

The other reason I love these books so much is because they are markers on a culinary timeline that evolves as fast, or even faster, as our technology does. Each book puts a pin in its year – this is how we ate, drank, and lived – and acts as a tether to a life of flavors we may no longer know except through nostalgia or our fascination with history.

I have a few places where I go to mine the leftovers of someone else’s cookbook libraries.  In some cases, it’s a slightly morbid hobby, especially when I know a recent restocking of the shelves was accomplished through the demise of a one-time homemaker whose family wasn’t interested in keeping her cooking library intact.  There have been a few times when I’ve wanted to find a grandchild of one of these cookbook owners and show them all the personal notes their relative left behind.  They read almost like a culinary memoir, created one meal at a time.

The most treasured of my retail treasure chests I will keep a secret – they are stores that always  have the most interesting titles and collections for pennies on the dollar and I spend hours carefully flipping through their shelves and recipe boxes.  In some cases, the store owners will sit next to me on the floor and offer me a glass of lemonade while we talk about my selections and where they came from.  I had one of those excursions this past weekend and I walked out with an armload of 13 vintage cookbooks.

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I have two particular favorites from this haul: a 1923 copy of the Los Angeles Times Prize Cookbook by A.L. Wyman and a 1953 printing of The Cook is in the Parlor by Marguerite Gilbert McCarthy, a once well-known California hostess and wife of a “motion picture lawyer”.  I love them both for two entirely different reasons, but they do have one thing in common.  They are culinary voices from the past of Los Angeles.

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The McCarthy book fits my previous description.  It is FULL of personal notes, including one heart-breaking little sentence that reads, “Very sad.  No one liked this recipe but me,” referring to a minestrone recipe that she had crossed out using a big black wax pencil.  Other recipes get gold or red foil stars or little penciled happy faces.  It’s one of the most charming cookbooks I own, thanks to the diligence of this anonymous homemaker.

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The LA Times Prize Cookbook has no charm whatsoever. It’s methodical and spare. But what it lacks in flair it more than makes up for in sheer volume of content. Hundreds of recipes line pages measured out in newspaper column inches. The endpapers are splashed with LA Times advertising data, bureau descriptions (they had a mining bureau in 1923? Wild.), and conversion tables. It’s one part cookbook, one part chemistry manual, and one part corporate tool, all of which make for a fascinating read.

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The trick with this obsession is making it all fit on my shelves, which with this purchase, I’ve just maxed out. Don’t ask me to cull the herd to make room for others. They aren’t so much books as voices, and mine is now among them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 10:17 AM

    wayyy better than collecting baseball cards!

  2. April 4, 2010 4:54 PM

    I love vintage cookbooks too! I inherited all my grandmother’s cookbooks from the 40’s-60’s, which are a blast to read. (Especially the ones devoted to the “new” gas range, and canned foods.) Unfortunately my grandma didn’t take any notes. Really wish I could have had insight onto what she cooked back then, and what her tastes were.

    I’ve found quite a few vintage Mexican cookbooks at book fairs around town. Have become especially obsessed with Josefina Velázquez de Leon, who was kind of Mexico’s answer to Betty Crocker back in the 40’s-60’s. She has more than 100 paperback pamphlets that teach how to create economical, authentically Mexican meals. Posted about it on my blog here: http://lesleytellez.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/how-to-cook-the-old-fashioned-way/

    We should start a vintage recipe blogging group of some sort… it’d give me motivation to make something from my growing pile!

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