The Case for Loving Vintage Cookbooks

Eva Geertz

Shiny new cookbooks call to me from bookstore windows, but once cracked open, they can be intimidating, guilt-inducing, or worse, nearly useless. I'm almost convinced many contemporary cookbooks are deliberately designed to simultaneously tempt and inspire aspirational angst among the people who buy them. All too often, the beautiful cookbooks of today assume you have ingredients, equipment, and free hours you just don't have.

It's a sharp contrast to the bulk of cookbooks published in the first half of the 20th century, in which you'll find reassuringly simple recipes that inspire and educate without requiring expensive gear or hard-to-find spices. These cookbooks weren't about culinary one-upmanship; they were about practicality. They showed home cooks how to be thrifty and courageous, which is one of the most important lessons most of us never learn.

In the early-to-mid 20th century, Americans cooked from scratch mostly because there was no other option. They needed solutions: what to make with a brisket and not much else, or how to cope with a half a carton of milk that was smelling suspicious. You probably can't turn to Ottolenghi to use up your sour milk. But you can turn to a book that's seventy-five years old and eat exceedingly well as a result.

Older cookbooks make very few assumptions about your kitchen: as long as you have basic pantry staples, a bowl, a spoon, and an oven, you're good to go. It's not until the post-war years that you see the blender or stand mixer become standard kitchen equipment, and the Cuisinart didn't really get big until the 1970s. Older recipes also don't have long lists of herbs and spices, so you don't have to feel stupid that you don't have a tablespoon of lovage; instead, you're encouraged to focus on technique, seasoning according to your own taste and whim.

Of course, not every pre-war book is a winner. At the turn of the 20th century, the most popular cookbook in the U.S. was The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), better known as Fannie Farmer, after the orderly nutritionist who wrote it. It was a comprehensive work, if a little bland and bossy. Fannie Farmer was a guide for nervous cooks who worried about food tasting weird: it veered away from anything with too much garlic or spice. Fannie Farmer was very practical, focused on efficiency, thrift, and hygienic wholesomeness—all real virtues, especially when taken in historical context. But Mrs. Farmer's idea of a daring recipe is something like the gelatinous beast called "Mexican Jelly," involving boiled, pureed cucumbers, Tomato Mayonnaise, and truffles. And frankly, I find Fannie Farmer needlessly smug, with its 1/8th teaspoons of pepper. This, I do not need.

Here are a handful of pre-war cookbooks that do belong on your shelves. The best books from the era are special because they're truly reliable and because they capture a moment in history. (In one notable case, there's also the best chocolate frosting recipe I know.) The new cook, the experienced cook, and the casual cookbook reader can appreciate—and really use—each and every one.

The Settlement Cookbook


Mrs. Simon Kander's 1901 Settlement Cookbook exudes a warmth and adventurous spirit that makes it a far more compelling read and modern resource than The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Kander, who ran a Wisconsin settlement house—a place where newly arrived immigrants came to get their bearings in America—offered recipes for ethnic food adapted to American ingredients, and provided household management advice designed to help immigrants acclimate to new kitchens and ingredients alike. It was embraced by millions of new arrivals from all over Europe, as well as families who'd been here for generations. The Settlement Cookbook could be used by anyone as long as they could read a little English.

Mrs. Kander also explains how to use and maintain your kitchen equipment (such as your mysterious mechanical refrigerator). Because the goal of the book wasn't to force immigrants to "cook American," but to adapt a little, while cooking with the flavors of the old country, there are recipes you might not expect to find in an American cookbook of the era. A recipe for koumiss, a kefir-like drink from Central Asia, is here; a Norwegian rye bread; countless German, Italian, Polish, and Russian recipes. I love that the list of pancakes covers the usual American-style flapjacks (plain, sour milk—yes, that's one thing to do with milk that's gone bad—cornmeal, buckwheat), but then it goes on: French, Russian, Norwegian, seafood, Suzette, German, Bohemian, Chinese. And there are other happy surprises: Kander's chapter on feeding the family, which discusses the food needs of infants and invalids (which you wouldn't necessarily expect to find particularly interesting or helpful), specifically addresses workarounds for those who must avoid starch, sugar, wheat, eggs, and milk, and remains entirely useable today.

The Settlement Cookbook has gone through many editions, and they're all fun, but my favorites are pre-1950. They have cream cloth-covered boards and an embossed design with pairs of little be-hatted cooks marching up the cover. It says "The way to a man's heart / The Settlement Cook Book." (Cry "sexism!" but remember the copyright date.) Mrs. Kander's book became an American standard, neck and neck with Fannie Farmer, for a long time. Occasionally the instructions are a little heavy-handed or downright absurd: you wouldn't boil noodles for twenty-five minutes, as she recommends; but perhaps the noodles of the day required it. It's easy to adjust cooking time and only cook the spaghetti for ten minutes, and often hilarious to see just how much things have changed.

Joy of Cooking


Few cookbooks transformed the 20th century culinary landscape more drastically than Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking, a forward-thinking text that was published in 1931, right in the midst of The Great Depression. Rombauer explained in very clear, unsanctimonious prose how to take care of kitchen tasks that were not self-explanatory, advice that was crucial at a time when many were living in extreme desperation.

My favorite edition is the enlarged 1944 Joy. It's chatty and eminently readable, which makes a difference in terms of how you feel using it. Mrs. Rombauer gives not only directions on how to set up your kitchen, how to serve at a dinner party, and nuts and bolts-y stuff like that, but she talks up certain recipes. This seems normal now, but Mrs. Rombauer was among the first to have seriously amusing prose accompany her recipes. These little introductions sometimes urge us to rethink our food prejudices or fears. I've never seriously considered preparing calf brains, but after reading this, I might give them a go: "Calf brains are generally in bad repute. They are charged with being too soft, but properly treated they become palatable and there are several good ways of preparing them. They...need only a little pep in flavor—sherry, Worcestershire sauce, etc.—to make them very good." I like that she admits that the brains are an acquired taste; I like that she wants us to try them. Mrs. Rombauer is game. She's also optimistic and practical.

Like The Settlement Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking contains recipes for things we think of as not having reached American palates until the 1980s or even later: I'm looking here at recipes for polenta, for gnocchi, for candied kumquats and curried rice. Even things I think of as hippie food, like fruit leather, show up here. Then again, many dishes, like Boiled Oranges, hold no appeal for me. And I'm unlikely to prepare many of the salads in this Joy, as they are very much of the too-many-odd-things-in-gelatin-or-aspic type of recipe: the kind of thing the ladies referred to as "dainty dishes."

The great strength of Joy is that Rombauer takes the time to explain why the instructions are what they are: she's not merely bossing you around. Her explanation of popovers is impressive and encouraging: "Every now and then an excited young woman will rush up to me and say: "I made popovers by your recipe and they popped!" Well, that is what they are supposed to do, in fact, these are guaranteed to pop. However, the rise or fall of the popover depends upon: I. The proper preparation and heat of the pans (preferably iron pans); II. The proper mixing of the ingredients; III. The right heat at which to bake them." She's giving you a heads up: it is easy to ruin this recipe, but it's also easy to get it right, if you pay attention. If you're trying to figure out why you keep making hockey pucks instead of biscuits, the explanation is here. The reliability of her recipes are rivaled only by their accessibility—Rombauer makes you feel empowered, ready and enthused to take on new projects.

Pamphlet Cookbooks


Early to mid-20th century home cooks also relied on cookbooks assembled by local church or civic groups, and even cookbooks assembled by appliance and food manufacturers. These diminutive, often pamphlet-sized, books provide a glimpse of the social arrangements and reigning preferences of the time. For example, The Green Mountain Cook Book (Castleton, Vermont, 1900), by the Ladies of the Congregational Church of Fair Haven, Vermont, is a plain item, filled with ads for local businesses. The recipes are quaint and simple, but appealing in a homey Vermont sort of way.

Most importantly, these books all evoke ways of life: lives that revolved around churches and synagogues, or civic events; a time when "community" was more than just the name of a TV show. Everything from the typefaces the book uses to the pen and ink illustrations in the ads and margins evoke another, less showy, time. It can be especially satisfying to collect such cookbooks from places you know and love, and learn, in the process, how Grandma might have made her macaroni and cheese. A friend of mine, seeing my copy of Charleston Receipts, cried happily, "My great-aunt has a recipe in there!" These aren't merely locally produced pamphlets sold for fundraisers: these books are personal connections, printed and bound.

Sponsored cookbooks, though similarly packaged, were also very limited in scope, but approachable: the recipes were simple and unintimidating, even to a novice cook. They're a record of a time when new products were proliferating and companies had to focus on more than just sales—they were invested in familiarizing their audience with the value of convenience and showing them what to do with strange new ingredients and equipment. Refrigerator companies like GE, Electrolux, Kelvinator, and Frigidaire assembled little cookbooks to show off what home cooks could do with their reliable new machines (far more than they could do with an old icebox!). The equipment might be expensive, but oh, what a boon to your household a new refrigerator would be! New food products, like Jell-O, Crisco, or countless other packaged foods, required training for the home cook, and the manufacturers were happy to provide manuals for the lady of the house.

A lot of these cookbooks are really just pamphlets: one of my favorites is Baker's Famous Chocolate Recipes. I'm not someone who often buys cookbooks for the pictures but looking at this book is like looking at an all-chocolate Wayne Thibaud exhibition. It is stunning. And their Chocolate Wonder Frosting taught me an important lesson: you can almost always make a plain cake amazing if you use cream cheese as the base of your frosting rather than plain butter. Cream cheese, chocolate, sugar (and milk, by the spoonful) are whipped together to make a cake frosting that makes the cake itself almost beside the point.

How to Cook a Wolf


M.F.K. Fisher wasn't an innkeeper, a dietician, or even a chef—she was just a lady who liked to live well. And her book How to Cook a Wolf (1942) is a small masterpiece that focuses on how to feed oneself and live comfortably in a time when food and comforts are scarce. World War II was raging, and people were scared; food was scarce, cooking gas expensive, blackouts frequent. We were all supposed to be prepared for emergencies, all the time. Fisher was a reassuring friend sitting at the kitchen table with you.

The book isn't exactly what people mean today when they refer to a cookbook: it's not just a directory of recipes. These are essays on food and life, and they are a pleasure. You get more than instructions for how to take a cheap cut of meat and make it palatable (though she'll tell you how to do that); you get a vision of life as a whole: how to survive, as comfortably as possible, in a time when comforts were scarce. Explanations of how to use your oven's gas most efficiently and other small asides throughout the book prod the reader, gently, toward making the most of things, even in a time when one may have, if not the least, then very, very little. Facing, honestly, that a meal may be prepared, and then re-heated once, twice, or even three times: this is not something most cookbooks will admit to you, but Fisher is forthright and assures you it is okay.

Throughout the book, Fisher's tone is soothing and sensible. A post-war reprint has marginalia she added, commenting on her own work, and it's very fun; she argues with her readers and herself, and she's got a good sharp sense of humor. Fisher wasn't particularly devoted to the school of Dainty Food; she was a woman with a cultivated palate who craved good, savory dishes, like a recipe called Eggs in Hell (eggs baked in a garlicky, herbed tomato sauce, which I've been known to make and serve on leftover noodles when I'm eating alone). She advised readers that one could cook sparingly and carefully but still enjoy flavor and food.

M.F.K. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf when people were feeling pressed and on-edge. But it was also early in Fisher's career: post-war, she wrote for Gourmet, and Americans, feeling rich and expansive, practically wagged their tails to read her books, which combined travel writing, memoir, and food writing very elegantly indeed (some of the best are now collected in The Art of Eating).

The American cookery book of 1900-1945 shows an aspirational America, a joyful America, and a nervous America. The cookbooks that came next were very different in nature—they were about throwing away the old attitudes, embracing new, modern conveniences, time-saving, and rather show-offy. The pre-war books are an eye-opener for today's cook: they train you to think about your cooking and how to get the most value from ingredients.

These cookbooks show you that you don't need fancy equipment or pre-made bottles of seasonings and salad dressings to cook—with very few basic kitchen supplies, you can do almost anything. There's a liberating kind of self-sufficiency that one learns by working out of these pre-war collections. To be honest, plenty of the recipes are boring, but the surprises make them worthwhile. Pre-war cookbooks will be your guides if you only open them up and let them show you what to do.